There was a time when the Amazon Rainforest, rich in biodiversity, rare plants, and wildlife, was considered one of the world’s largest carbon sinks. But now, it emits a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year; more than its forest can absorb. Many of these emissions come from deforestation (chopping down trees to create space for farmland) which is caused largely by the meat industry. But new research shows that what’s hanging in our closets is also contributing to the crisis in the Amazon. To create leather shoes, belts, wallets, and handbags, major fashion brands are working with manufacturers and tanneries that have links to deforested land.
The new study—conducted by supply chain research firm Stand.earth and environmental non-profit Slow Factory—looked at 500,000 rows of data from companies like Nike, Fendi, UGG, Zara, H&M, Louis Vuitton, and Prada, and found that more than 50 clothing and apparel brands are likely to have links to deforestation. (The report did not prove a direct link, rather a high probability.)
This is in spite of the fact that many fashion brands have tried to distance themselves from the practice. For example, Louis Vuitton revealed a new “biodiversity strategy” earlier this year, at UNESCO’s “Our Planet, Our Future” forum. The strategy includes a commitment to not use “raw materials from zones with a high risk of deforestation.” And after the 2019 Amazon wildfires—which saw 50,000 wildfires blaze across the rainforest, many of them originally started by ranchers to clear land—H&M said it would no longer purchase leather from Brazil because of the deforestation risk.
This report tells a very different story. Many of these major fashion brands have links to JBS, the biggest leather exporter in Brazil and the world’s biggest meat company, which has known ties to deforestation in the Amazon.
But it’s complicated. As the new research points out, most of these brands are probably not actively choosing to use deforested leather. Part of the problem is that Amazonian cattle supply chains are very messy and difficult to trace.
The complicated chain of buying leather
Brazilian leather and beef industry giants rely on the thousands of farms across the Amazon Basin to raise and slaughter cows for their business. These farms fall into two categories: direct suppliers and indirect suppliers.
While, in theory, cows from direct suppliers stay with one farm from birth to slaughter, indirect supply chains involve a lot more steps. With indirect suppliers, cows are born or fattened before they are sold on to different farms or slaughterhouses. So before they make it to slaughter, cows can change hands a number of times, and there is no record of where they have been previously. This means that when JBS buys cattle from an indirect supplier, it cannot confirm whether the animals have been raised on deforested land. It’s kind of like money laundering, but with animals.
According to risk analysis think tank Chain Reaction Research, JBS has ties with 9,730 direct suppliers and more than 56,000 indirect suppliers.
So to put this into a leather context, let’s take Zara as an example. When the Farida Group, the largest leather manufacturing company in India buys cow skin from JBS, they don’t know where it’s come from, because JBS doesn’t know where it’s come from. And then Zara buys the leather from the Farida Group to make it into a handbag, and they don’t know where it’s come from, either. And then you end up with a fancy new leather bag that you love, but with a long messy history that is very difficult to trace. And there’s a reasonable to good chance it’s linked to deforestation somewhere along the line.
As Slow Factory’s report states: “The more supply chain links, the greater the chance that any individual product came from deforested Amazon rainforest land.”
Previously, Trase, another supply chain initiative, linked JBS’ beef exports with 300 sq km of deforestation risk every year. Earlier this year, global environmental NGO Mighty Earth also linked JBS with more than 105,000 acres of deforested land since 2019 (half of which is likely illegal). And while JBS has pledged to eliminate deforestation from its supply chain, its target year is 2035, and that’s just not soon enough.
“JBS has just promised at least 14 more years of forest destruction,” said Sarah Lake, the global director of Mighty Earth, after JBS’ announcement earlier this year. “The climate is changing now. Forests are burning today.”
Protecting people and the planet with deforestation-free supply chains
Supply chains may be difficult in terms of traceability, but this does not absolve brands of the responsibility to clear them up. The leather industry is growing at an unacceptable rate: by 2025, it’s predicted that 430 million cows must be slaughtered to keep up with fashion’s demand.
This is devastating for the slaughtered animals and the planet. But there is also another detrimental consequence of deforestation: the threat to Indigenous people.
Tribes have lived in the Amazon Basin for thousands of years. In Brazil alone, there are nearly 900,000 Indigenous people. As corporations destroy the rainforest for farmland and the Brazilian government erodes their protection, their lives are at risk. It is vital we protect these people, but also that we listen to them: they have ecological knowledge of the forest that is centuries in the making, and unmatched by newcomers. (For that reason, deforestation is actually considerably less common on Amazon land controlled by Indigenous peoples.)
But fashion brands do not have to engage in supply chains that threaten these groups or the planet at all, because they do not have to use animal-derived leather.
Luxury fashion brand Stella McCartney has never used leather, and instead, opts to use more ethical alternatives. Earlier this year, it launched its first garments made using Mylo, a leather made with mushrooms. And in October, Danish fashion label Ganni pledged to phase out leather by 2023. Instead, it has partnered with Italian brand Vegea to use a sustainable grape-based alternative.
In fact, there are a myriad of plant-based leathers on the market now. Karl Lagerfield and Fossil have made bags from cactus leather, Adidas has made sneakers with Mylo, and Nike used pineapple leather in its Happy Pineapple collection. So, as Céline Semaan, Slow Factory’s co-founder, told the Guardian: “With the resources that fashion companies have, there’s really no excuse.”