Explaining the process of growing, extracting and processing cork is important in order to spread awareness regarding its environmentally friendly character. / Photo: Anna Pöysä

Cork gains new life as environmental awareness grows

After an unprecedented low, the future of Portugal's cork industry now looks bright. Much of it is due to the Portuguese Cork Association's campaigning, centered around the growing demand for ecological products: target audiences are educated about the sustainability of cork.

In 2009 the situation of the cork industry was worse than ever. There was no demand, and the prices were lower than ever. There were many reasons for it: the wine industry wasn’t doing great, the synthetic stoppers had gained more use and the building industry, using especially agglomerated cork, was also affected by the global financial crisis.

For Portugal it was bad news. Portugal has the largest area of cork oak forest in the world, and the cork industry has a long history in the country, especially in the Southern parts, but now the cork was left on the trees.

However, eventually the crisis pushed the industry towards a transformation process which resulted in modernisation and internationalisation.

The Portuguese Cork Association, APCOR, played a significant role in the revival of the industry. It represents the Portuguese cork industry, promotes cork’s use and supports cork research. It is the only international promoter of cork, and it organises campaigns that spread the word regarding the material, its sustainability and potential.

One aspect of the work is re-education: changing the target audience’s previous ideas regarding the material.

– There are still some misunderstandings regarding cork, says João Rui Ferreira, APCOR’s chairman, on the phone.

Cork oak forests as the starting point for education

Unlike commonly thought, cork is a sustainable material. The cork oak forests help to maintain biodiversity, the extraction of cork does not harm the trees and cork can be recycled and re-used. /Photo: Anna Pöysä

Coruche, named as the world’s cork capital, is located in Ribatejo area, one hour drive from Lisbon. There it is possible to visit a traditional cork oak forest, montado in Portuguese. Besides the cork oaks, there are also stone pine trees – and cows.

Montados are the key for understanding the nature and life cycle of cork, so they are central to APCOR’s communications campaigns.

It is quite common, for example, to think that the extraction of cork harms the trees. Therefore explaining the process of growing, extracting and processing cork is important in order to spread awareness regarding its environmentally friendly character.

– After visiting a cork oak forest one understands the cycle of cork production and will never see cork the same way as before, Ferreira thinks.

Unlike other trees, cork oak is the only one that re-grows the bark. Moreover, it is only allowed to start extracting cork legally from a tree that is 25 years old or older. Once you extract cork you have to wait another 9 years to do it again. The cork used for wine bottle stoppers is usually from trees older than 43 years.

Montados not only provide cork but they also maintain biodiversity. They are the home of many kinds of animals and plants, some of them endangered, such as the Iberian lynx. Moreover, the oaks are very resistant against fire, which is valuable in a country struggling with forest fires. The forests also create a barrier against desertification.

Montados also provide a sustainable source of income rooted in regional traditions in areas with little investment and few other work opportunities. Part of APCOR’s task is to provide the producers with training in areas such as ecoefficiency. The task of extracting cork requires experience and skills.

– Cork is often the only way to gain income in these areas, Ferreira explains. He tells that 98 % of the montados are privately owned. However, the industry supports the management of the forests and certifies them.

Moreover, since cork oaks not only grow the bark back after harvesting, but cork can also be recycled and re-used, in the campaigns the material is also brought up from the perspective of circular economy. Even the pieces of cork that cannot be used further in the factories aren’t wasted: they are burned to produce energy.

– Cork manages to be at the same time environmentally and economically sustainable, Ferreira summarizes.

These aspects are also strongly present in APCOR’s latest campaign. It takes place in the United States, and is aimed at the wine industry as well as the general public.

Sustainability is brought up from the perspective of explaining the manner the montados are maintained and how cork grows and is extracted, and how the existence of the forests slows down climate change by absorbing greenhouse gases. It also explains how traditional cork stoppers positively influence the quality and character of wine.

Campaigns spread knowledge regarding cork’s versatility

The Cork Oak and Cork Observatory is also located in Coruche. The modern building’s walls are covered with cork, and inside cork is used too – there is a sofa covered with cork leather, and the walls of the auditorium also make use of the local material.

The observatory is open for visitors who will gain information regarding cork and montados, but there is also a laboratory and literature and studies regarding cork are available too. It reflects the interest towards new uses of the traditional material.

Ferreira tells that 70 % of the cork is used for its best known purpose, for producing cork stoppers for wine bottles. But innovations are not only related to creating better stoppers: more and more new uses for the natural and sustainable material are being explored.

Hence, besides campaigning towards the awareness of cork’s sustainability, it has been important to spread knowledge regarding the versatility and characteristics of cork too. While earlier the focus of APCOR’s campaigns was on promoting cork bottle stoppers, now the scope has widened to cover other uses of cork.

The observatory gives a glimpse of the many potential uses of cork. The interest towards cork’s potential has understandably grown also due to its inimitable characteristics: cork is very light, flexible and strong; it is water resistant and floats; it is impermeable to gases; it is an acoustic and thermal insulator; it burns very slowly without releasing toxic gases and it is well tolerated and doesn’t cause allergies.

For example, due to its sustainability and versatility, cork has gained space in the fashion industry, especially the shoe industry. It can be used in a similar manner as leather, and it is a popular material also for being waterproof. It is also gaining popularity in interior design.

– There are many possible uses for cork that we can’t even imagine, Ferreira says.

He explains that the possible uses of cork in vehicles is being studied since it can reduce their weight and that way make them more environmentally friendly.

In the future cork’s role in building construction can also grow further from a surface material to other uses, Ferreira adds and tells that local innovation and investigation regarding cork has been important in creating international success.

Ferreira tells that during the last decade 35 million euros have been invested in international campaigning. The work is paying off. Currently Portugal produces 100 000 tons of cork per year, which represents almost 50 % all the cork produced in the world.

– The potential of cork is great, and there is all the time more sensibility for understanding it, Ferreira says. The interest towards cork grows hand in hand with the interest towards sustainable materials and recycling as part of the work towards preventing climate change.

– People are becoming more rational in terms of consumption, Ferreira concludes.

Educating the customer – APCOR’s campaigning techniques

  • Campaigns are aimed simultaneously at both consumers, opinion makers and industries.
  • Visits to montados, as well as cork factories, can also be organised to both private and industry visitors and press.
  • In order to underline cork’s versatility, the campaigns are no longer aimed only at promoting cork bottle stoppers, but also promote at the same time its use in construction and interior decoration under the concept of eco-design.
  • The international campaigns are organised together with local partners and planned according to the target audience’s familiarity regarding cork. The message is adapted according to each area or country. For example in Scandinavia or China people are less aware of the qualities of cork and its production than in Spain or France.
  • APCOR has also appointed “cork ambassadors”. For example, in the United Kingdom the Portuguese football coach José Mourinho was the face of APCOR’s campaign.
  • Visitors – journalists and opinion makers – are received in Portugal in order to make them familiar with the industry.
  • The industry receives training too: APCOR has promoted forest certification together with other instances and provides training to companies to improve their ecoefficiency and to become more environmentally friendly, for example.