Think Teak

Many of us individually played a vital role in reducing consumption of tobacco in the United States; we quit smoking.

In the same way, to stop the destruction of endangered tropical forests, we will have to stop buying kitchen cabinets and bed frames made of the timber unsustainably harvested from those forests.

The disappointing outcome of climate change talks in Copenhagen reinforced the importance of individual choices in reducing climate change. Government policies can help, but they can't be our only savior.

All of us can do something now. This is important because 15 percent of the world's carbon emissions are caused by tropical deforestation. All those trees falling and being cleared releases carbon into the atmosphere, a huge contributor to warming the planet.

So what can we do? More than you think. Just think teak for a minute.

About a decade ago, consumers in Europe started asking questions about the source of wood used in their outdoor furniture. Their interest was aroused by the investigation by a non-governmental organization called Global Witness, which discovered that an alternative to teak was being harvested illegally in Southeast Asia. Initially, no systems existed on the ground to change the harvesting practices, so the change happened over several years.

But it happened -- because consumers decided that it mattered to them that the wood in their outdoor furniture was neither harvested from endangered forests nor in ways that harmed the lives of people living and working in the forests. Consumers and civil society groups questioned the retailers and the retailers applied their leverage on their suppliers and that consumer power surged through the supply chain from retailer to wholesaler to factory to forest.

Within one summer, furniture started carrying FSC logos to verify that the products were made from sustainable wood. The retailers not only responded to customer demand for forest responsible products, they promoted the wood as a competitive advantage increasing shareholder value in the process.

Let's move beyond teak. When you go into a shoe shop and look at shoes, or when you buy a chew toy for your dog, ask where that leather has come from. Has it come from cattle that grazed on clear-cut forest land in Brazil's Amazon region? Perhaps. The retailer probably won't know. Make him or her find out.

When you buy shampoo that contains palm oil, ask the source of the palm oil. Has it come from forests that were trashed for plantations in Southeast Asia? Ask. Press the point.

When you buy an aluminum can of soda - where did that tin come from? Could its source be a huge bauxite mine that caused massive clear-cutting in the Amazon?

If it did, if thousands of consumers asked the question, if thousands then stopped buying the soda, if this newspaper covered the movement, how would a giant soda company react? It would react. The orders for that mine in the Amazon might take a significant hit and we might thus save some forests in the process.

As consumers, we always have questions -- about price, color, size, availability, delivery and the return policies. Let's add another: Where did this come from?

If we start asking, we have the power to end the destruction of endangered forests. We need to consume in a smarter way -- a way that is "forest responsible." Forest responsible consumption doesn't destroy forests; devastate biodiversity or damage peoples' lives. It gives value to forests.

We have undervalued the forests. They can help save the planet. So let's protect them. Just as we once asked what tobacco was doing to our health, we can now ask what illegal deforestation is doing to the health of the environment. You have more power than you think.

Scott Poynton is Executive Director of TFT -- The Forest Trust -- an NGO based in Geneva.