More than 100 global fashion brands may have ties to Amazon deforestation, despite the fact that none of these companies have deliberately chosen to source their materials from such activity, a new report has found.
The brands — which include popular labels like H&M, Nike, Ralph Lauren, Adidas and Zara — work with manufacturers and leather tanneries “that source from opaque supply chains and companies that have known links to cattle raised on recently deforested Amazon land,” a news release accompanying the report said.
"Our study demonstrates that fashion industry commitments to not use deforestation leather have been ineffective,” Greg Higgs, a report author and director of research and investigations at the Stand.earth Research Group, a supply chain research firm, told The Hill.
The study — called “Nowhere to Hide” — was conducted by Stand.earth in partnership with the climate justice nonprofit Slow Factory, which accused the fashion industry in a Twitter statement of “pushing the Amazon rainforest closer to the tipping point of irreversible ecosystem collapse.”
About 16.5 million acres of forests were lost in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest biome over the last decade, the report stated, citing Brazilian government data. Of that loss, the cattle industry has been “the single largest driver,” the report added, referencing a study from the World Resources Institute.
Cattle accounted for 36 percent of tree cover loss globally from 2001 to 2015, while about 45 percent of forests lost to cattle during that time frame were located in Brazil, according to the World Resources Institute. Brazil has the largest cattle herd in the world, although 80 percent of Brazilian bovine leather is exported, the report noted.
To compile the report, Stand.earth researchers said they analyzed about 500,000 rows of customs data — from Brazil, Vietnam and other countries — which they cross-referenced with data collected from sources like U.S. vessel manifest data, leather processor websites and annual reports and fashion brand voluntary supplier disclosure lists.
While the report identified six tanneries with linkages to deforestation, the main focus is on Brazil’s largest leather exporter, JBS, and its supply chains, which the researchers said were exposed to more than 7 million acres of deforestation over the past decade. More than 50 of the brands examined in the report have multiple supply-chain links to JBS, as The Guardian originally reported.
Although JBS has made commitments to attain zero deforestation across its supply chain by 2035, environmental groups have deemed these pledges insufficient, according to The Guardian. Greenpeace, for example, accused JBS last spring of “making a mockery of sustainability commitments” by continuing “to fuel deforestation in the Amazon and beyond for at least another 14 years.”
In response to the Stand.earth findings, JBS said in a statement that the study “does not prove a link between products sold by JBS to deforestation in the Amazon,” and that the company “is fully committed to a sustainable cattle production supply chain in every region where we operate.” For the past decade in Brazil, the company said it has been using satellite imagery to monitor its suppliers in every biome — ensuring compliance with the company’s Responsible Raw Material Procurement Policy and the Cattle Supplier Monitoring Policy of the Federal Prosecution Office.
“JBS has no tolerance for illegal deforestation, forced labor, misuse of indigenous lands, conservation units or violations of environmental embargoes,” the statement said.
To date, the company said it has stopped more than 14,000 supplier farms that failed to comply with JBS standards, and that such actions would continue as warranted. JBS is also employing blockchain technology to expand its socioenvironmental monitoring system “to the suppliers of its suppliers,” the company added.
“By 2025, JBS won’t buy cattle from producers not incorporated in this platform,” the statement said.
The Stand.earth researchers deemed brands with multiple connections to Amazon deforestation to be “at highest risk of driving deforestation,” while acknowledging that “each individual connection is not absolute proof that any one brand uses deforestation leather.” They also noted that although H&M and another fashion parent company, VF Corporation, have policies in place to not source leather from Brazil, it is unknown how effectively suppliers enact their policies.
The report accused some fashion brands for deciding to “hide behind the Leather Working Group (LWG),” a nonprofit organization that provides environmental certification for the leather manufacturing industry. The researchers criticized the group for only rating tanneries on their abilities to trace leather back to slaughterhouses, rather than back to farms, while failing to provide information as to whether slaughterhouses are linked to deforestation.
The origins of cow hides can be difficult to track. Cows raised on deforested plots are often sold to ranchers, who then mix them with other cows on legal, non-deforested plots and sell the animals to slaughterhouses, where their hides blend into the broader supply, as previously covered by The Hill.
In response to the report, Nike stressed in a statement that it has a "strict policy against leather sourced in the Amazon Biome."
“Our Animal Skin Policy requires suppliers to certify that 100 percent of leathers supplied to Nike originate from cattle raised outside of the Amazon Biome, and Nike requires that 100 percent of our leather suppliers comply with the Leather Working Group (LWG) Protocol,” the statement said.
H&M, meanwhile, said that it has banned leather from Brazil since 2019, and that the company is “in direct dialogue with all our leather suppliers to ensure that our policy is being fully implemented.”
“Due to the low transparency the whole industry is facing in the leather supply chain, the risk will remain,” a statement from H&M said, adding that the company is actively engaging with the textile and leather industries to increase transparency. “With traceability down to farm level, we can easily choose where or where not to source leather.”
“Since this is an industry-wide challenge, it’s also very important to collaborate and work for solutions through multistakeholder initiatives,” the statement said.
One such initiative in which H&M participates is the Responsible Leather Roundtable, led by the Textile Exchange nonprofit, which the company said is working to make the leather industry more responsible, with a farm-level focus on deforestation, animal welfare and social issues.
Zara, Nike and Ralph Lauren did not immediately respond to The Hill’s requests for comments.
Going forward, Higgs told The Hill that he and his co-authors “hope that fashion brands will move beyond words to take bold concrete actions that are in line with the severity of the climate crisis.”
Such actions, he explained, could involve shifting away from Brazilian leather entirely — which some brands are already trying to do.
“The fashion industry has a major responsibility to eliminate deforestation leather from its supply chains,” Higgs said, noting that he and his colleagues are focusing on that sector and not yet targeting consumer behavior.
“Fashion is a trillion-dollar global industry,” he added. “We expect that with their level of revenue, fashion companies should be able to find creative solutions to end their role in deforestation and help move the world towards a zero-carbon future."