The leather industry is the single largest driver of deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.
This article will assess exactly how leather production and deforestation are linked, why cattle ranching is particularly bad for the Amazon and what could change now that Brazil has a new president.
When we think of deforestation, we often think of palm oil, soy or paper. However, when the World Resources Institute overlapped maps of raw material production areas with maps of tree cover loss, they found that cattle erased nearly twice as much forestry as all other commodities combined (oil palm, soy, cocoa, rubber, coffee and wood fibre).
Cattle ranching alone explains a total of 36% of global tree cover loss and accounts for 2% of global CO2 emissions annually, equivalent to the emissions of all global air traffic. Almost half (45%) of the total area of forest lost to the cattle industry occurred in Brazil.
Leather production and deforestation
Leather is a lucrative industry for Brazil, accounting for 1.1 billion USD of revenue in 2020. One year later, the STAND.earth Research Group was able to uncover hidden supply chain links between major fashion brands and JBS; Brazil’s main beef and leather producer. Most of the environmental abuses happen at the supply chain’s raw material phase, meaning they usually go unseen, which is what makes this report so crucial.
The research group found supply chain links between JBS and over one hundred fashion brands. They were even able to detect multiple supply chain links with JBS for 50 brands that are the biggest drivers of deforestation (among them are Adidas, H&M, Dr Martens, Guess, Zara, Prada and LVMH Group — find an interactive map of all brands here).
Almost 30% of the brands in this report had even published an explicit company policy on deforestation, which makes it likely that they did indeed breach their own rules.
Is leather a by-product of meat and dairy?
Leather is often referred to as a by-product of the meat and dairy industry. A quick look at the numbers might lead to another conclusion: In 2019, 1.5 billion cattle were slaughtered to keep up with consumers’ demand, meaning shoe and fashion brands will have to buy hides from 430 million cows annually by 2025.
Calculations show that when one hectare of Amazon forest is cleared for cattle, their hides provide for the equivalent of either 9 leather bags, 16 pairs of shoes or 8 leather jackets. With the leather goods market’s estimated worth of 400 billion USD annually, it is difficult to consider leather as a mere by-product.
On top of that, some cattle are killed exclusively for their skin, further rendering the ethical loophole to frame leather as a by-product irrelevant. Considering the manufacturing and tanning process of leather pollutes water and soil with toxic chemicals and endangers workers’ health, it would be more sustainable to let animal skin biodegrade.
The current rate of deforestation
Brazil’s newly elected president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, took office on January 1. He has vowed to end deforestation of the Amazon rainforest by 2030, but that might not suffice. We could reach a tipping point even sooner, after which, the forest and local climate will have changed so radically the result may be as great as the death of the Amazon as rainforest; a dry forest or savannah left in its place.
Water is already a constant worry for Amazon farmers, and large cattle rangers are taking over many areas that require deep digging or piping water over long distances. Cattle ranching specifically seems to be the last resort for some farmers that have not been content with the revenue from farming Brazil nuts, Caoutchouc or other commodities: “In contrast to natural products, which can frequently only be harvested a few months out of the year, income from cattle ranching is constant” a farmer tells Spiegel. Unsurprisingly, this profitable stream of income attracts a mafia of loggers and cattlemen who frequently revert to illegal methods to clear public forest lands.
Brazil’s new president: Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva
Under Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president from 2019 until 2022 known to be an agribusiness ally, average annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rose by 75% from the previous decade. DETER – the system that provides this data – is also the software that alerts Brazil’s authorities to prevent future (partly illegal) deforestation by using satellite images to identify new forest clearings.
The main source of protection for the rainforest is Ibama: Institute for Environment and Renewable Natural Resources. The number of Ibama agents protecting the Amazon from deforestation is currently less than half of what it was at the beginning of Bolsonaro’s term. Working for Ibama is dangerous. Many illegal loggers, land grabbers and miners are armed, so their missions often escalate to violence. It’s partly because of these dangerous working conditions that there has been a rapid decline of Ibama agents during Bolsonaro’s term, so it will take some time to re-hire the amount of agents it would take to properly protect the rainforest.
So, even though Lula da Silva and his supporters pledge to “do whatever it takes to have zero deforestation […] by 2030”, they have to act fast to make that mission feasible. The lack of government funding and political support in major Amazon states makes change even more challenging, meaning Brazil will require international support.
Or, maybe, we could all think twice before we buy our next pair of shoes.