Is footwear funding the burning of the Amazon?
Brazil is the world’s biggest exporter of hides and the footwear industry is the biggest buyer.
- Fashion’s commitments to sourcing sustainable leather don’t extend to intermediaries further down the supply chain, who may move cattle between deforested land and certified ranches.
- The Italian leather industry sources heavily from Brazil, including from a major supplier who faces allegations of illegal deforestation.
- Tools to ensure better supply chain transparency are coming online, which will allow brands to reward suppliers who protect land instead of clearing it.
The satellite pictures convey the magnitude of ongoing fires in the Amazon and even residents of São Paulo, thousands of miles away, can describe the intensity of the heat. Fires in the Amazon rainforest are up more than 80 per cent year-on-year, with half of them reportedly started in the last month. For many, the horrific scenes might seem a world away. And while the factors that led to the fires are complex, the footwear industry is partly responsible.
The largest driver of deforestation in the Amazon is cattle ranching and associated industries like soy production, which is used as feed. As demand for beef and leather grow, ranchers burn tracts of forest to make room for more cows. This demand has hit Brazil particularly hard. The South American country supplies about 22 per cent of the world’s leather exports, making it the single largest source of animal hides, according to an analysis by the US National Wildlife Federation. And the footwear industry is the single largest buyer of all that leather, says the UN.
A decade ago, Greenpeace linked brands from Louis Vuitton to Tommy Hilfiger with leather processors that buy from companies accused of deforestation. But parcelling out responsibility isn’t simple. In recent years, companies such as LVMH, Kering and Nike have committed to sourcing only deforestation-free leather. (And on Monday, LVMH said it would provide €10 million in aid to fight the Amazon fires.)
But the nature of those commitments involves brands working with their direct suppliers — and not necessarily the intermediaries that come before. Yet it’s common for cows to be moved between ranches, particularly toward the end of their lives, when they reach easier-to-track direct suppliers, researchers say.
There are some efforts to build greater traceability and sustainability into the supply chain, but they have yet to achieve significant scale. (Some environmentalists question whether it’s even possible to supply the growing global demand for animal hides in an eco-friendly way.)
In this aerial image, a fire burns in a section of the Amazon rainforest on August 25, 2019 in the Candeias do Jamari region near Porto Velho, Brazil.
© Getty Images
The lack of traceability is significant because it prevents even conscientious customers and brands from knowing how their leather was procured and produced. “Many still think that because they buy ‘Italian leather’, that means it is not from Brazil, but that is untrue,” says Nathalie Walker, director of tropical forests and agriculture at NWF. In fact, the Italian leather industry sources heavily from Brazilian suppliers like Frigorífico Redentor, a company that Amazon Watch describes as a “notorious illegal deforester in Brazil” and pegs as partly responsible for the recent surge to clear land. Grupo Bihl, Frigorífico Redentor’s parent company, did not respond to emails requesting comment.
Some pilot projects are underway to accelerate the move toward full supply chain traceability. UK accessories brand Bottletop sources leather from Novo Campo, a project that helps ranchers get more out of existing ranches and avoid clearing more land. In 2013, Gucci worked with Walker on a limited-release fully traceable leather handbag from cattle raised on land that reportedly did not see any deforestation.
Walker says Gucci’s costs were modestly higher for that handbag, but margins could be protected if the effort was scaled. “What is needed is the clear demand from the market, and for government databases to allow access to data that can facilitate this work at low cost,” she says. Gucci parent Kering did not comment on plans to continue or expand that effort, but it said that 80 per cent of skins used by Kering’s brands are traceable to the slaughterhouse and it has a goal of all skins being traceable back to the farm by 2025. (It is unclear which farm that refers to, and if the goal reaches back to every farm an animal has touched.) LVMH did not respond to a request for comment, and Nike would only reiterate its policy that Brazilian suppliers must have a traceable system for ensuring that leather is from cattle raised outside of the Amazon Biome.
Tools to enhance supply chain transparency, such as Global Canopy’s Trase, are coming online. The nonprofit Textile Exchange is also working on a Responsible Leather Assessment tool that would fuse various aspects of environmental and social sustainability, including deforestation, into one system that would certify leather supply chains back to the farm. Cleared land is currently more commercially valuable than forest — so it is only when there is a real incentive for farmers to protect the forest, that land will remain intact.
The industry is paying more attention. Last week, 32 major companies signed up to a Fashion Pact that included a commitment to protecting biodiversity. The Amazon, which boasts a quarter of the world’s biodiversity on land, will be vital to that effort. European leaders like Emmanuel Macron of France have said the EU’s trade deal with the Mercosur area, which includes Brazil, could be at risk if deforestation continues unchecked.
There’s an impetus for the leather industry to do so too. Vegan leather is increasingly popular with customers. And some environmentalists, like Amazon Watch’s Christian Poirier, are musing about boycotting Brazilian leather entirely. “Even though, of course, there are many good actors in these supply chains,” says Poirer. “The ambiguity is so strong and so dangerous.”