Growing demand for affordable leather is exacerbating deforestation in the Amazon, and some of the world’s biggest fashion companies might be driving the region closer to the tipping point of “irreversible ecosystem collapse,” a new report says.
A deep dive into international customs data by advocacy groups Stand.earth and Slow Factory found that more than 100 brands, including Adidas, Coach, Gap, H&M, Keen, LVMH Moët Hennessy, Prada, Ralph Lauren, Timberland owner VF Corp., Ugg and Zara, harbored multiple connections with manufacturers and tanneries with known links to cattle raised on recently deforested Amazon land. These include Brazil’s largest leather exporter, JBS, which has been exposed to more than 3 million hectares of deforestation over the last decade, much of it illegal, the study noted. “All companies sourcing directly from JBS or indirectly from JBS via leather processors are therefore linked to deforestation of the Amazon rainforest,” it said.
A spokesperson from JBS told Sourcing Journal that the report “does not prove a link between products sold by JBS to deforestation in the Amazon” and that it is “fully committed to a sustainable cattle production supply chain in every region where we operate,” including Brazil, where it has been using satellite imagery to monitor its suppliers in every biome for the past decade. “JBS has no tolerance for illegal deforestation, forced labor, misuse of indigenous lands, conservation units or violations of environmental embargoes,” the company said. “To date, JBS has proactively blocked more than 14,000 supplier farms for failure to comply with our policies and standards, and we will continue to take additional actions as warranted.”
Still, the problem isn’t just JBS’s alone but rather something that is “endemic of the entire Brazilian leather industry,” Stand.earth and Slow Factory said. While each connection isn’t “absolute proof” that any one brand uses leather derived from deforestation, it indicates that many companies are at “very high risk” of contributing to the destruction of the Amazon. The greater the number of supply-chain links, the higher the likelihood that a product originated from illegally logged rainforest land. The data also suggests that almost one-third of the companies are potentially flouting their own pledges or policies against sourcing leather from deforestation, the study said.
“To date, voluntary schemes to address deforestation have been largely ineffective,” Greg Higgs, director of research and investigations at Stand.earth and one of the authors of the report, told Sourcing Journal. “Thirty percent of the fashion companies we have surveyed have some kind of deforestation policy in place, yet deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has been continuously on the rise over the last decade. There is clearly a disconnection between words and changes on the ground. Our research shows that, on the whole, the fashion industry continues to drive deforestation.”
A representative from H&M told Sourcing Journal that it has had a ban on leather from Brazil since 2019, though the retailer admitted that the “low transparency” the whole industry faces means that a level of risk will always be there. Coach owner Tapestry said it is working on achieving its 2025 goal of 95 percent raw-materials traceability, and Nike said it has a policy against sourcing leather from within the “Amazon biome.” Adidas, Tapestry and Nike also said they require all their leather to comply with protocols from the Leather Working Group (LWG), which provides environmental certification for the leather manufacturing industry. (Prada declined to provide a statement, and the other brands named did not respond to a request for comment.)
But the LWG’s scope is limited, the study said, since the certification currently evaluates tanneries only on their ability to trace the material back to slaughterhouses, not to ranches. While a new mapping project conducted in collaboration with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Gibbs Land Use and Environment Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison could potentially improve traceability and transparency, the LWG is at present “unable to address deforestation due to the current lack of tracking systems and lack of open-access data across the cattle value chain in Brazil,” it said.
“After speaking directly with the brands involved in this study, we found that there are key gaps in traceability even in cases of the most earnest desire to have clean supply chains—not to mention the majority of brands who turn a blind eye and don’t ask too many questions,” said Céline Semaan, co-founder and CEO of Slow Factory. “There needs to be serious action taken at an international level to trace and provide transparency from the farms to the slaughterhouses in order to make sure that they aren’t linked to deforestation. This process requires international legislation to force third-party validation, to go beyond greenwashing campaigns, and beyond the loopholes that industry-funded standards like the Leather Working Group fall into.”
The LWG told Sourcing Journal that it is committed to driving transparency and due-diligence monitoring throughout the leather industry to achieve the collective goal of 100 percent deforestation and conversion-free leather by 2030.
“LWG is engaged in a number of projects including mapping the leather supply chain in collaboration with NWF, WWF and the University of Wisconsin focusing on South America as well as developing its traceability roadmap,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “Together these will help to inform members of the LWG about deforestation risks and crucially identify incremental steps that the LWG audit will require of the leather supply chain to increase traceability requirements and drive transparency and supply-chain due diligence.”
The cattle industry is widely recognized as the single-largest driver of deforestation in the Amazon, accounting for nearly 2 percent of the world’s annual greenhouse-gas emissions in a vital, if precipitously declining, carbon sink. Though much of the blame can be placed on increasing consumption of beef, especially in China, Stand.earth and Slow Factory argue that the leather industry makes ranching more lucrative. Brazil, home to the world’s largest cattle herd, exports some 80 percent of its hides, raking in $1.1 billion in revenue in 2020 alone.
“We hope that fashion brands will move beyond words to take bold concrete actions that are in line with the severity of the climate crisis,” Higgs said. “Such actions may involve changing suppliers or even moving away from Brazilian leather entirely as some companies are already trying to do. Fashion is a trillion-dollar global industry. We expect that with their level of revenue, they should be able to come up with creative solutions to the problem.”
“Leading with impact” is “key,” Semaan added. “This is an opportunity for brands to show their audience that they are aligned with the public’s values, by supporting supply chain traceability legislation currently under consideration, and in investing in impact-driven solutions such as alternative leather that don’t involve cattle and aren’t relying on the fossil fuel industry, [i.e.] plastic, either,” she said.
Semaan pointed to Slowhide, a regenerative, plant-based and fossil-fuel-free alternative to cowhide that it’s helping to develop, as one example. Last week, Pangaia launched a line of accessories made from Natural Fiber Welding’s Mirum, a leather-like composite derived from plants and agricultural waste that employs zero fossil fuels. Rishi, a mycelium-based ersatz leather from MycoWorks, also doesn’t require petrochemicals during processing or finishing.
“These solutions exist, and Slow Factory has provided multiple avenues for brands to adopt immediately,” she said. “The question is will they invest in a climate positive future in time?”