Two recent reports have made a compelling case that Outdoor brands are complicit in the number one cause of Amazon deforestation. Textile Exchange responds that it’s past time to clean up leather supply chains.

For years, the focus of the deforestation debate has landed squarely on palm oil in Indonesia and soybean production in Brazil. Yet while these have dominated the headlines, a sector that causes nearly twice the deforestation of all other commodities combined has flown largely under the radar.

Cattle.

Causing roughly 2.5 million hectares of Amazon deforestation per year, two recent reports provide compelling data that shows this isn’t just about hamburgers or Bolsonaro’s politics – the Outdoor industry leather supply chains run deep into the Amazon.

Coupling leather and beef industry’s impacts

In November 2021, the research and advocacy organization STAND.earth published “Nowhere to Hide: How the Fashion Industry is linked to Amazon Rainforest Destruction.” Here, the spotlight was placed on the cattle industry’s role in deforestation, and particularly in Brazil where roughly 45% of global deforestation from the cattle industry occurs.

One might ask what this has to do with the fashion industry? Anticipating one of the most common defenses, the report authors then quickly set about dismantling claims that as a meat industry byproduct, the leather sector is not to blame for cattle impacts. Representing a $1.1 billion USD industry in Brazil alone, leather is instead argued to be a lucrative commodity in its own right that is proportionately responsible for the cattle industry’s largely illegal deforestation of the Amazon rainforest at an annual rate exceeding the total land area of Israel.

This problem is furthermore seen to be endemic to the entire Brazilian leather industry, whereby the report authors warn that anyone sourcing from the three largest leather processors have a very high risk of contributing to Amazon deforestation.

Besides building its case and providing evidence for its claims, STAND.earth followed the leather supply chains of dozens of brands and set up an interactive website that visualizes the full supply chain data and traces them back to their Amazon sources. Numerous familiar outdoor brands are present, begging the question how – in an industry where sustainability has been perceived to have taken such a central position – has this been overlooked?

A feedlot cattle farm in Amazon, Para, Brazil. (Photo: Paralaxis/iStock)

Leather accountability has fallen between the cracks

Awareness of fashion’s contribution to deforestation is not without precedent, for example, having often focused on the impacts of rayon or other cellulosic fibers. This has often had positive effects, such as the creation of numerous certification and auditing regimes. But the fact is that unlike textiles, rigorous leather standards have been a long time in coming and could have helped mitigate this problem earlier.

The global non-profit Textile Exchange is the leader in accelerating the use of preferred materials across the textile industry, which by extension includes the leather industry. With eight standards under its management including the Responsible Wool Standard and the Responsible Down Standard, Textile Exchange is a known leader in providing the industry with the tools it needs to verify material impacts and sustainability claims. With respect to leather, Nicole Lambert, Leathers Manager at Textile Exchange, acknowledges it has proven a tougher nut to crack:

“Given the complexity of the leather supply chain and the many players involved, the common consensus used to be that it was impossible to address its farm-level impacts,” shares Nicole Lambert, who continues to explain that in addition to the perceived difficulty there was also a perception that it was not necessary as the blame kept being placed on the beef industry:

“Since leather is not the economic driver of cattle production, it has not received the same focus as other commodities where the link is much more direct.”

Leather industry has weakest deforestation commitments

Indeed, when it came to leather’s impacts, the conversation has usually focused on more direct issues found in tanneries like toxic wastewater emissions, chrome, and the like. By placing blame onto the beef industry for any impacts, the lack of attention on leather’s origins essentially removed any supplier accountability or brand incentive to pursue greater oversight.

Perhaps this prevailing narrative of unaccountability can partly explain why the leather industry is today one of the least ambitious segments of the supply chain in terms of traceability and change – as another report has claimed. Each year, The Forest 500 Report by Global Canopy tracks the policies and performance of 350 of the most influential companies linked to deforestation. Its eighth annual report, released in January 2022, finds that when compared to other commodities like palm oil, timber, and soy, only a fraction of leather companies have deforestation commitments in place and even fewer are seen to actually implement them.

