Deforestation down to your daily shopping

Coffee, chocolate, beef, chocolate spread, biscuits, soap and furniture. Each of these items may be the cause of deforestation in their countries of origin. How can consumers prevent this “imported deforestation” as much as possible?

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Tropical forest next to a palm oil plantation

On the left in the picture, tropical forest in Sumatra (Indonesia) had to make way for a palm oil plantation. © Shutterstock

Even if you have an eco-friendly lifestyle, your daily shopping can be the cause of quite a bit of deforestation. Annoying, especially given that forests play a critical role in sustaining all life on our planet.

For that reason, WWF Belgium, partner with the Belgian Development Cooperation, grasped the nettle in 2019. The NGO calculated the ecological footprint of 7 basic commodity products as well as the hidden deforestation for the period 2013-2017.

This study resulted in a set of recommendations for the government, companies and consumers. Below is a summary of the report with a focus on the consumer.

Footprint amounting to 3 times the surface area of Belgium

This was obviously not an easy task for the WWF, therefore, the results obtained remain estimates. They do, however, constitute a clear indication of the scope of imported deforestation resulting from the products in question.

The WWF examined 7 products: soy, cocoa, beef & leather, palm oil, coffee, natural rubber and wood & paper. Together they have a yearly footprint of 10.4 million hectares. This means that more than 3 times the surface area of Belgium was needed for their production! Note that not all of these products are consumed in Belgium. Approximately two thirds of the products imported will be exported in raw or processed form.

Of the 10.4 million hectares, 4.2 million face a significant risk of deforestation. 85% of this “imported deforestation” is accounted for by only 4 of the products, more specifically soy, cocoa, palm oil and wood & paper. The main countries with a high deforestation risk are Brazil, Ivory Coast, Argentina, Indonesia and Russia.

Beyond chocolate

Numerous initiatives have, however, been launched in order to make the production chains more sustainable. There are global “round tables” for sustainable palm oil, soy and beef. Various labels, including the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) for wood, guarantee a sustainable production. In 2018, the Belgian government launched “Beyond Chocolate”, committing the chocolate sector, together with partners like NGOs, supermarket chains and universities, to making the supply chain for chocolate more sustainable. Similar initiatives are imminent. Nevertheless, too many non-sustainable crops still slip through the net.


The study advises the Belgian government, among others things, to support a European law against imported deforestation. It should also promote the commitment of the Belgian industrial sectors with regard to “zero deforestation”.

Companies should demand a deforestation-free primary production and invest in the development of sustainable supply chains.

Finally, consumers are advised to reduce consumption and to opt for second-hand, recycled or certified products (such as FSC, Fairtrade and biological products).

These are the 7 basic products:


Cocoa is of course extremely important for Belgium, chocolate country par excellence. During the period of investigation, our country imported 516,000 tonnes of cocoa and chocolate products per year, representing 1.6 million hectares, 65% of which is at risk of deforestation.

Consumer tip

  • Opt for quality chocolate and chocolate products bearing environmental and social sustainability labels such as Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade.
Cocoa trees with fruits

Cocoa trees with fruits in Ghana. © Shutterstock

Palm oil

More than 50% of the processed products in the supermarket contain palm oil: biscuits, chocolate, margarine, chocolate spread, breakfast cereals, crisps, soap and other cosmetics. Palm kernel meal (residual product of the oil extraction from palm kernels) is used in the production of animal feed.

Every year, Belgium imports 1.1 million tonnes, representing 586,000 hectares, 89% of which is at risk of deforestation, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Consumer tips

  • Use less processed products that may contain palm oil by cooking with local and seasonal products.
  • Buy palm oil products that are at least RSPO certified (Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil).


The soybean, a type of legume, is well known as the basis of soy milk, soy sauce, tofu and other meat substitutes. Soybean oil can be found, among other things, in biscuits, margarine and sauces.

However, the largest part of Belgium’s soy imports is used as feed in livestock farming. In other words, hidden behind your consumption of meat, eggs and dairy products, there is often soybean cultivation leading to deforestation.

Every year, Belgium imports 2.5 million tonnes, representing 2 million hectares, 64% of which is at risk of deforestation, especially in Brazil and Argentina.

Consumer tips

  • Use less products of animal origin (meat, dairy products, eggs). There are plenty of alternatives with vegetable proteins.
  • Use local products from the short food supply chain and choose meat from producers who adhere to extensive, with more space for animals, and biological livestock farming.
Soybean fields with tropical forest in the background

In Brazil, for example, a lot of tropical forest has been cut for vast soya fields. ​© Shutterstock


Don’t we all long for our daily cup(s) of coffee? The coffee plant has always been grown in shady forest areas. Yet, since the seventies, “open” coffee cultivation is predominant and that is why deforestation is just around the corner.

Every year, Belgium imports 340,000 tonnes of coffee, representing 338,000 hectares, 73% of which is at risk of deforestation, especially in Brazil, Uganda and Peru.

Consumer tip

  • Choose coffee bearing a recognised social and environmental certification such as Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade.
Coffee plants in deforested area

Even our daily cup of coffee can lead to deforestation. On the photo: growing coffee in Colombia. ​© Shutterstock

Beef & leather

Despite its important national production, Belgium imports 192,000 tonnes of beef yearly, in addition to 36,000 tonnes of leather, a by-product of slaughtered cattle. This represents 1.1 million hectares of land, 19% of which is at risk of deforestation, especially in Brazil and China.

Consumer tips

  • Consume less beef and choose beef from local, extensive and biological livestock farming.
  • Buy less leather garments, shoes and accessories and opt for second-hand articles.

Wood & paper

When using wood to build your house or to decorate your interior, you are essentially climate friendly because you are preventing carbon from reaching the atmosphere for a long period. However, this is subject to the key condition that the wood has been produced sustainably which, unfortunately, is not always the case.

Every year, Belgium imports 10.4 million m³ of wood and 13.8 million m³ of paper, which would represent 4.6 million hectares in all, 17% of which is at risk of deforestation, especially in Brazil and China.

Consumer tip

  • Opt for products that have been recycled or certified according to credible environmental and social standards such as the FSC and PEFC label.
Tree from which rubber is extracted

For the time being, there is very little really sustainable rubber. On the photo: rubber plantation in Thailand. ​© Shutterstock

Natural rubber

Natural rubber comes from the rubber tree and is used in a number of everyday and industrial applications such as tyres, mattresses, balloons and latex gloves. For numerous applications, synthetic rubber is not suitable.

Every year, Belgium imports 230,000 tonnes of natural rubber, representing 209,000 hectares, 80% of which is at risk of deforestation, especially in Indonesia.

For the time being, the consumer has little choice. Up to now only 0.1% of the production of natural rubber is FSC certified, which only applies for niche markets such as mattresses. Sectors involved, such as tyres and NGOs, combine forces in order to design a sustainable production process.