How the Save the Rainforest movement gave rise to modern environmentalism

If you were a kid in America in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the concept of the rainforest probably has a permanent spot in your brain. From about 1986 through 1992, a mass movement centered around saving the rainforest dominated popular culture. Ads for cheeseburgers, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and many, many more products included blue-green tropical imagery and vague environmentalist messages. Movies like Ferngully and TV shows like Captain Planet capitalized on the trend. The chain restaurant Rainforest Cafe launched; the clothing store Banana Republic was jungle-themed. You might have worn an oversized t-shirt with a toucan or a spider monkey on it.

Looking back, the entire “save the rainforest” thing feels frivolous, ineffective, naive. We obviously didn’t save the rainforests; today, tropical rainforests face a host of foes both new and old, ranging from palm oil plantations to slash-and-burn agriculture. But this era of simplistic cartoons and lizard-emblazoned candy was actually the birth of the modern American environmentalist movement. It was unlike any conservation project seen before, and we’re not likely to ever see anything like it again.

Prior to the early 1980s, conservation and environmentalism were extraordinarily limited. There were essentially two branches. You could have the old, Teddy Roosevelt-style land conservation, fairly bipartisan and almost entirely projects by rich, white men designed to rope off their favorite spots in the United States. The Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and Clean Air Act were all passed during Republican administrations (though it’s worth noting that Nixon vetoed both of the latter). The activists I spoke to largely described the pre-1980s conservation movement as elitist and paternalistic, but most importantly domestic.

Environmentalism, as opposed to conservation, was something for bearded weirdos and not something the national media felt at all obligated to examine. “Nobody took you seriously,” says Daniel Katz, the founder of Rainforest Alliance. “You were a hippie radical lefty. You were a tree-hugger. You were seen as a nut! And I wasn’t a nut.” From 1981 to 1984, the New York Times published a single article dealing with the rainforest by that term. It was a review of a seminal book on rainforest conservation, Catherine Caulfield’s In the Rainforest, and it is a truly bonkers document. An actual quote: “Despite her bias toward efforts to save the forests, her account is balanced.”

The term “rainforest” is a vague one; generally it refers simply to a forest that receives a lot of rain. There are rainforests in British Columbia, Norway, and Korea. But the rainforest most often referred to during the 1980s and 1990s was tropical rainforest: the Amazon rainforest, Congo rainforest, big chunks of Southeast Asia, Oceania, and Central America.

Even the word “rainforest” was new at the time. More typical was “jungle,” which conjured Joseph Conrad-type images of savagery and danger. Nobody in the United States or Europe seemed to really care much about the destruction of what was seen as a hostile landscape of blood-sucking insects, man-eating beasts, malaria, and cannibals. (These are, obviously, inaccurate descriptions.) But there was a burgeoning scientific community studying these environments across the globe.

Those scientists began to sound the alarm within their own communities. These tropical forest environments, they said, housed a greater percentage of life for their area than anyplace else on the planet. There were thousands, probably millions, of new species to be discovered. And there were commercial concerns, too, especially for the pharmaceutical industry, as dozens of drugs (quinine, turbocuarine, cortisone) were derived from rainforest plants. And these forests were being destroyed at alarming rates, largely for agriculture, ranching, and logging.


The (slightly alarming) exterior of a Rainforest Cafe in 2018.
Getty Images

A few books, including Caulfield’s and The Primary Source by Norman Myers, both published in 1985, tried to reeducate the public: That feared jungle is more than you think.

A new crop of environmentalists, many of them previously anti-war activists during the Vietnam War, picked up the cause. They were based in San Francisco and New York, and they weren’t thrilled with the few existing environmental groups. Friends of the Earth was mostly based in the UK; Greenpeace was focused on whales (and some activists hadand have — ethical issues with them, anyway); the World Wildlife Fund was animal activism; the Sierra Club and National Resources Defense Council were all about the United States. There weren’t organizations speaking specifically about the rainforest, so these activists founded their own.

The Rainforest Action Network was founded in 1985 by Randy Hayes and Mike Roselle. Hayes had just come off a 10-year stint filming a documentary with the Hopi Native American tribe. In the Southwest, he was hanging out with the more radical Earth First! group and learned about the plight of the rainforest from them. “For me, my earliest interest in the issue was kind of connected to my interest in indigenous peoples,” says Hayes.

Rainforest Action Network was based in San Francisco at the time, and Hayes made the very good decision to get in touch with a man who might be the unheralded force behind the entire modern environmental movement: Herbert Chao Gunther. Gunther was a former anti-war activist who started the Public Media Center in San Francisco. It was, essentially, a marketing firm that worked exclusively on issues of the environment and social justice. “He convinced me early on that there was no effective campaign without a serious media strategy,” says Hayes.

