Cork: A Model of Sustainable Business
When it comes to the functional integrity of the biosphere, small things matter. Indeed, it is the small things in the global ecosystem that keep Homo sapiens and other forms of life alive. Ants produce soil. Bees pollinate a third of all the food we eat.
Similarly, it is the small daily purchases that we make day-in and day-out that add up to global market demand, and it is the characteristics of market demand that instigates—or helps reduce global ecological pressures. For example, the estimated ninety million tons of global warming pollution emitted every day does not come from just a few large sources but from contributions made by millions of emitters, large and small, each adding to a problem that has become nothing less than a planetary emergency.
In the same way, the single disposable plastic bag you might unwittingly take home from the grocery might not seem like a meaningful contribution to our ecological crisis. But in fact, every minute tens of millions of other consumers are also taking home a disposable plastic bag, which adds up to more than 100 billion bags distributed in the United States annually: hence, the production and use of plastic bags is now a major consumer of fossil fuels and the most ubiquitous form of liter on the planet, threatening everything from marine mammals to our very food chain.
The bottom line: however small your day-to-day actions may seem, our collective purchases can add up to meaningful regional and global impacts—even when it comes to something as seemingly insignificant as wine bottle stoppers.
According to the Portuguese Cork Association, the production of petroleum-based plastic wine bottle stoppers causes fifty percent more global warming pollution than does the manufacture of natural cork stoppers, and the production of metal screw caps for wine bottles produces anywhere from three to five times as much global warming pollution, depending on how much recycled content is mixed into the metal production process.
Perhaps even more importantly, the traditional production of natural cork is an environmentally superior process which supports the preservation of grassland forests, Mediterranean biodiversity, small-scale agriculture, and fast-disappearing cultural traditions.
The importance of buying intelligently in order to produce global ecological benefits was underscored for me most recently during an informative visit that I took to Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) cork oak grassland forests in Portugal, known as the Montados. There, cork bark is harvested by shaving it from the trees. The shaving of a cork oak tree takes place once every nine years, without the need to cut it down.
Economically, the cork oak grassland forests of the Mediterranean Basin are a model for sustainable business practices. Biologically, these Mediterranean Basin forests are an ecological treasure, which is why Conservation International has designated the region a biodiversity hotspot. According to CI:
“The flora of the Mediterranean Basin is dramatic. Its 22,500 endemic vascular plant species are more than four times the number found in all the rest of Europe; the [Mediterranean Basin] hotspot also supports many endemic reptile species… The Mediterranean monk-seal, the Barbary macaque and the Iberian lynx, which is Critically Endangered, are among the region’s imperiled species.”
The region hosts important habitat for Mediterranean birds, including more than one hundred migrating birds that includes raptors such as the African kite, the Booted eagle and the Bonelli eagle. Forty percent of region that I visited in the Tagus River Watershed is covered by cork oak grassland forests, which supplies drinking water to about two million people in Lisbon and its surrounding regions.
In the era of impersonal, globalized, homogenized commerce, it is refreshing to note that most of the cork oak grassland forests in Portugal are family-owned. There are over 1,000 small scale family owned cork forest proprietors in Portugal, which supplies more than half of the world’s cork market. The average size of a Portuguese cork oak family forest is in the range of 200 hectares. Often these ownership families join together into societies to manage their forested landscapes more economically because experience has shown that it takes about 300 hectares of forest land to get the income adequate for proper forestry management, certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). FSC is the only forest certification program that NRDC and most other environmental groups consider credible.
The agricultural workers who harvest cork, a peaceful, non-polluting, small-scale commercial culture that has been practiced almost the same way for centuries, are among the highest paid agricultural field workers in the world, earning between 80 Euros to 120 Euros per day. The workers at the forests that I visited were provided with medical health care insurance and worker’s compensation insurance that provides wage replacement and medical benefits for the rare few who might get injured in the course of employment. The workers are sensibly paid not on the amount of weight they rush through to harvest, but instead are paid based on a fixed daily wage, in order to assure that they perform their harvesting work with due regard for the health of the trees.
At the invitation of some of Portugal’s most historic cork producing families I visited these grassland forests because I advise corporations, including some of the world’s most prominent entertainment and sports businesses, on how to reduce the ecological impacts of their procurement and operations. As we all know, forest-based products can instigate gigantic ecological pressures. For example, the paper industry is the number one industrial pressure on forests, the third largest industrial emitter of greenhouse gases, and the largest industrial consumer of freshwater. So when I advise corporations on the need to switch their toilet paper, copier paper, or packaging to paper made from post-consumer recycled content, it might seem marginal, but that is far from the case. Everything adds up.
Commenting on the largest cork growing region in the world, Gilles Kleitz, project manager at Agence Française de Développement (AFD) said:
"The ecosystem of the Mediterranean Basin underpins the livelihoods of tens of millions of people in both the EU and outside, both directly through agriculture, tourism, fishing, forestry or any of the multitude of other industries that draw directly on the natural resources of the area, or indirectly by providing freshwater, pest control, pollination and other key services. Our legacy must be that this global biodiversity hotspot is maintained and restored so the people of the Mediterranean can continue to thrive."
Contrary to a popular misconception, there is no shortage of cork trees. Quite the contrary, cork trees can live up to 250 years and the valuable expansion of cork grassland forests that was instigated in the early 1990s will add 25 percent more cork trees for harvesting in the next few years. It takes 25 years before the bark from a cork oak tree can be shaved productively and without harming the tree. The bark is then left to regenerate and is reshaved. Regulations prohibit reshaving of the bark no more frequently than once every nine years. And cork is eminently recyclable as well.
The effects of global climate disruption are already being felt on the grassland forests that supply cork and support a sustainable, culturally unique way of life: irregular weather patterns now more often interfere with harvesting, and summer now comes earlier in Portugal, instigating longer periods of droughts that decrease the thickness and economic value of the tree bark over its nine year period of re-growth.
But the most severe threats to Portugal’s Montado grassland forests come from ecologically inferior competition in the form of petroleum- and metal-based bottle stoppers, which have been penetrating the market and are used in as much as 30 percent of the world’s wine bottles. The shift to these less desirable bottle stoppers by vintners threatens to reduce the income produced by maintaining and shaving the cork oak trees, devaluing the region and risking its conversion into industrial agricultural uses or some form of human settlement. This would have devastating effects on the Montado’s biologically rich and culturally rare habitat that provides low impact jobs for thousands of people. This makes avoiding plastic and metal wine stoppers all the more urgent, and greater consciousness about the impact of our everyday purchases all the more vital.