Burning issue: how fashion's love of leather is fuelling the fires in the Amazon
Beef and soya aren’t the sole culprits – our demand for shoes, belts and handbags is driving rainforest destruction. It’s time for consumers to wake up
Thu 29 Aug 2019 12.27 BST Last modified on Thu 29 Aug 2019 12.28 BST
Smokes rises from the Amazon on August 27, 2019.
Devastation … an Amazon blaze this week. Photograph: Joao Laet/AFP/Getty Images
The level of destruction is almost impossible to fathom. About 41,000 fires have been recorded by scientists in the Brazilian Amazon since January, with more than half of those in the past three weeks – hence the apocalyptic headlines. Every minute, the equivalent of a football field and a half of the so-called lungs of the Earth is incinerated.
The rainforest isn’t just totemic, we know that the future stability of the climate rests on preserving it. To be an onlooker to this burning triggers the type of overwhelming anxiety that probably won’t be soothed by wearing a “save the rainforest” T-shirt like we did in the 1980s. In fact, that’s the last thing we should be doing, because the Amazon burn is very much a fashion crisis, connected to the leather your shoes are made from and the bag on your shoulder. We need action.
Earlier this week, the fashion industry made a move, as LVMH, the world’s top luxury goods firm, pledged €10m to fight the Amazon burn, adding to the $20m pledged by the G7 with President Macron as frontman. “Protecting the environment is not just about words and speeches or signing declarations of principle,” read the statement accompanying the LVMH pledge by CEO Bernard Arnault and director Yann Arthus-Bertrand, adding: “It also requires taking concrete collective actions when dangers arise in order to provide resources for local specialists and work together to save our planet.”
Except that the industry should have done far more far earlier – and has for years been tacitly driving destruction. The causes of this are often far away from the actual forest.
This has been evident for a decade. In 2009, Greenpeace published Slaughtering the Amazon, a report that should have – and nearly did – change everything. The report concluded that the demand for leather was fuelling the destruction of the Amazon in its own right, not just accidentally as a by-product of beef. Researchers found cattle ranchers were clearing rainforest illegally despite laws protecting it, including Brazil’s “forest code”. One hectare of rainforest was being lost to ranches every 18 seconds. Through a murky supply chain, Brazilian beef companies were supplying leather to leading global fashion brands and retailers, across price points and across retail markets.
Complacency is a contagion and this one has spread to us, as fashion consumers
To add insult to injury, the whole venture was underpinned by state-funded banks. In effect, while former president Lula made speeches about saving the “lungs of the Earth” (the Brazilian Amazon stores 80-120bn tonnes of carbon and produces 20% of the planet’s oxygen), the state was sponsoring its wholesale destruction.
In the aftermath of the report and on the trail of a nascent sustainable fashion movement, I found many stories on the ground in Brazil. In 2012, I travelled to cattle-producing states with agro-forestry researchers to meet ranchers. The researchers were trying to persuade them that there was greater economic value in saving the rainforest biome than in destroying it. They very nearly succeeded.
Two things were stunningly clear to me from the outset. While the Amazon is more closely connected to iconic species of megafauna – including jaguars, tapirs and all manner of large, wildly coloured birds – the whole country is really about the cow, specifically the Nelore, an Indian import with folds of skin collecting around its neck. From 1993 to 2013, the Brazilian herd grew 200% to more than 60m cows. Everywhere you looked as evening fell across treeless ranches, you’d see their forms silhouetted against the dusty backdrop.
The second was how deeply ingrained the slash and burn model of agriculture was in ranchers. This was a hangover from the 1970s when across the country government posters urged prospectors to head to the Amazon and settle the land. The quickest way to gain land rights? Chop the trees, burn them, put cattle on the land. Never stop. Keep pushing forwards into the rainforest. This is the deeply held ethos that Bolsonaro has been able to tap into.
But back then, all was not lost. Ranchers could often be persuaded to stop burning to produce leather for a concerned and engaged fashion market that wanted to promote leather goods that were certified as zero deforestation. In 2013, Gucci launched a collection of bags produced through a pilot project with ranchers and NGOs at Paris fashion week.
