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Hidden deforestation in the fashion industry: how bad can a pair of shoes be?

by Emma Thomson 

As Paris Fashion Week draws to a close, the Amazon fires continue.

These two events may seem unrelated, but they are intricately connected; the fashion industry is complicit in the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, particularly through its use of leather, with burning an initial step in clearing the land for cattle pastures.

Hidden Deforestation in your Wardrobe

When looking at a pair of shoes, you tend not to think about how they started life as a cow in a field, thousands of miles away. But this isn’t the whole story; the field was possibly once forest, cleared to make space for pastureland. Not only is deforestation hiding in your clothes, but in your shoes, belts, and bags too.

Deforestation in tropical regions including the Amazon biome is catastrophic through its impacts on local communities, biodiversity, and the volume of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. Despite legal restrictions and voluntary agreements surrounding deforestation (e.g. the G4 cattle agreement by traders and TAC slaughterhouses) cattle remains a key driver of Amazonian deforestation. Due to a large number of indirect suppliers, leather supply chains are often complex, meaning that untraceable Brazilian leather being used by companies globally could result from Amazonian deforestation.

Leather supply chains can be complex, with leather often being sourced through third-party suppliers. Consequently, it is difficult for a company to guarantee that their leather is deforestation-free, unless they are able to trace their raw materials back to the slaughterhouse or cattle ranches. But how far do companies currently go to ensure that their leather is deforestation-free?

Leather and Deforestation Policies: 2018 Forest 500 Report 

In 2018, Forest 500 assessed 48 companies which use leather within their supply chains, 33 of which use leather to produce apparel/accessories Out of the 33, almost 43% had a policy committing themselves to increase the sustainability of their leather.

However, only two of these companies committed to achieving zero-deforestation in their leather supply chains, meaning that 94% of the companies assessed were not committing to ensure that their leather is deforestation-free.

This lack of action by the apparel sector may be explained by the fact that companies often see leather as a waste product from the beef industry and therefore that the resultant deforestation is the responsibility of the meat industry.

But this is avoiding the issue – and will not help deliver deforestation-free leather. Instead, companies need to ensure that the leather they source is sustainable, ethical, and deforestation-free – and this can only be done through strict supply-chain monitoring to ensure the traceability of their leather back to the ranch.

Yet in spite of this, in 2018 only 5 companies which produce and/or use leather had traceability commitments. Even then, only 3 companies committed to trace their leather back to the point of production, e.g. the cattle ranch. With only 9% of companies committing to fully traceable leather, it is clear that companies are not making strong enough progress towards sourcing deforestation-free leather.

Global Canopy research recently found that companies with deforestation policies were purchasing leather from companies that sourced from Brazil, but which did not have policies in place to ensure the leather was deforestation-free. Consequently, the companies could not guarantee that their leather was deforestation-free.

As supply chains become increasingly globalised, the need for companies to have thorough traceability processes to guarantee that their leather is deforestation-free is more pressing than ever.

The 2019 Amazon fires: a turning point?

In light of the Amazon fires, VF Corp. – which owns brands including Timberland and Vans – and H&M have committed to temporarily stop sourcing leather from Brazil, until they are able to implement effective assurance mechanisms to confirm their leather supplies do not result from deforestation in the Amazon.

In declaring this temporary boycott, these two companies are sending a clear message to leather producers across Brazil that companies and consumers do not want their products to contribute to tropical deforestation.

These companies are raising awareness of this issue, which is incredibly positive. But to cement this positive action, they need to ensure that this is not solely a blanket ban. Some leather producers in Brazil do produce deforestation-free leather, and suppliers in other countries may still be linked to deforestation.

Such blanket bans need to be replaced with effective policies that apply across leather supply chains and which include monitoring and active engagement with any non-compliant suppliers. Without such engagement, non-compliant suppliers will likely find another company with laxer policies to supply, and the deforestation will continue.

If companies are willing to actively engage with and support their suppliers to become deforestation-free, the companies will be able to reduce deforestation – not just in their supply chains, but throughout tropical forests, and drive progress towards deforestation-free leather.

Check out some of the leather apparel brands assessed by Forest500

N.B. These scores are from 2018, and do not consider any of the recent actions taken by the companies above.

Company names and Forest 500 2018 scores for cattle