How Should Shoe Brands Reckon With Brazilian Leather as the Amazon Burns?

The Amazon is on fire, and the footwear industry can’t afford to ignore the flames.

Images of the burning Brazilian forest have swept across social media in recent weeks, calling attention both to a sharp rise in fires in the region in 2019 and to the economic forces fueling them. Fires across Brazil are up almost 85 percent this year over 2018, mostly in the Amazon region, according to satellite data from the country’s National Institute for Space Research, and experts attribute most of the increase to slash-and-burn deforestation, a process by which farmers and ranchers make room for farmland and ranchland by clearing and burning great swaths of forests.

That land, then, is often used for raising cattle to help meet the global demand for beef and leather — including some destined for footwear manufacturing. According to the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, cattle ranching is responsible for 80% of deforestation in the Amazon region, and per the World Wildlife Fund, this deforestation causes 340 million tons of carbon to be released into the atmosphere annually, or about 3.4% of today’s global emissions.

China is the largest export market for Brazilian hides and skins, accounting for nearly a third of the country’s total leather exports in 2018 — worth more than $441 million — according to the Center for the Brazilian Tanning Industry. Italy and the U.S. followed, importing $250 million and $247 million worth of Brazilian leather products, respectively.

Footwear accounts for more than half of all overall demand for leather, and the sustainability of the Brazilian supply chain is an issue the industry is taking steps to address: On August 29, VF Corp. announced that it would no longer buy Brazilian leather until “we have the confidence and assurance that the materials used in our products do not contribute to environmental harm in the country.” The Greensboro, North Carolina-based company — which owns brands including Vans, Timberland, The North Face and Dickies — said that about 5% of the company’s leather is sourced from Brazil, primarily for Timberland shoes.

H&M followed suit on September 5, releasing the following statement: “Due to the severe fires in the Brazilian part of the Amazon rain forest, and the connections to cattle production, we have decided to place a temporary ban on leather from Brazil.” The fast-fashion giant won’t source from the country until it has “credible assurance systems” to guarantee that its suppliers use responsible practices.

According to Simon Hall, senior manager of the Tropical Forests and Agriculture project at the National Wildlife Federation, announcements like these “send a huge shockwave through the Brazilian leather sector and really, I think, caught everyone’s attention.”

Importantly, though, both were couched as temporary withdrawals, which, according to Hall, opens the door to more productive solutions than simply abandoning the region entirely. “Right now, the situation is bad. I think everybody recognizes that. But in our view, this isn’t the time to pack up shop and run for the hills and turn your back on Brazil,” he said. “This is the time that we need to have frank conversations about what the issues are, and companies and their suppliers need to be really clear on what their expectations are in the market and what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.”

Key to these efforts is increasing traceability throughout the supply chain, so companies can be assured that they are sourcing materials that meet their standards in terms of ethics and sustainability.

“Traceability seems to be a challenge for all supply chains, but it is particularly difficult for leather given the length of the supply chain and the reliance on the cattle industry systems, which vary greatly from region to region and country to country,” said Anne Gillespie, director of industry integrity at Textile Exchange, a global sustainability nonprofit. In order to have full visibility over where their leather comes from, brands have to contend with a complex system that can include multiple changes of ownership in the processing stages, she said, as well a slaughter stage that prioritizes the traceability of beef over leather, since that is where meat packers derive the bulk of the cattle’s value.

“The last challenge comes in traceability between the farms themselves,” she said. “Cattle may start their life on one farm, move to another to be raised, then go to yet another farm or feedlot for final fattening before slaughter.” Unlike some other countries, the U.S. doesn’t set legal requirements for traceability between all of these farms. The nonprofit is developing a Responsible Leather Assessment tool that will require farms to certify that they are deforestation-free and engaging with a traceability system, which in turn will allow them to sell credits to brands who want to support these best practices.

The Leather Working Group (LWG), a multi-stakeholder organization dedicated to promoting better environmental practices within the leather industry, said it has had traceability on its agenda since 2008. That year, it partnered with Greenpeace on research for the blockbuster report “Slaughtering the Amazon,” which detailed the links between deforestation and cattle ranching in the Amazon biome, and called on companies like Nike, Adidas and Walmart to take action within their supply chains.

Since then, LWG has included traceability in its audit protocol and issued guidance on the topic to its members, which it updated just last month, highlighting the “global significance” of deforestation and calling for those who source raw materials from Brazil “to demonstrate additional traceability to the slaughterhouse.”

Along with a wave of headlines, the Greenpeace report prompted Nike to introduce a policy that banned its suppliers from using hides sourced from cattle raised in the Amazon biome. It also said that if they didn’t comply, the company would consider expanding the boycotted region to include an even larger area of Brazil, though a decade later, the original policy it still in effect.

It would be even better, though, said Hall, if major brands worked with those trying to improve the environmental practices in the region from within. “These are leading companies that typically have strong policies in place and have the resources to really make the situation better. And if they all just pack up and leave, that basically creates a bit of a vacuum, and what fills that vacuum is typically not as good as what left.”

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