Optimized chemical vapor deposition processes for single-walled carbon nanotube (SWCNT) can lead to the growth of dense, vertically aligned, mm-long forests of SWCNTs. Precise control of the growth process is however still difficult, mainly because of poor understanding of the interplay between catalyst, substrate and reaction gas. In this paper we use x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS) to study the interplay between Fe or Co catalysts, SiO2 and Al2O3 substrates and ethanol during the first stages of SWCNT forest growth. With XPS we observe that ethanol oxidizes Fe catalysts at carbon nanotube (CNT) growth temperatures, which leads to reduced carbon nanotube growth. Ethanol needs to be decomposed by a hot filament or other technique to create a reducing atmosphere and reactive carbon species in order to grow vertically aligned single-walled carbon nanotubes from Fe catalysts. Furthermore, we show that Al2O3, unlike SiO2, plays an active role in CNT growth using ethanol CVD. From our study we conclude that metallic Fe on Al2O3 is the most optimal catalyst/substrate combination for high-yield SWCNT forest growth, using hot filament CVD with ethanol as the carbon containing gas.