Fashion Feeds Deforestation, Report Shows

A new analysis shows significant linkages between fashion brands, Brazilian leather, and Amazon rainforest deforestation.

Pile of clothes
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Your Prada belt is sick. Your Adidas shoes are fire. Your Coach bag is killer. And the new jacket you bought at Banana Republic is so bomb it might as well explode. The fashion brands that look great on your body, however, might not look as flattering on your conscience, suggests a new report produced by environmental research firm Stand in partnership with Slow Factory, a nonprofit that promotes socially and environmentally responsible design.

Published last month, the report uses data from public and government sources—including 500,000 rows of customs data encompassing imports and exports from countries like Brazil, Vietnam, China, and Pakistan—to analyze the supply chains of major fashion companies, many of which are suspected of sourcing leather from suppliers that are connected to deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. Titled “Nowhere to Hide: How the Fashion Industry is Linked to Amazon Rainforest Destruction,” it concludes that more than 100 of the world’s biggest clothing and apparel brands have ties to manufacturers and tanneries that source leather from “opaque supply chains,” links in which include companies that are known to have raised cattle on recently deforested Amazon land.

According to the report, the Brazilian cattle industry is the main driver of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Brazil generates $1.1 billion in annual revenue from leather, it reports, with 80% of its volume going to export. What’s more, the country is home to the world’s largest cattle herd, comprising 215 million animals, and is responsible for 45% of forestland lost to the cattle industry worldwide between 2001 and 2015. Most deforestation in Brazil is conducted illegally, it says.

“The fashion industry is known for deliberately [obscuring] supply chains that hide massive human rights and environmental abuses,” Colin Vernon, co-founder of Slow Factory, said in a statement, according to climate newsroom Grist. “Given the very lax standards and enforcement on the part of the Brazilian government, we are calling on global brands to make sure that they can prove that their supply chains are clean, without relying on the word of their suppliers or standards that have massive loopholes.”

Along with Prada, Adidas, Coach and Banana Republic, brands and retailers thought to source questionable Brazilian leather include American Eagle, Asics, Calvin Klein, Cole Haan, Columbia, DKNY, Dr. Martens, Esprit, Fila, Fossil, Gap, Giorgio Armani, Guess, H&M, Jansport, Kate Space, K-Swiss, Lacoste, Michael Kors, New Balance, Nike, Puma, Ralph Lauren, Reebok, Skechers, Target, Ted Baker, The North Face, Timberland, Toms, Tommy Hilfiger, Under Armour, Vans, Walmart, Wolverine, and Zara, among many others.

While they may have connections to irresponsible suppliers, the report is quick to point out that those connections in and of themselves are not proof of wrongdoing.

“Each individual connection is not absolute proof that any one brand uses deforestation leather,” it cautions. Rather, “it demonstrates that many brands are at very high risk of driving the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.”

Slow Factory adds on its website that “none of these brands are deliberately choosing deforestation leather.” And yet, at least 50 brands have direct or indirect connections to JBS, Brazil’s largest leather exporter and the biggest contributor to Amazon rainforest destruction. According to the report, JBS’s supply chains were exposed to over 7 million acres of deforestation in the last decade. And in the last two years alone, JBS was connected to at least 162,000 acres of potentially illegal deforestation.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that some brands have made sustainability claims that are contrary to their supply chains. Out of 74 parent companies, for example, 22 are potentially breaching their own policies against sourcing leather from deforestation. At 30%, that’s nearly a third of all fashion companies. The other two-thirds have no such policies at all.

Also questionable are brands’ membership in the Leather Working Group (LWG), an industry group that promotes transparency and sustainability in leather supply chains.

“While the LWG claims that it will address deforestation in the future, they currently only rate tanneries on their ability to trace leather back to slaughterhouses, not back to farms, nor do they provide any information on whether or not the slaughterhouses are linked to deforestation,” reads the report, which notes that JBS itself is an LWG member. “In other words, relying on LWG certification does not guarantee deforestation-free leather supply chains.”

By publishing their report—as well as an interactive tool where consumers can explore the links of specific brands to Amazon deforestation—Stand and Slow Factory hope to inspire fashion companies to reform their supply chains.

“The truth is, the Amazon is being burned down to raise cattle for meat and leather, and brands have the power to stop it,” continued Vernon, whose organization also is calling for legislation that would require full traceability of cattle from pasture to end product, as well as funding for enforcement.

“The current legal and policy landscape, as well as assurance systems, trace cattle only back to the slaughterhouse, not from the birth farm. This is a big part of the problem, since most deforestation occurs on farms where the cattle spend the earlier part of their lives—a fact that is obscured when cattle changes hands multiple times before reaching slaughter,” Slow Factory explains.

Because it’s equally problematic for the environment, one solution that Stand and Slow Factory are not advocating is vegan leather. Most vegan leather, or “pleather,” is made from plastic, which does not biodegrade, leaches chemicals into the environment, and feeds the fossil-fuel industry.

Concludes Slow Factory, “The real solution is a combination of responsibly produced leather at much smaller volumes and investment in biodegradable and natural leather alternatives. This is a burgeoning area of innovation that fashion companies can and should support.”