Is leather causing the destruction of the Amazon rainforest?

This time last year, the record-breaking fires destroying the Amazon rainforest were headlining the news, and since roughly 64% of the Amazon is located in Brazil, the country and its' controversial leader President Bolsonaro, took most of the blame. Eventually, the out of control burning got so bad that the international community had to step in. Last year, French leader, President Macron, threatened to scrap the EU-Mercosur trade deal that benefits Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Macron, along with other attendees of the G7 summit agreed to give Brazil $20 million in aid, instead, though strong words were used to condemn Brazil's laissez-faire approach to the fires.

A year later and Brazil is still putting business over environmental protection. Despite global intervention, this year's destruction of the Amazon is on track is be even worse than years past. Last month the number of fires rose by nearly 20%, which is a 13-year high. The COVID-19 pandemic has made the blazes more frequent, as there is now even less regulation in the rainforest. Scientists are now worried about what August and September will look like, and the fear that the world's biggest rainforest may collapse is increasingly top of mind for environmentalists. Experts predict that once 40% of the Amazon rainforest is gone — burned — then the region will no longer function as a carbon sink and will instead degrade into savannah landscape with only shrubbery and limited biodiversity. As of last year over 20% of the rainforest had been lost, and regrowth is much slower than the rate of burning.

What does any of this have to do with fashion? Climate change has caused flames to spread more rapidly, but scientists and foreign governments conclude that the main reason for the increasing fires is forest clearing by slash and burn and using that land for agriculture — cattle ranching specifically. A report submitted to the XII World Forestry Congress in 2003 states that 80% of deforested land in the Amazon is covered by pastures. The cattle raised on this land are used for food, or fashion. As a result of last years' blazes, many fashion brands were forced to confront that the leather they use may have come from Brazil and be directly linked to the burning of the Amazon rainforest. 

However, the lack of transparency in fashion made it difficult for brands and consumers to know exactly where their leather was originally produced. Leather that comes from cows grown in Brazil can be tanned and processed in Italy and then have an "Italian leather" label on it. This limited information regarding material sourcing caused nonprofit organization, Fashion Revolution, to release an open letter calling for brands to do more research into their leather and share that research with consumers. Unfortunately, a year later, and not much has changed. With an ongoing pandemic and social issues like Black Lives Matter taking center stage, the media has not covered the Amazon fires as extensively as it did last year. Fashion now has fewer consumers pressuring the industry about the topic, and most brands are not voluntarily digging into their leather sourcing.

So should consumers just stop buying real leather altogether? Many consumers have stopped buying real leather products — most for ethical reasons like animal welfare. From a strictly environmental point of view, though, it is a bit more complicated. The argument is similar to that of real versus faux fur. However, real leather being linked to the burning of the Amazon rainforest is another mark against the material for environmentalists. Now the two choices for consumers looking for a truly environmentally sustainable handbag would be one made without leather or leather-look-a-like, or one made with "responsible leather." In 2013 Gucci unveiled their Jackie bag made from leather originally farmed in Brazil, but in a deforestation-free zone — meaning it was not linked to the loss of the Amazon. The luxury brands' pledge to be transparent with leather production was praised by The Green Carpet Challenge and Livia Firth, who visited Brazilian farms — and the factory in Italy where the leather was processed — to report on the sustainable bag. The burgundy-colored purse came with a passport detailing the history of the leather from farm to finished product. Some critics claim that "deforestation-free" is just a marketing term, and leather can be indirectly associated with deforestation since cows move to different ranches over their lifetime. It is possible that the cow spent time at a pasture on deforested land, even if that is not the last place they were before slaughter. Gucci tried to avoid this criticism by partnering with the National Wildlife Federation to certify that the Jackie bag was sustainably produced. In the end, the purse made a lot of news, but the "responsible" leather has not been used by Gucci since.

This year's new record-breaking fires in the Amazon rainforest prove that out of control cattle ranching in Brazil is still a problem, and the fashion industry will continue to get dragged into it. The way to curb this negative publicity is for brands to be excessively transparent about their sourcing of leather. The long-term solution, though, needs to go beyond just transparency for the sake of marketing.