On a wider level, things changed after the Greenpeace report as environmental groups pressured publicly listed conglomerates to delink their supply chains from Amazonian destruction. In 2011, an agreement between one of Brazil’s biggest meat companies, JBS, and others was signed with federal prosecutors. They agreed not to buy cattle directly from embargoed or illegally deforested areas. The Brazilian meat companies hurried to register the ranches that they sourced from into a Rural Environmental Registry that could be confirmed by satellite imagery. In October 2009, just 2% of JBS’s purchases were from registered properties. By 2013, that figure was 96%. A later study by US geographer Holly Gibbs showed these initiatives had worked and that zero deforestation commitments could be effective.
What a tragedy then, that 10 years on we are witnessing the destruction of the Amazon and dismantling of these precious agreements. A recent Guardian investigation found cattle ranchers who were seemingly breaking the embargo linked to big meat companies.
Perhaps no system, however tough, could have withstood the determined assault on the Amazon by Bolsonaro, who is making good on his promises to slash environmental protections whatever the cost.
But it is hard not to wish that it had been made more difficult for him. Truthfully, the fashion industry has remained complacent about leather from the Amazon and, outside of pilot projects, has failed to commit to zero deforestation supply chains in a big way. The €10m pledged earlier this week by LVMH could have been spent to great effect over the past decade on monitoring and enforcement.
If the current crisis in the Amazon does one thing, I hope it wakes us up to the true cost of Amazon leather
Complacency is a contagion and this one has spread to us, as fashion consumers. The global production of footwear was up to 23.5bn pairs by 2018, accounting for 55% of all leather production. Almost nobody asks where the cows are from, never mind requesting certified zero-deforestation leather.
Brands swear that their leather is from Europe rather than 6,000 miles away in the Brazilian Amazon. I find this unlikely. If all the shoes professing Italian heritage really were from Italian cattle, cows would drink from the Trevi fountain and chew the cud in Piazza San Marco. If the crisis in the Amazon does one thing, I hope it wakes us up to the true cost of Amazon leather.
Buying consciously from the Amazon means supporting brands that are Amazon-first, putting the ecology and people of the biome above profit and volume. Here are our top brands investing in the Amazon rather than exploiting it:
The Brazilian Amazon is the only place on Earth where rubber trees grow in a wild state. Environmentalist Bia Saldanha moved her family to the Chico Mendes reserve in Acre (named after the activist murdered in 1998 for his work) many years ago and works with 20 seringueiros families rubber tapping wild trees sustainably. Two or three times a week, the seringueiros collect 12kg of wild rubber primarily destined for the soles of Veja trainers, made in Portugal in a fair-trade factory. In 2018, this collaboration preserved 90 hectares of forest, says Saldanha.
Osklen is one of Brazil’s most established sustainable fashion brands. The company was founded by a former doctor, Oskar Metsavaht, in 1988 and is known for pioneering sustainable fabrics. The brand’s motto is “as sustainable as possible, as soon as possible” – he refuses to wait for certification bodies to catch up. An early avoider of cattle leather on environmental grounds, Metsavaht has pioneered the use of skins from the pirarucu fish found in Amazonian rivers and lakes. Olsken bags from pirarucu are sold all over the world, generating a new income source for the area. Olsken’s sustainable practices and materials are being studied by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
The London-based accessories brand has an enduring relationship with Brazil. The classic Bottletop bag is made from ring pulls (recovered from Brazilian landfill), handpainted in an atelier in Itapua that works to fair-trade principles, and then linked together with leather that is certified zero-deforestation. The brand also produces Together wrist-bands, promoting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
What can we do?
In response to the Amazon fires and an Extinction Rebellion protest outside the Brazilian embassy in London last Friday, a promise of match-funding has been made to the tune of $350,000 for the Climate Emergency Fund. To join the surge and donate, visit this website.
Greenpeace wants you to sign a petition to tell the government to suspend trade talks with Brazil until the fires are out and the Amazon and its people are protected.
Plant trees: Offest.Earth is fundraising for a protest forest, in the name of Bolsonaro, “tree enemy number one”. So far 4,000 trees have been planted. Donations can be made here.
Donate to Cool Earth via its website.