Gunther says in the early- to mid-1980s, there was a steady stream of activists coming through his door, asking for advice, looking for strategy tips. But he connected with Hayes and with the save-the-rainforest movement, and the two companies worked together for three years, from 1986 through 1988. Gunther’s big idea was an elaborate education campaign. He purchased mailing addresses of subscribers from publications and looked for certain overlaps. A subscription to Mother Jones meant you were a lefty; a subscription to Forbes or Fortune or an American Express membership meant that you had money. And the cause needed both of those things.

If you’re wondering about the privacy concerns here, well, good point, but it doesn’t seem to have come up at all. “Nobody was worried about privacy, back then,” says Gunther.

Gunther’s ad campaigns were totally unlike existing commercial campaigns. Instead of catchy, brief, pithy slogans, Rainforest Action Network included multi-page, multi-thousand-word stories of life in the rainforest. “When you read 1,500 words about the rainforest, you get converted,” says Gunther. Creating activism is, Gunther believed, a very different beast from creating a customer. You had to get inside a nascent activist’s head, take up space in there with imagery and facts about this wondrous place. It helped that few at the time knew very much at all about the rainforest. Rainforest Action Network made the rainforest seem like an Eden, a verdant wonderland, a dream in green and blue and brown.

They also very intentionally did not use the word “jungle.” At the time, there were a few different terms being tossed around as potential replacements for that stigmatized word. “We were interacting with a lot of the seminal scientists of the time,” says Hayes. “‘Tropical Moist Forest’ was what they wanted to call it.” Gunther and RAN landed on “tropical rainforest” as their term of choice. A primary strength of the Save the Rainforest movement was that it was focused on something positive and amazing. The rainforest was magic, and saving it was fun, not grim.

Gunther was RAN’s guide to branding. “He also cautioned me not to connect it too much with animal rights, at first,” says Hayes. “The animal rights movement at the time was kind of the anti-vivisection people. Vegetarianism wasn’t popularly well thought-of, the way it is now. It was a different era.”


A sign affixed to a corporate building by environmental activists reads, “Texaco kills rainforests.”

AFP/Getty Images

Gunther’s mentality was aggressive. “If you want to start a movement, make an enemy,” says Gunther. “Get into a fight. People understand fights, because when there’s a fight, you can pick a side.” Hayes had already decided to essentially ignore the government; the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations, these activists thought, were not going to be helpful but also did not make for a pointed enemy. The ideal enemy was a corporation. So Gunther and Hayes scoured the news for an enemy, finding a brief mention in a New York Times article about a massive contract Burger King had in Costa Rica, to produce beef. To clear land for the cattle, Burger King had to mow over massive swathes of pristine Costa Rican rainforest. They were a perfect enemy.

RAN ran full page ads in publications ranging from hyper-local hippie weeklies (for their grassroots movement) to BusinessWeek and the Wall Street Journal (to let executives at Burger King know they’d been targeted). They set up a widespread boycott of “rainforest beef”; worked with Earth First! and other organizations; and made Burger King’s Costa Rican connection a national issue.

It worked, sort of. Burger King did, within a year and a half, cancel its $35 million contract with Costa Rican ranchers and suffered a double-digit-percentage downturn in sales. But there were other forces at play. “Rainforest beef” had significantly lower fat content than American beef, and Burger King itself knew that Americans simply didn’t like it very much. The company was embroiled in internal struggles, including unsuccessful marketing campaigns and backlash from franchise owners. It was a smart business move from a few different angles for Burger King to give in to the protests. But, you know, they still did.

The early success of RAN’s Burger King campaign led to the creation of many more activist groups. Perhaps the best known is Rainforest Alliance, whose founder, Daniel Katz, actually applied for a job at Rainforest Action Network. (Gunther told him to start his own thing.) Rainforest Action Network continued to focus on awareness campaigns, getting big stars (the Grateful Dead, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne) for concerts and splashy media work. Sting even started his own similar group, the Rainforest Foundation. But Rainforest Alliance tried something else: a certification program.

Rainforest Alliance was among the first major ethical food certification programs, even before the 1990 establishment of the National Organic Program. Their goal was to have a program that could alert customers, thanks to a little sticker on the package, that a given product adhered to some basic ethical standards. This was a new and ballsy idea at the time, and directly led to the birth of the Forest Stewardship Council, Fair Trade Certified, and all of the other certifications we know and (sort of) understand today.


The Rainforest Alliance seal with a picture of a tree frog, affixed to one of a bunch of bananas.

