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Levi’s, Ralph Lauren Linked to Cambodia’s Disappearing Forests: Report

Cambodia is experiencing one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world—and fashion is partly to blame, a new report claims.

The Southeast Asian nation’s garment industry burns the equivalent of 810 to 1,418 hectares of forest every year, fueling carbon emissions and ecosystem destruction to meet the rapacious demand for affordable clothing in the West, according to “Disaster Trade: The Hidden Footprint of U.K. Production Overseas,” which was published by Royal Holloway, University of London, last week.

Harvesting firewood from forests is illegal in Cambodia, the authors of the study noted, pointing to a 2018 order from Prime Minister Hun Sen to shoot timber thieves “from helicopters in the sky.” Yet a “substantial proportion” of registered exporting factories to Western brands continues to burn forest wood due to its fuel efficiency and low cost compared with farmed wood alternatives such as acacia and eucalyptus.

“Even following the national crackdown on forest wood usage, the practice has continued largely unabated, with wood now delivered at night rather than during the day, as previously,” the report said. “According to local informants, some larger factories use hundreds of tons of forest wood each day in order to meet their energy needs.”

Cambodia’s $7 billion garment industry, the country’s biggest jobs creator, employs some 800,000 workers, most of them female. The past year has dealt the sector a one-two punch, however, with the Covid-19 pandemic and European Union tariffs imposed over human-rights abuses dragging bottom lines. With its major trading partners seeing sales jumps from an uplift in consumer spending, however, the nation’s economy is expected to rebound 5.5 percent in 2022 from an uptick in exports, according to the Asian Development Bank.

In a survey of 255 factories registered with the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, the industry’s trade group, nearly one-third (32 percent) admitted to stoking their boilers with forest wood, which they used either exclusively or in combination with other fuels, including incinerated garment waste. In contrast, only 36.1 percent relied exclusively on mains power or generator usage, throwing into relief the pervasiveness of carbon-intensive small-scale combustion in the sector.

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“Garment burning, a practice known for both for its carbon intensity and its release of multiple toxic substances in the local environment is an issue rather more widespread than noted in previous reporting on the issue,” the authors wrote. “Yet it is firewood burning that presents arguably the larger issue, in view of the dual problem engendered by its usage.”

The results of the survey suggest that the Cambodian garment industry sends an average of 562 tons of forest wood up in smoke every day or 205,130 tons each year, though the actual number is likely to be higher due to the large number of non-responses researchers received. The loss of forest cover, besides contributing to the loss of habits and ecological diversity, also deprives the environment of one of its most critical carbon sinks.

“Linked to this, the experience of countries suffering similar rates of deforestation suggests that it may also have a role to play in intensifying Cambodia’s struggles with drought,” they wrote. “Elsewhere, rates of deforestation have been statistically linked to dry season intensity in the Amazon, whilst the experiences of African countries demonstrate that the removal of forest cover increases incidents of flash floods and worsens the effects of droughts.”

Half a world away from the brands and retailers they produce for, Cambodian garment factories are also pumping out pollutants in a way that intensifies the impact of climate-linked catastrophes at the local and national levels. All of this deserves greater scrutiny from Western governments and buyers, the researchers argued.

“The U.K. and other countries like it have committed to ambitious targets on carbon emissions reduction, with apparent success. Yet despite the rhetoric, the achievements of such policies are grossly overstated,” they said. “Many of the environmental gains achieved by major polluters derive from moving carbon-intensive processes to manufacturing bases in the global South, rather than sustainable emissions reductions.”

Forest in Siem Reap in Cambodia. Cambodia is experiencing one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world—and fashion is partly to blame, a new report claims.
Forest in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Elisa Locci/Adobe Stock

In an unpublished list of brands compiled by the study and provided to Vice World News, nearly every company was complicit in the problem to some extent. The biggest offenders over the past three years, based on data gleaned from the Open Apparel Registry, included Bestseller, C&A, Gap, H&M, Levi Strauss, Next, Ralph Lauren and Sainsbury’s-owned Tu. The worst implicated in terms of the number of forest-wood-burning factories it sources from, along with the total tonnage of forest wood burned by those factories, was German discount retailer Lidl.

“The consistency of Lidl’s involvement in some of Cambodia’s worst-offending factories indicates that they are not prioritizing sustainability in their manufacturing processes and/or that they are not conducting due diligence of the factories they subcontract to manufacture goods,” Laurie Parsons, a lecturer in human geography at Royal Holloway, University of London and lead author of the study, told Vice on Wednesday.

Sainsbury’s said that it doesn’t work with two of the factories implicated by the report and it’s investigating a third. “All of our suppliers have to meet our sustainable sourcing standards,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. Levi’s said it’s in touch with its suppliers to “reiterate our policies on these matters, which are spelled out in our terms of engagement. Any issues found will be addressed.”

Bestseller and Ralph Lauren, too, are investigating the allegations. “As part of our operating standards, we require suppliers to operate and source product in such a manner that respects the environment and local communities, with particular concern to avoid deforestation, pollution, habitat loss and rising greenhouse-gas emissions,” a Ralph Lauren spokesperson told Sourcing Journal.

A Lidl representative said the company takes the accusations and its social and environmental responsibilities “extremely seriously” and is investigating the matter “thoroughly,” though this may take some time to complete. H&M declined to make a statement. C&A, Gap and Next did not respond to a request for comment.

Viscose also has a forest problem

Deforestation isn’t just a problem associated with fuel production. Canopy, a Canadian forestry nonprofit, estimates that 200 million trees are logged globally every year to produce pulp for the creation of cellulosic fabrics such as viscose. Many hail from ancient and endangered forests, such as the Amazon, Canada’s Boreal Forest and the Leuser Ecosystem in Indonesia. If placed end to end, it says, those trees would circle the Earth seven times.

Over the years, Canopy’s CanopyStyle initiative has welcomed commitments from more than 480 brands and retailers, including Amazon, H&M and Zara owner Inditex, to eliminate ancient and endangered fibers from their supply chains. Earlier this month, it welcomed a new signatory: Walmart, which Canopy executive director Nicole Rycroft described as a “game-changer.” The move comes less than a year after a group of environmental nonprofits dinged the world’s largest retailer for its lack of engagement and supply-chain visibility around the viscose issue.

“Walmart joining CanopyStyle is a game-changer. Their global reach and influence on supply chains is second to none,” Rycroft said in a statement.“Their commitment will turbocharge the transformation of the viscose supply chain to protect forests and draw next-generation solutions to the market at scale.”

Canopy also revealed Wednesday that recent CanopyStyle audits from six man-made cellulosic producers, including E. Miroglio, Eastman Chemical and Nanjing, garnered a “variety of results,” from producers confirmed to be fully at low risk of sourcing from ancient and endangered forests to those that are “just beginning the journey” and still require additional information from their suppliers. Momentum is, for the most part, headed in the right direction, however, Rycroft said.

“Canopy is thrilled to see new entrants dive into the CanopyStyle audit process, as well as producers showing ongoing commitment with their second annual audits completed,” she said. “As the initiative continues to grow, we expect to see more green shirts in the ‘Hot Button’ report, as well as deeper levels of investment in conservation and the development of low-impact next-generation fiber solutions.”