Did your purse help destroy the rainforest?
The rainforest and the runway may seem worlds apart, but deforestation in the Amazon is partly fueled by something that’s on display in every fashion capital this month: leather. A New York Times investigation published in November linked deforestation to American appetites for leather in luxury cars, but the problem goes beyond the auto industry.
The heavy use of leather in fashion is also contributing, according to a study published late last year that looked at the link between leather in our wardrobes and deforestation. Most of this leather comes from cattle, and the rainforest in the Brazilian Amazon is increasingly cut and burned to create more grazing space.
It is difficult to determine exactly how much of the fashion industry’s leather comes from Brazil, but according to UN Comtrade, a database of trade statistics, Brazil accounted for 19% of global tanned leather exports in 2020; these exports accounted for 41% of China’s tanned leather imports and 36% of Italy’s. Both countries are production centers for the fashion world.
Examination of the link between fashion and deforestation in the Amazon increased in 2019, when images of rainforest fires that began clearing land for agriculture went viral. LVMH announced shortly after that it would donate more than $11 million to fight the fires in the Amazon, and H&M and VF Corporation, which owns Timberland and Vans, pledged to stop buying Brazilian leather unless that it is not linked to deforestation.
These brands were all named in the study, “Nowhere to Hide: How the Fashion Industry Is Linked to Amazon Rainforest Destruction,” by conservation-focused nonprofit Stand.Earth and its research arm, Stand. Research Group (SRG), which used the given customs to illustrate how leather flowed from the deforested Amazon. The report was released in November in collaboration with Slow Factory, a climate and cultural nonprofit, and Model Mafia, an activist collective.
Identifying the problem
SRG analyzed nearly 500,000 lines of Brazilian customs data cross-checked with import data collected from leather processors in countries such as China, Vietnam and Italy that supply companies such as LVMH, H&M, VF Corporation, Nike, Prada, Adidas, Tapestry (the owner of Coach) and Zara.
The SRG team sought to establish the brands’ links to deforestation by tracing exports through major leather suppliers in Brazil and referring to other research linking these suppliers to deforestation. According to the study, JBS, for example, the country’s largest beef and leather exporter, supplies leather processors and manufacturers who, in turn, supply Coach and others. JBS did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
While that doesn’t prove your Coach bag is made from “dyed leather” – the term SRG uses for leather that contributes to deforestation – the more a brand has ties to companies that may have a role in the deforestation, the higher the risk, said Greg Higgs, lead researcher of the study.
Because leather is often treated as a commodity that is sorted by processors according to the quality of the hide rather than its country of origin, it is difficult for brands to ensure that soiled leather does not end up not in their products.
Many brands say the measures they already have in place to prevent tainted leather from entering their supply chains, including what they describe as external audits, are adequate.
One of the most frequently cited certification bodies is the Leather Working Group (LWG). It was founded by companies such as Nike, Adidas and Timberland, and focuses on certifying tanneries based on environmental responsibility measures.
However, the tannery stage is far too late to catch deforestation, according to Mr Higgs and others, because many abattoirs – which come one stage ahead of tanneries – have no reliable way of ensuring that farmers do not bring them livestock from slash-and-burn agriculture. burning sites. “Cattle laundering,” whereby companies try to stay technically compliant with restrictions, is common.
LWG does not claim that its certifications guarantee deforestation-free leather, although its website states that this is part of its “vision for the future”.
“Our approach is to recognize credible third-party satellite monitoring systems and build on government efforts to manage deforestation commitments when available,” an LWG representative wrote in an email.
Relying on government efforts, however, can be ineffective. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, took office promising to develop the Amazon rather than protect it, and the country has lost an area of forest larger than Belgium since taking office in 2019.
When asked to comment after being named in the SRG report, Adidas, Nike and Tapestry highlighted the certifications their suppliers have received from the LWG. A Tapestry spokesperson added that it requires that “suppliers s sourcing in Brazil certify in writing that they do not use skins from animals raised on deforested land.
LVMH said Louis Vuitton, Fendi and Marc Jacobs – the three brands it owns that feature in the report – “did not work with direct and indirect suppliers in Brazil and sourced 100% raw hides other countries in the past two years.”
An H&M spokesperson said the brand was working on traceability initiatives with the Textile Exchange’s Responsible Leather Roundtable, a nonprofit focused on accelerating the use of low-impact materials.
Prada, VF Corporation and Zara did not respond to requests for comment on the report’s allegations.
What happens next
Fashion supply chains are hard to track, say conservation advocates and fashion executives. The raising, slaughtering and butchering of an ox may take place in one country, the processing of leather may take place in another and the production of clothing in yet another.
And tracing costs can be high, according to Jason Kibbey, CEO of Higg, which helps brands measure their environmental impact. “Sometimes the cost of tracing a raw material can be the same as the raw material itself.”
The method used by SRG to track a skin in so many countries is a reliable approach for supply chain assessment, said Aynur Mammadova, a researcher at the University of Padua who has conducted independent research on the links between Brazilian leather and deforestation.
Currently, many companies claim that leather is a by-product of the meat industry, blaming deforestation, Ms Mammadova said. But, she added, leather brought $1.1 billion to Brazilian slaughterhouses last year. It would be more accurate to describe them as “co-products” rather than by-products, she said.
The SRG researchers said the goal is not to shame any particular company, but rather to offer brands more information about their supply chains.
“This is definitely not a study where we rank brands against each other,” said SRG researcher Angeline Robertson.
“If the fashion industry says, ‘We won’t tolerate this anymore’ and puts the pressure back on its suppliers, it can cause a domino effect and it can be really successful.”