Whatever the reasons that may lie behind this, both reports drive home the point that it is past time to clean up leather supply chains. Besides the obvious impacts on loss of biodiversity and indigenous peoples’ livelihoods, deforestation caused by cattle ranching in the Amazon basin alone is estimated to account for nearly 2% of global CO2 emissions annually – the same as the global airlines industry. And with an increase of 22% in 2021, the problem of Amazon deforestation is only getting worse.

Cleaning up leather supply chains

“The STAND.earth report highlights a lack of traceability and transparency in the leather supply chain through to all levels of farming,” says Nicole Lambert in summary of the report.

“We are aware of this complexity, but we also know that some of the brands named are taking strong measures to ensure that they are not sourcing from high-risk areas.”

In the report, STAND.earth did acknowledge that “individual connection is not absolute proof that one brand uses deforestation leather.” It additionally points out that some companies listed do indeed have policies in place to not source leather from Brazil, though it could not validate that these policies were actually implemented across the supply chain.

In other words, action is already underway. And though perhaps arriving a little late to the game, the industry is rallying around this issue. To help build momentum, Textile Exchange has set up a framework known as the Leather Impact Accelerator (LIA) that aims to combine existing industry tools help contribute to a more responsible leather supply chain:

“It was easy to see why all these issues had not yet been tackled when we first began working on the LIA, because they are certainly challenging,” shares Anne Gillespie, Director of Impact Acceleration at Textile Exchange.

“Our solution was to bypass the complexity of the supply chain by using Impact Incentives. LIA uses benchmarks and protocols to set a minimum threshold for practices at the farm and leather production levels, giving recognition to those who meet or exceed them. Brands can use Impact Incentives to deliver financial support directly to farmers who meet the set sustainability requirements and are actively protecting their forests.”

Since the 1960s, the cattle herd of the Amazon Basin has increased from 5 million to more than 70-80 million heads. (Photo: Brasil2/iStock)

How brands can address risk of Amazon deforestation

There is currently no third-party consumer facing leather standard, meaning that there is little that consumers can do other than to check on individual brand’s leather sourcing policies. This means that for now, it is up to industry to continue developing mechanisms that contribute to greater traceability and accountability. With awareness growing, Anne Gillespie is optimistic things are getting on the right track:

“Most of the focus on leather has been on the environmental impacts of processes like tanning, with its social impacts recently starting to become a focus too. But now, there is more interest than ever from brands, investors, and NGOs in the beginning of the leather supply chain. Brands have a significant opportunity to leverage their market power and to deliver strong deforestation-free expectations back to the meatpackers.”

To remain a step ahead, Anne Gillespie implores brands to begin mapping their leather supply chains immediately if they have not already done so, and importantly to engage with the issue proactively instead of flee from it:

“Rather than simply avoiding sourcing from high-risk regions, we encourage brands to support third-party verified farmers that are committing to zero deforestation.”

 

Leather Working Group

As the world’s leading environmental certification for the leather manufacturing industry, the not-for-profit organization Leather Working Group (LWG) is perhaps the most prominent third-party leather verifier to be found. It currently boasts over 1300 members, 800+ LWG certified facilities in over 52 countries. In terms of leather’s impact on deforestation, LWG provided the following statement:

“Leather Working Group (LWG) is committed to drive transparency and due diligence monitoring throughout the leather industry to achieve the collective goal of 100% deforestation and conversion free leather by 2030.  LWG continue to work closely with expert NGO partners to develop the scope of the LWG’s traceability requirements.”

To achieve this goal, LWG is currently engaged in several projects including mapping the leather supply chain and developing its Traceability Roadmap.

“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.”

More information on LWG’s approach to deforestation can be found here.

 

Lead photo: JarnoVerdonk/iStock

Jonathan Eidse
jonathan.eidse@norragency.com
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