The Rainforest Alliance seal affixed to a banana.
Patrick Pleul / Getty Images

Not all of the companies that sprang from the rainforest-saving well were activist groups. Seventh Generation, which sells recycled paper goods like toilet paper and paper towels, was founded in 1988. Unlike Rainforest Alliance and Rainforest Action Network, Seventh Generation is a company that directly sells products, but it was heavily informed by the awareness campaigns of the activist groups. It’s still successful today, a model for how a business can be founded on ideals and still sell stuff.

Some of these programs didn’t entirely work. You might remember Ben & Jerry’s Rainforest Crunch, which featured Brazil nuts. That flavor was supposed to set up a co-op to harvest nuts in a more equitable way for the farmers and donate a percentage of sales to Brazilian nonprofits. But Ben & Jerry’s realized after a few years that they weren’t actually succeeding at any of their goals; the co-op hadn’t made any profit so the company hadn’t donated anything. The co-op also couldn’t produce as many nuts as the company needed. Ben & Jerry’s, to their credit, announced all of this before anybody else figured it out, releasing all of their findings. The same thing happened with The Body Shop, which had sold Brazil-nut-based shampoos and conditioners. “That program … I mean, so many programs end up having flaws. It’s tricky. So that program went away, but Ben & Jerry’s continued to try to source really well,” says Katz.

The activist organizations started with awareness; before you can make anyone care about the rainforest, you have to actually tell them about the rainforest, and why it’s so cool. This worked perhaps better than any of the activists expected. By 1990, rainforests weren’t just something to be saved, they were an iconic motif to be utilized. Sometimes the products, like those movies and TV shows, had some environmental education aspect to them, though of course their main goal was to make money. Sometimes there were no noble intentions at all. The rainforest was simply cool, and people liked toucans, monkeys, macaws, tree frogs, and bromeliads.

This was, of course, pretty frustrating to the activists who had started the whole thing. “Oh yeah, there was horrendous greenwashing going on,” says Hayes. “It was constantly talked about in our circles.” But this was a huge boom time for the environmental movement, even if a lot of the stuff relating to the rainforest wasn’t really helping much. “We started to get a lot more attention,” says Katz. “And there were a lot of groups and companies that wanted to play off our name and our reputation. It was kind of a wild time.” He even consulted with the makers of Ferngully.

But Rainforest Alliance was pretty annoyed with companies using rainforest imagery to sell their junk, and even proposed what they called a “nature tax.” “Like if you’re a car company and you have a cheetah in the ad, you should have to pay for that,” says Katz. It didn’t take off, but it’s kind of a good idea.

The trend eventually died down, as trends do, in the mid-1990s. Many of the activist groups and companies that had sprung from this period are still around and have looked back on that wild time. Did they succeed in their goals? Did they do as much good as they could have?

Deforestation in the tropical rainforest regions has certainly not stopped; the treatment of farmers in rainforests is still awful. (Coffee and chocolate, especially, remain largely abhorrent industries.) Environmental struggles don’t really end; it’s not as though you can just pass a bill and then the fight is over. “When we lose a battle, it’s permanent, and when we win, it’s temporary,” says Katz.

But a pure how-many-acres-did-we-save metric doesn’t really show the whole picture of what the Save the Rainforest movement achieved. By 1989, Costa Rican deforestation rates had dropped dramatically; by 1998, they had stopped entirely. Costa Rica, the first focus of Gunther and Rainforest Action Network, has become a world model of environmental conservation, actually increasing its forest cover and setting ambitious carbon-neutrality goals. In 1996, following a civil war, Guatemala protected millions of acres of forest thanks to a concession program that has actually halted deforestation there.

There were absolutely concrete improvements made during and as a direct result of these campaigns. But more importantly, there was a sea change. “Conservation” and “environmentalism” were no longer bad words. By 1987, the New York Times was starting to treat the rainforest in a more modern way, depicting the devastation that would befall the planet if deforestation continued unchecked. Environmental science programs became more and more common in American and European universities, birthing new generations of activists.

The fact that major corporations have sustainability departments, that they bother to even pay lip service to environmental and ethical causes, you could argue that this all comes back to the corporate-antagonizing efforts of Rainforest Action Network. That big companies bother to spend more money to make some of their products certified organic, fair trade, and more — there would be no market for this stuff without Rainforest Alliance, and no mechanism to charge more money for these products without their certification program.

Awareness campaigns are easy to sneer at. “What did they do?” you think. “Isn’t it just so easy to raise awareness and hard to get concrete stuff done?”

Some of these campaigns absolutely were self-aggrandizing, ineffective, or misinformed, sure. But they were also essential. Save the Rainforest was a movement in which entire countries woke up and started giving a shit about the natural world beyond their own borders. Just because it was sometimes stupid and just because the Amazon is currently on fire doesn’t mean it didn’t work. You just have to adjust your expectations about what was really being saved.

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