The news that this year holds the highest rate of fires in the Amazon rainforest, nicknamed the “lungs of the Earth,” since 2010 couldn’t have come at a worse time for our climate. Satellite data shows that a soccer field equivalent of the forest, home to about three million species of plants and animals and one million Indigenous people, is cleared by machinery every minute. The need for protection is urgent, and the role that major fashion brands can play in this recovery isn’t always at the forefront of that discussion. The recent announcements from H&M and VF Corporation, which owns Timberland and Vans, that the companies are halting leather purchases from Brazil is helping to change that.
The increasing exports of leather and beef appear to be fueling the fires; a 2016 report from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization linked 80 percent of deforestation in the country to cattle grazing. This year’s spike coincides with new policies by President Jair Bolsonaro, which have encouraged increased access to protected lands.
H&M and VF Corporation’s announcements show how the fashion industry can move away from destructive practices that harm the Amazon, a natural resource that holds about a quarter as much carbon as the entire atmosphere. But what do the announcements actually mean for the Amazon? And what more should the fashion industry do to protect it?
According to Michael Stanley-Jones of the U.N. Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, the global fashion industry and consumers are implicated in the destruction in at least two ways: “The leather industry is benefiting from the supply created by the aggressive expansion of cattle farming in the Amazon, which in spite of efforts to control the sourcing of leather, still lacks the transparency and controls needed to ensure leather comes from sustainable sources.” Stanley-Jone continues, “And fashion produces at least 8.1 percent of global greenhouse gases, which directly contributes to the overheating of the planet, making the natural fires that come seasonally to the Amazon burn that much hotter and with greater frequency.”
As one of the first fashion companies to respond to the leather industry’s link to the fires, VF Corporation said in an August statement that it would resume buying Brazilian leather when “we have the confidence and assurance that the materials used in our products do not contribute to environmental harm in the country.” H&M’s statement came the following week, also saying that it would stop sourcing leather from Brazil “until there are credible assurance systems in place to verify that the leather does not contribute to environmental harm in the Amazon.” Luxury fashion brand Burberry also held a certified carbon-neutral fashion show during London Fashion Week, noting its motivation was to “prevent deforestation and conserve [the] tropical rainforest in the Brazilian Amazon.”
A halt on buying Brazilian leather is not the only way that fashion brands have addressed the industry's connection to the fires. French luxury conglomerate LVMH, which owns Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Fendi, announced that it will pledge more than 10 million euros to combat the fires. Jaden’s Smith’s water company, Just, released two limited-edition sneakers with Allbirds, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Amazon Forest Fund. Sustainable shoe brand Veja also released its first running shoe last month, using wild rubber consciously to increase the demand for wild rubber trees as well as to provide an income for rubber tappers.
Beauty brands have also come into the spotlight as many source ingredients from the Amazon, including breu, kaya, ungurahua nut oil, Amazonian clay, and maracuja oil, according to Vogue. This has prompted action from many smaller and “clean beauty” brands, such as hair-care company Rahua Beauty, which partnered with the Land Is Life organization to donate an extra 10 percent of all their online sales. The Brazil-based body brand Sol de Janeiro donated 100 percent of profits from last month's sale of its Amazon Is Our Heart set to the Rainforest Action Network, and skin-care brand B3 Balm has created a limited-edition Save the Amazon set, with all proceeds going to Rainforest Trust and WWF.
These announcements, donations, and sets are all increasing consumer awareness of products that are sourced from the Amazon rainforest, something Stanley-Jones says is “an important strategy for creating a sustainable fashion industry.” Albeit complicated, he encourages everyone to thoroughly analyze what impact products and materials can have on the planet. For those interested in researching further, Canopy currently has commitments with companies like Allbirds, Patagonia, and Reformation to safeguard forests, and Forest 500 annually ranks brands based on their deforestation policies.
“Understanding the ecological and cultural impacts of shifts in consumer demand for natural materials versus synthetic ones, such as petroleum-derived fibers, which make up the lion's share of fashion, and increasing shares of material in footwear, is challenging,” Stanley-Jones explains. “Plastic pollution from synthetics, for example, is harming marine environments. Shifting demand from one natural source to a synthetic one may bring new problems in its train.”
The takeaway, he says, is not to only look at single issues, like the leather industry, when working toward sustainable fashion choices, and instead take a holistic view that incorporates the goals of the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement.
While the announcements from H&M and VF Corporation play an important part in increasing awareness and understanding of the role that the fashion industry plays in the Amazon’s increasing fires, the impact on the Amazon is largely a consequence of the industry’s unsustainable trajectory overall. The number of garments purchased each year by the average consumer increased by 60 percent from 2000 to 2014. And leather is not the only material that increases land-clearing. The production of popular fabrics like rayon or viscose, both often made from old-growth trees from rainforests like the Amazon, has reportedly doubled in the last decade.
With the fashion industry, according to the U.N. Environment Programme, producing 10 percent of all global carbon emissions and a projected rise in fashion and footwear production by 81 percent by 2030 (according to the 2019 Pulse of the Fashion Industry report), it’s clear that halting the purchase of Brazilian leather is just a small fraction of what the industry can do to protect the Amazon. As Stanley-Jones puts it, “To address this threat, people should learn from Indigenous traditions and other local practices how to produce, wear, and dispose of clothing without ruining the one homeland we share: the blue, green, and brown planet Earth.”
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue