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Cattle farm in Amazon, Para, Brazil. Credit: Paralaxis via iStock

Commodity series: No more hiding for the leather industry

by Theo Stanley

The 2019 Amazon fires brought public scrutiny to the leather industry’s relationship with deforestation. In response, fashion companies like H&M, VF Corp and LVMH made commitments to distance themselves from the fires. But despite industry leaders’ high-profile statements, in our latest assessment of the 350 most influential companies in forest-risk supply chains, we found that the leather industry was still the worst performing when it comes to commitments to address tropical deforestation.

Which companies in the leather industry are failing to address deforestation? How are they failing? And how can they improve?

The leather industry

The cattle industry is the major cause of Amazonian deforestation, accounting for around 80% of the current deforestation rates. As farmers create space for their growing herds, forests are slashed and burned. Often the word ‘cattle’ is synonymised with ‘beef’, leaving leather to be labelled a by-product of the meat industry. This ensures that the environmental impact of leather often avoids scrutiny.

But leather is far from being just a waste product from the beef industry – instead, it is a significant driver of deforestation in South America’s Amazon, Cerrado and Chaco biomes.

Leather’s links to South American deforestation can be hidden behind a label. Although leather goods might be processed in Italy or China, earning them a Made in Italy or Made in China tag, the leather hides may have originated in Brazil, Paraguay or Argentina, where cattle are herded on land that may recently have been forest.

Commodity sector scores in the Forest 500 Report
Commodity sector scores in the Forest 500 Report

Big names, little action

Eighty-one percent of the 64 most influential companies assessed for leather in the 2019 Forest 500 Annual Report had no commitment to source deforestation-free leather.

Capri Holdings, which owns Versace, Jimmy Choo and Michael Kors, had no deforestation commitment for the sourcing of their leather. Neither did American shoemaker Skechers, or Hong-Kong-based bag maker Samsonite.

Online retailer Amazon had no commitment to stop selling leather products from deforested regions, nor a commitment to use deforestation-free leather in any of its own clothing or footwear brands.

French luxury goods group LVMH, which owns Louis Vuitton, Givenchy and Dior, grabbed headlines by committing $11 million to fight the Amazon wildfires. They did not have a commitment to stop sourcing leather from deforested areas at the time of the 2019 assessment, so could still have been buying leather from sources who have exacerbated the fires.

H&M and VF Corp, which owns Timberland, Vans and The North Face, banned imports of leather from Brazil in response to the Amazon fires. These companies have commitments to source only zero-deforestation leather. But by failing to report on the volumes of leather they use, or the efforts they take to monitor their supply chains, these companies make it difficult to assess the extent to which they were fulfilling their sustainability commitments.

Some leather companies are doing absolutely nothing

Having a deforestation commitment is just one factor in our annual Forest 500 assessment. Companies are also scored on how traceable their supply chains are, whether they make commitments to sustainability, and to what extent they uphold human rights throughout their supply chains.

One-third of the companies we assessed in the leather industry scored zero out of 100 in our assessment. These companies are making no measurable progress to avoid deforestation in their leather supply chains, nor are they reporting on how, or from who or where they source their leather. This lack of traceability hides what could be environmentally-degrading sourcing practices from examination.

Companies who scored zero include Ashley Furniture, which claims to be the largest furniture retailer in the world, US-based clothing manufacturer Steve Madden Ltd., and Italian furniture brand Natuzzi.  These companies may be sourcing their leather from deforested areas, while apparently doing nothing to address that risk.

Leather often overlooked

Some companies have commitments to address deforestation for other forest-risk commodities they use or sell, but not for leather. This highlights how the connection between deforestation and leather is often overlooked by companies implementing social or environmental regulations to their supply chain.

For example, clothing giant Gap has a commitment not to source wood-derived fibres from ancient or endangered forest areas. But it has no commitment to source deforestation-free leather.

A better future?

While the fashion and furniture sectors, like many others, are currently being hit hard by coronavirus, some have suggested the crisis provides a much-needed opportunity to improve the resilience and sustainability of supply chains.

As the industry emerges out of the crisis, companies could find a competitive advantage by prioritising sustainability. Forest 500 can show which companies are merely headline-grabbing, and which are making sustained efforts to increase the sustainability of the leather they source.