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H&M Thinks AI Can Make a Dent in Deforestation

Could artificial intelligence help garment factories curb deforestation in Cambodia? That’s a question H&M Group is hoping to answer.

The Swedish retailer is teaming up with World Wildlife Federation (WWF) Cambodia to launch a smartphone app that identifies wood species with a snap of a lens. The idea is that by allowing suppliers to quickly verify the type of wood they’re sourcing for power generation, they’ll be able to avoid old-growth trees in favor of the residues of plantation species like mango and cashew.

“The WoodAi App represents an important contribution to addressing some of the drivers that are causing deforestation,” said Neth Pheaktra, secretary of state to the environment ministry. “The ministry encourages other clothing brands to follow this example and also support efforts to save natural forests and wildlife for the long-term benefit of people and nature.”

Cambodia has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, and the garment industry bears some of the blame, according to a study published by Royal Holloway, University of London in October. Though harvesting firewood from forests is illegal in the Southeast Asian nation, the sector continues to stoke its boilers with the annual equivalent of 810 to 1,418 hectares of forest due to its fuel efficiency and low cost compared with farmed wood alternatives.

When researchers surveyed 255 factories registered with the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, the industry’s trade group, nearly one-third (32 percent) admitted to harvesting forest wood, which they used either exclusively or in tandem with other fuels, including incinerated garment waste. In contrast, only 36.1 percent relied exclusively on mains power or generator usage.

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“In addition to the carbon emissions associated with production….the contribution of the industry to Cambodia’s ‘alarming rate of deforestation’ represents a substantial concern in its own right,” the authors wrote. “The ongoing loss of forest cover, still occurring at one of the fastest rates in the world, is contributing to widespread local environmental degradation, the loss of habits and ecological diversity.”

Garment burning, which is known for its emissions intensity and the release of multiple toxic substances in the atmosphere, is “rather more widespread than noted in previous reporting on the issue,” they added. “Yet it is firewood burning that presents arguably the larger issue, in view of the dual problem engendered by its usage.”

H&M Group and WWF said that the app will allow suppliers to make better decisions, reducing pressure on forests and “stabilizing” the global climate. When used in concert with other solutions, WoodAi could also prop up vitally necessary plantation and forest management efforts, they said.

“WWF’s mission in Cambodia is to conserve the country’s rich biological diversity,” said Seng Teak, country director of WWF Cambodia. “The forests of Cambodia remain relatively contiguous and contain a large diversity of threatened species. Therefore, we look out for new and innovative technology like this WoodAi app, as it can play a role in helping to address some of the pressures threatening our natural forests.”

In an unpublished list of brands that Royal Holloway researchers provided to Vice World News, virtually everyone operating in Cambodia was linked to forest-wood-burning suppliers to some degree. H&M Group was named among the top 10 worst offenders, but it declined to comment at the time.

Whether the scheme proves to be effective remains to be seen. Despite “enhanced” enforcement of anti-deforestation laws—in 2018, Prime Minister Hun Sen issued an order to shoot timber thieves “from helicopters in the sky—firewood is still being surreptitiously gathered in Cambodia’s remaining areas of forest cover, the study said. To get around prying eyes, forest wood might be delivered at night rather than during the day.

“Despite the recent crackdown on forest wood usage, evidence from the garment industry suggests that the trade in forest firewood has moved underground, rather than halted,” the researchers said. The results of the survey suggest that the Cambodian garment industry burns an average of 562 tons of forest wood 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.

But H&M Group remains hopeful. It said it wants projects like WoodAi to play a part in its larger efforts to boost forest ecosystems so that they continue to store carbon. Reducing deforestation, the Cos and Monki owner added, is important to limit any additional global temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, and therefore “essential” to its goal of achieving net zero by 2040.

The retailer is also a member of forestry nonprofit Canopy’s CanopyStyle initiative, which works to eliminate ancient and endangered forests from the production of viscose and other man-made cellulosics.

“It is exciting to pilot this new technology in Cambodia and find new ways to work with suppliers that can help reduce negative impacts on Cambodia’s natural forests,” said Christer Horn af Aminne, its Cambodia country manager.