You probably already know that leather is bad for the planet. But did you know that it’s also directly tied to the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest?
That’s the main finding of a new report from sustainability organizations Slow Factory and Stand.earth. The researchers found that the Amazon is currently being plowed down by cattle farmers who produce leather for the fashion industry. By closely tracking the leather exports and customs data, they identified dozens of fashion brands whose factories source hides from the Amazon, including Nike, Adidas, H&M, Zara, and Coach.
The Amazon rainforest is an important weapon in our fight against global warming; its destruction reduces the ability to absorb carbon dioxide, thereby moderating climate change. And by sourcing leather from the Amazon, fashion brands are actively contributing to the problem. However, the study’s authors also say that these same fashion labels have the power to change this by choosing more sustainable leather alternatives.
The Amazon rainforest is known as the world’s carbon sink because its trees absorb millions of tons of carbon dioxide annually, playing a vital role in keeping the earth’s temperature’s stable. But this past July, a study in the scientific journal Nature suggested that fire and deforestation are destroying this vast jungle; parts of it now release more carbon than can be absorbed.
Greg Higgs, who led the study as director of research at Stand.earth, wanted to dig in further. He knew that cattle farming was a big part of the problem because ranchers clear the forests to create land for cows to graze. Cutting down trees for cattle farming is technically illegal, but it tends to be unregulated. Higgs says we shouldn’t point our finger at the small-scale farmers, many of whom live below the poverty line, but at the companies who are buying their hides. “This is happening because there are slaughterhouses ready, willing, and waiting with cash in their hands to buy the cow,” he says. “The people clearing the forests are not really to blame.”
Stand.earth’s researchers traced where these hides were going by carefully studying export and customs data. They identified two main industries buying it: The auto industry, which uses the leather in car seats, and the fashion industry, which uses it in shoes, handbags, and accessories. According to the United Nations’s trade data, around 20% of all leather is derived from the Brazilian Amazon.
Slow Factory, which analyzes the fashion industry’s environmental impact, was particularly interested in how fashion labels were contributing to the problem. The research found that cow hides were moving from leather tanneries in Brazil to leather manufacturers in many countries (including China and Vietnam) and then to fashion brands that turned the leather into products. They identified more than 100 brands whose factories sourced leather from Brazil, many of which are some of the biggest labels in the world.
We reached out to all the companies mentioned in this article for comment about their supply chains. Adidas, Nike, and Coach all said that they are against the deforestation of the Amazon, adding that they are part of the Leather Working Group, a nonprofit that certifies that leather is sustainably sourced. However, the report from Stand.earth and Slow Factory points out that the LWG only rates tanneries on their ability to trace leather back to slaughterhouses, not farms, so it does not ascertain whether the hides are linked to deforestation. H&M said that it has had a ban on leather from Brazil since 2019, but admitted that it can be hard to trace the leather in its supply chain. “Due to low transparency the whole industry is facing in the leather supply chain, the risk [of using Brazilian leather] will remain,” said Annie Edwards, an H&M Group press officer. “This is why we engage with the textile and leather industry to increase traceability and transparency in the leather sector.”
When Slow Factory initially contacted these brands to ask about their supply chains, many claimed ignorance. Higgs says the companies work with leather factories that source from many countries, including Brazil, India, and China. Since all the leather is combined once it arrives at the factory, the brands can claim that they have no way to tell if they’re using Brazilian leather sourced from the Amazon (though, in all likelihood they are). “It’s impossible to know exactly where the leather in a particular handbag is sourced from,” Higgs says. “Companies often use this as an excuse to keep using these factories, but we feel that is not a fair excuse. Knowing the severity of this problem, if these brands really wanted to tackle it, they could go to all of their suppliers and threaten to leave if they are using leather suppliers from the Amazon.”
Change is Possible
While this data reveals that fashion companies are contributing to the problem, they can also help bring about systemic change, argues Celine Semaan, cofounder and CEO of Slow Factory. “Fashion is an extremely influential industry,” she says. “It’s a $3 trillion industry that affects every single human being on the planet. Big corporations can pressure the Brazilian government to regulate the deforestation of the rainforest, and angry consumers around the world have the power to cancel brands.”
Semaan says there are several ways that brands and consumers can address this problem. They can better audit their supply chains, forcing the tanneries and manufacturers they work with to disclose where they source their leather, and demanding that they stop buying from suppliers contributing to deforestation. They can also pledge to stop buying leather from suppliers that can’t trace where their leather is from, in order to ensure that none of their products are contributing to deforestation.
But while this is a start, even leather sourced from other countries is problematic. Leather tanning uses many harsh chemicals that pollute waterways, and cattle grazing contributes to global warming. The good news is that there are now many alternatives to leather that are more eco-friendly. The Slow Factory itself has partnered with researchers at Columbia University and MIT to develop Slowhide, a material that mimics leather but is all natural and plant based. A company called Mylo has developed a leather alternative made from mushrooms that is used by brands like Lululemon and Stella McCartney. (Semaan points out that many brands use vegan leather that’s made from plastic derived from the petrochemical industry, which is just as problematic as cow leather.)
Everyday consumers can also play a role by speaking out and not buying from brands that don’t commit to more sustainable practices. Slow Factory invites people to sign a petition demanding that brands and manufacturers fix problems in their supply chain to stop deforestation. “The climate crisis is not a future problem,” says Higgs. “We’re living and breathing the climate crisis right now. But the deforestation of the Amazon is preventable; we can do something about it right now.”