Major clothing companies are obtaining their leather from manufacturers and tanneries linked to deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, according to a new report. Researchers went through 500,000 rows of customs data and found over 100 brands such as Adidas, Nike, and New Balance are connected to an industry driving deforestation in some of the world’s most delicate ecosystems.
The findings come after the fashion industry claimed to raise its collective ambition at the COP26 climate summit and do more for the environment. Companies said they recognized the fashion sector as a major global player needing to take an active part in delivering on the Paris Agreement targets and declared their commitment to sourcing environmentally friendly raw materials and using 100% renewable energy. But things are different in reality.
Raising cattle for beef and leather is one of the main drivers of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest – one of the world’s largest carbon sinks. An estimated 13,235 squared kilometers of forest were lost between August 2020 and July 2021, according to the most recent official data. This is the greatest area lost to deforestation since 2006, a trend that is contributing to climate change as well as environmental degradation.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has been accused of promoting policies that favor the agribusiness sector at the expense of the environment. The government recently presented new environmental pledges at the COP26 climate summit, showing a different stand than before, but this was regarded with a general lack of trust. Meanwhile, fashion companies are also benefitting from this indirectly.
“If you’re wearing leather shoes, a leather belt or carrying a leather handbag, it’s highly likely that it was made from cowhide that contributed to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest,” Slow Factory, the NGO behind the report, wrote in a statement. “Brazilian leather is used by tanneries and manufacturers around the world to make countless branded consumer-facing products.”
Fashion and deforestation
The researchers found that a group of 100 fashion brands and companies are working with tanneries and manufacturers that also have links to cattle raised on cleared rainforest land. Half of the companies in the report had links on their supply chain to JBS, the biggest leather exporter in Brazil that has been accused of participating in deforestation.
According to the Soy and Cattle Deforestation Tracker from Mighty Earth, JBS is linked to 42,538 hectares of deforested land in the two years since March 2019 – with half classifying as possibly illegal. Earlier this year, JBS made a commitment to achieve zero deforestation across its global supply chain by 2035 – a target that campaigners say is largely insufficient.
The report found that one-third of the fashion brands identified in the report have made a set of voluntary environmental commitments, such as no-deforestation pledges or agreeing to participate in the Leather Working Group, a global certification and membership body. But the new findings show they have been violating their own policies.
Looking ahead, the report called the fashion industry to no longer buy leather from companies that can’t source their products directly to the farm they came from and to support legislation for the cattle industry to trace its supply chain. At the same time, they should make a public pledge to both points as well as eliminate deforestation from their supply chains.