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Financing forest restoration through eco-marketing initiatives: silver-bullet or greenwashing?

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

By Ennia Bosshard

Ennia is a PhD student at the University of Exeter supervised by Dr Christopher Kaiser-Bunbury, Prof. Frank van Veen, Dr Mark Harrison and Dr Chris Kettle (external, ETH Zurich) and funded by the Fondation Zdenek et Michaela Bakala (Switzerland). Ennia’s PhD research is on the role of plant-pollinator networks in guiding restoration of forest ecosystem functions and services. Previously, Ennia did research on tree seed systems for forest landscape restoration in the Philippines, Indonesia, India and Malaysia.

While planting trees might sound like a straightforward solution to mitigate the global climate and biodiversity crises, there are many steps to consider - for example, producing suitable planting material like here at TRCRC’s (Tropical Rainforest Conservation and Research Centre) tree nursery in Perak, Malaysia. © TRCRC

With slogans such as «planting a tree for every product sold» or «buy one, plant one», an increasing number of companies advertise the sustainability of their products and services, from fashion labels to food retailers, airlines, and even search engines. Sounds good, but what does this actually mean? We analysed 40 existing initiatives to conceptualise how eco-marketing mechanisms contribute to financing forest landscape restoration.

As a result of the increasing awareness regarding the urgency of ecosystem restoration, more and more companies promise to plant one or several trees for every commodity sold. The launching of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration strongly emphasises that ecosystem restoration has never been more urgent than now, and it is therefore both promising and necessary that consumer markets now provide new funding pathways for restoration. While our growing consumer society contributes significantly to the drastic forest degradation and biodiversity loss, this trend made us wonder: Could these same market forces also be transformed to have net positive rather than negative influence on land use change? Is eco-marketing of forest landscape restoration something that should be supported, or do these initiatives encourage unnecessary consumption without actually being sustainable?

Tree planting as a straightforward message to consumers

We identified 40 private sector initiatives that fund forest landscape restoration in developing countries and communicate their restoration activities directly to consumers, either through the packaging of the products or marketing of a service and consequent impacts, or through wider outreach campaigns. We categorised the initiatives into three groups: non-profit organisations, certified social enterprises (B-corporations) and for-profit businesses (Figure 1). Whereas for-profit businesses fund restoration alongside their profit-driven activities (which do not have to be related to forests or restoration), initiatives from non-profit organisations have restoration at the core of what they work towards and have established products and services around this goal to finance the restoration activities. Most of the initiatives were not actively involved in restoration efforts themselves, but instead collaborated with enabler-organisations who execute the restoration activities on the ground.

While the initiatives supported both passive restoration (assisted natural regeneration) as well as active restoration interventions (planting trees in regenerative agroforestry systems or for ecological restoration), we found that 32 out of the 40 initiatives financed the planting of trees in agroforestry systems – probably because tree planting is the most straightforward narrative to communicate to consumers.

Conceptual overview of how the reviewed eco-marketing initiatives finance forest landscape restoration. All three identified types of eco-marketing initiatives (left) collaborate with or donate to enablers (centre), i.e. international NGOs, and/or local experts and communities, which realise different FLR intervention types (right). Excerpt from Bosshard et al. (2021) Rooting Forest Landscape Restoration in Consumer Markets – A Review of Existing Marketing-Based Funding Initiatives. Frontiers in Forest and Global Change 3:589982, Licensed under CC-BY 4.0

Implications for consumers

The vast majority of the identified initiatives in this study were for-profit businesses, which might use restoration as a branding strategy to promote consumption. It is important that these types of funding streams do not lead to “greenwashing” by providing misleading information about how environmentally sound the sold products or services are. Providing the additional incentive of planting trees might encourage consumers to choose that product instead of a similar one without the branding, and even encourage unnecessary consumption. But simply planting trees for every commodity sold does not imply that these have low environmental impact.

As this review shows, most trees are being planted in agroforestry systems rather than for the ecological regeneration of forest ecosystems. Planting trees in agroforestry systems can contribute substantially towards increasing income opportunities for local farmers, improving soil quality, strengthening biodiversity and storing carbon. Involving local communities is crucial for the success of forest landscape restoration in developing countries, but it does not necessarily contribute to the regeneration of the intricate forest ecosystems that we are losing at a drastically rapid rate. And the disproportionate focus of eco-marketing initiatives on tree planting might overshadow other FLR interventions in areas where other approaches have more significant ecological, environmental, and social benefits.

Further, the ecological impacts and success of tree-planting campaigns depend on numerous decisions and to date many restoration efforts are still not as successful as we need them to be. And while it is incredibly important to restore our damaged ecosystems, we must be aware that by doing this, we ‘only’ address the symptoms. To get to the root of the problem, we need to tackle the main drivers of deforestation and forest degradation. As consumers, it should therefore be our responsibility to buy only what we really need and pay attention to how it was produced.

If you want to read more about this research, please check out our article published in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change:

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1 Comment

erliang gao
erliang gao
Nov 22, 2021

Great blog Ennia! Very enjoyable to read. Your work make me think about a financial mobile application in China called Alipay (something like PayPal). Several years ago, Alipay put forward a very popular initiative: users can exchange the movement steps logged by their cellphone for 'green energy', when you get a certain number of 'green energy', you can apply for a tree seedling, which will be planted in desert areas of western China. Such things sounds good, but as your work suggested, it is worth to investigate what is the true purpose of such initiatives and what impacts they ultimately caused to the environments.

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