The environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry - including water shortages, worker exploitation, irresponsible sourcing of materials and climate change - cannot go unnoticed. The global economic downturn as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic hit the fashion industry hard: one example being that an estimated 2 million garment workers in Bangladesh lost their jobs as shops cancelled or failed to pay for their orders.
Nevertheless, the crisis also gave way to big fast-fashion brands and sweatshops to increase their production and profits with Shein making record-breaking sales where Shein ranked in close to $10 billion in 2020, which is the eighth consecutive year of revenue growth over 100 per cent. Shein is also the most talked-about brands on TikTok and YouTube, and most visited fashion and apparel site in the world.
What is deforestation?
According to the National Geographic, deforestation:
Is the purposeful clearing of forested land. Throughout history and into modern times, forests have been razed to make space for agriculture and animal grazing, and to obtain wood for fuel, manufacturing, and construction.
Hidden deforestation in the fashion industry
It is no secret that our clothes come with a tag and a bill that includes far more than what is told to the consumers, and sometimes, our wardrobes could not seem further away from a rainforest - unless you can go to Narnia.
Inditex has committed to ensure that their branded clothes will be made from “sustainable” materials by 2025 and the company’s other brands will follow soon after. The company has specifically committed to ensure 100% of its viscose is sustainably sourced by 2023. But, to what extent are these practices actually sustainable?
Yet, the leather in our bags, belts, trainers and our wood-based cellulose used for viscose and rayon fabrics, can be linked to the destruction of tropical rainforests. There are two ways that the fashion industry has been linked to deforestation: a) leather (shocker); b) actually shockingly ‘sustainable’ fabrics.
What are cellulose, viscose and rayon?
These are all man-made cellulosic fibers made from wood pulp. They are considered to be more sustainable than plastic-based fibers such as polyester.
Cellulose fibers are natural in origin, produced by processing wood until it forms pulp, before adding inorganic chemicals and spinning in a centrifuge until fibers form - similarly to plastic fibers. Boreal and tropical forests are cut down to make way for plantations of just one tree species to produce enough pulp to meet demand, while reducing the biodiversity of the world’s essential ecosystems. Canopy - a US NGO - found that over 150 million trees are logged annual for cellulose fibers used for clothing.
Recently, a new study conducted by Stand.earth linked major fashion brands to the Amazon Reforestation including LVMH, Zara Nike and others based on their connections with the leather industry. The fashion’s complicated global supply chains show that a number of large fashion brands are at risk of contributing to deforestation in the Amazon rainforests due to their connections to tanneries and other companies involved in the production of leather goods. The report found that these brands have multiple connections to the largest Brazilian leather exporter JBS which is known to engage in deforestation.
“With a third of companies surveyed having some kind of policy in place, [you’d expect] that would have an impact on deforestation,” said Greg Higgs, one of the researchers involved in the report. “The rate of deforestation is increasing, so the policies have no material effect.”
Projections have shown that to keep supplying consumers with wallets, handbags and shows, the fashion industry must slaughter 430 million cows annually by 2025. In South America, swathes of rainforest are cleared daily to make way for cattle pastures due to the demand for beef and leather globally.
The rising demand in plant-based fibers, as well as leathers in the years has led to the increase in monoculture plantations - specifically soy - to feed cattle as well as deforestation to raise cattle and to accommodate the creation of plant-based fibers. As the textile industry remains the fourth biggest emitter - ahead of aviation and shipping combined - without including emissions associated with land clearing, the deforestation and degradation of tropical rainforests for the production of leather and cellulosic fibers release vast numbers of CO2 into the atmosphere.
What can companies do?
It is clear that the processes involved in the fashion industry involve several stakeholders and several suppliers in each company’s supply chain. The need to save and protect our forests is urgent.. Forests play a big role in the more complex ecosystems of our planet, and the balance of the gases in our atmosphere. Not only do forests produce the oxygen we breathe, they are efficient at cleaning our air too. In fact, approximately 2.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide – one-third of the CO2 released from burning fossil fuels – is absorbed by forests every year. While deforested parts of Amazon emit more CO2 than they absorb, research showed that 20% of the total area has become a net source of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and one of the main causes identified has been deforestation.
Concrete steps to develop and implement preventative policies must span beyond statements of intent and include clear commitments. Of the 54 companies assessed by Canopy’s Forest 500 2018 assessment, 48 have commitments surrounding deforestation - including Inditex - and 36 have a policy focused on forests and deforestation specifically, leaving a third of companies exposed to tropical deforestation through their reproduction and/or usage of pulp and paper. Yet, not all commitments are equal. Of the 9 companies with a commitment, 5 committed only to protect priority forests such as the Amazon. Three (M&S and Nike included) had made commitments to zero-deforestation in their leather supply chains, and Kering committed to ensure no natural landscapes were converted to produce leather. H&M’s latest campaign, drenched in green-paint, tried to mitigate this in October by publishing their PETA campaign for vegan leather.
Further, some well-known brands including Adidas, Amazon and Associated British Foods (the owners of Primark) have not made a commitment to produce deforestation-free wood-based fibers.
Deforestation is just one of the corporate responsibility issues to address, according to Dr MacPherson. The issue intersects with climate change, biodiversity loss, water and catchment management and human rights. He explains that the first step is to understand the risks in their supply chain. There is a growing number of specialist tools that can be used such as Trase which provides deforestation risk data by mapping links between consumer countries via trading companies to production sources. Following this identification, companies can address the risk and set the necessary commitments aiming for zero deforestation. This means engaging with stakeholders including communities, businesses and biodiversity within the jurisdictions that lie in their supply chains.
Why is so little done?
Leather is often perceived by companies and consumers as a ‘by-product’ of beef. Nevertheless, selling leather is a profitable co-product for many companies and therefore demand for it does have an impact on the cattle industry. There are some leather-specific industry initiatives such as the Leather Working Group whose audits include an assessment of traceability to the slaughterhouse, but this is not sufficient for companies to know or act on their deforestation impacts. Anthesis Group identifies that the biggest issue in transparency in the cattle supply chains is the gap between the slaughterhouse and the tannery where the hides are made into leather.
The complexity of their supply chains means that ensuring deforestation-free products entails tracing the product back through their suppliers to the point where these companies can check if the product was produced in line with their commitment. In some high-risk areas, or of commodities like leather where applicable certification schemes are not available, this may mean tracing all the way back to where raw materials were produced.