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Tackling the deforestation risk in leather and viscose supply chains

by Emma Thomson and James MacPherson

This article originally appeared in Apparel Insider

The hidden issue of deforestation 

Sustainability is rising up the agenda of the fashion industry, yet analysis from Global Canopy’s Forest 500 project shows that some of the biggest names in luxury and high street fashion are not doing enough to ensure that their fabrics are not linked to the destruction of tropical forests.

The analysis found that 75% of the most influential companies in leather supply chains had failed to make a forest-related commitment for their leather sourcing, with just 8% committing to ensure their leather was deforestation-free. On a positive note, more companies are taking action on cellulose sourcing (used in viscose, rayon and modal), with 68% of companies making a publicly available deforestation commitment.

Consumers increasingly expect high environmental standards from their fashion brands, and new laws on deforestation could impact apparel companies. So how can companies address deforestation in their supply chains, and what can they learn from progress on cellulose? 

Three steps 

We have identified three steps to make the shift to deforestation-free supply chains: 

1. Analyse

Companies need to first understand how their suppliers might be linked to deforestation risk. This is not simple and specialist tools are typically required. 

Supply chain management software such as SupplyShift can help, providing visibility of complex supplier networks. Open access supply chain mapping tools, such as Trase can help identify sourcing areas where deforestation risks are high. 

These systems allow companies to map their supply chains and identify where the deforestation risks lie. 

2. Find solutions

A strategic approach to deforestation can be a stand-alone policy or part of a wider sustainable sourcing strategy, but it needs to set out a strategic goal or vision (e.g. zero deforestation), an assessment of deforestation risks, metrics and targets, and governance arrangements. 

Initiatives such as the Accountability Framework provide useful guidance, as can the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership’s Developing a Corporate Biodiversity Strategy: A Primer for the Fashion Sector

3. Implement

To achieve deforestation-free supply chains, companies need to implement their strategies, usually by working with their suppliers. This might involve sourcing certified raw materials (e.g. through the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) for cellulose) or working with suppliers to find deforestation-free supplies. 

While certification is a useful step, it is far from perfect and often fails to achieve significant coverage. For example, the Rainforest Alliance announced it was dropping its cattle certification programme due to lack of uptake. As a result, many companies and NGOs see the need for more comprehensive steps, working with suppliers to ensure deforestation-free supply chains.

Traceability technologies

While these three steps are a good starting point, there are risks to be aware of. The complexity of supply chains means that sustainable supplies can be contaminated by unsustainable material, particularly where materials move between multiple small suppliers, and where margins are low, creating a temptation to mix cheaper unsustainable products into the supply. 

Companies can monitor their supply chains to ensure this does not happen, and new technologies are making this increasingly feasible. Designers and manufacturers can use blockchain technologies such as Provenance to track raw materials from source, ensuring that there are no issues in the supply. By using smart labelling and unique garment IDs, they can share this information with customers. 

These technologies are not yet widely used in the apparel sector but could revolutionise supply chain transparency and tracing. The Organic Cotton Traceability Pilot has successfully demonstrated the viability of blockchain and authentication, and the Lenzing Group has piloted blockchain in its Tencel fibre supply chain

Going forward

Deforestation intersects with multiple corporate responsibility issues including human rights, climate change, biodiversity loss, and water catchment management. These are all gaining traction in apparel and footwear sustainability agendas. 

While challenging to address, combatting deforestation in a company’s supply chain presents numerous opportunities including enhanced reputation and brand value, stability and security of supply, access to capital, and regulatory compliance. In following the three steps of Analysis, Solution, and Implementation as a guide, companies can take meaningful action that will benefit stakeholders and strengthen corporate responsibility.

Emma Thomson is a researcher at Global Canopy and James MacPherson works for Anthesis
This article originally appeared in Apparel Insider, see: https://apparelinsider.com/issue-16-november-2020/ 

Image: Unsplash

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