Even the most socially responsible companies may not be so responsible after all, according to a three-year Greenpeace investigation into the continuing destruction of the Amazon rainforest.
The demand for leather goods and beef by Nike, Timberland, Adidas, Ikea, Wal-Mart and Honda, among other corporate leaders, is helping to fuel the growth of the Brazilian cattle industry on forestland that has been illegally cleared, the environmental advocacy group writes in its latest report, "Slaughtering the Amazon".
Greenpeace's main concern: The growing cattle industry in Brazil is driving deforestation, and deforestation is a leading contributor to climate change.
Some manufacturers may be using Brazilian leather without realizing it. That's because cattle hides from Brazil typically are sent to one or more factories for processing before being purchased by a consumer company. In many cases, end-users like Nike or Timberland are buying leather from factories in Asia or Italy, not Brazil, said Lindsey Allen, Greenpeace's Forest Campaigner.
In the United States, Greenpeace is focusing attention on the footwear companies, in part because they have been leaders on environmental issues and in part because they produce popular consumer goods.
"U.S. consumers can add their voice to this global discussion about the problem and the solution," Allen said.
The footwear companies have been slow to respond to Greenpeace's concerns, Allen said, which may reflect their need first to understand their role in the issue as well as its importance to their customer base.
Timberland said today that the company does source some leather from Brazil, but it said it has been assured that the leather does not come from deforested areas.
"Our Brazilian supplier strictly complies with Brazilian laws in its business, including regarding labor, environmental and fiscal aspects, and also adheres to Timberland's own Code of Conduct standards," the company said. "We will continue to work to ensure that other business partners that source from Brazil use the same vigilance in their sourcing practices that we do."
Katja Schreiber of Adidas said her company's suppliers had also assured Adidas they only source "marginal volumes" of raw hides from Brazil and "those who do so fully support the National Plan of the Amazon Forest Clearing Prevention and Fighting."
"We share the Greenpeace concerns regarding the environmental impact of illegal deforestation of Amazon rainforest on our planet's climate," Schreiber said. "We will further investigate and continue to engage withour suppliers in the matter."
Adidas and other footwear makers are part of the Leather Working Group, which promotes environmentally-sound business practices. Greenpeace believes that such coalitions can be effective but that individual companies are more likely to drive change because they understand their own supply chains.
What Greenpeace hopes is that all the companies will voice support for ending cattle farming on deforested Amazonian land, and that they do what they can to help stop the destruction.
Greenpeace wants to hear them say, "Yes, we think it's important to make sure the leather we buy is not driving deforestation in the Amazon and therefore we'll work with you to come up with a solution," Allen said.
Following the Supply Chain
Leather and beef from Brazilian cattle farms ends up in U.S. markets and around the world through a complex supply chain.
It begins with three major companies in Brazil that, according to Greenpeace, have received $2.65 billion in government funding: Bertin, JBS and Marfrig.
These companies run slaughterhouses in the Amazon region that ship beef and hides to factories elsewhere for further processing before the finished goods are sold into "an unwitting global market" to be made into shoes and leather car seats, Greenpeace says.
Greenpeace also criticizes the Brazilian government for claiming to be making progress on deforestation and reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the same time the Brazilian National Development Bank is funding companies that are expanding cattle farms on illegally-acquired Amazonian rainforest lands.
"We are asking the Brazilian government to keep better track and make sure the left hand knows what the right is doing," Allen said.
The organization also calls on corporations to end their "blind consumption" of raw materials, and it accuses the International Finance Corporation, the private lending arm of the World Bank, of financing the expansion of Bertin with a $90 million investment.
Many of the companies Greenpeace cites make significant efforts to be good corporate citizens.
Nike has its "considered design" line of products intended to reduce Nike's environmental impacts by using "environmentally preferred materials," among other things. Timberland devised a "nutritional label" for its shoe boxes to tout its environmental efforts and has made a commitment to use more renewable energy, less waste, fewer chemicals, and more recycled and renewable materials in its products.
Both companies, as well as others cited by Greenpeace, regularly publish corporate social responsibility reports tracking their progress against various environmental measures. These reports have come a long way in detailing failings as well as successes.
Calls and messages left for officials at Nike seeking comment on the report were not returned today. Elaine Daffara, a spokeswoman for Brazilian leather producer Bertin said the company would have a public statement later this week.
The Amazon and Climate Change
Greenpeace hopes the companies will exert more pressure on their supply chains to stop cattle production in the Amazon and protect the world's largest rainforest.
The Earth's rainforests serve as vast carbon sinks that are believed to absorb about one-fifth of global fossil fuel emissions. However, Brazil has also become the world's fourth largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions, largely from the cutting and burning of the Amazon, according to Greenpeace.
Cattle farming is accelerating the pace of this deforestation at an alarming rate, and can now be found on 80% of all deforested land in Brazil, Greenpeace writes. Much of that deforested land was illegally stripped. Greenpeace's analysis of satellite data and forest clearance permits from 2006 to 2007 found than more than 90% of the cleared Amazonian rainforest was destroyed illegally.
"The Copenhagen Climate Summit, to be held in Denmark in December 2009, is the key opportunity for governments to agree measures to drastically reduce GHG emissions," Greenpeace writes. "Any effective deal must include actions and funding to tackle deforestation."
UPDATE: In response to the Greenpeace report, Bertin S.A. said Tuesday that it operates with a commitment to social and environmental sustainability. The Brazilian company issued a statement saying it has developed a "cattle purchase procedure" that considers the socioenvironmental criteria of suppliers. Through this procedure, Bertin said, it only buys from accredited farms. To be accredited, cattle must be raised on legally-acquired properties that have not been illegally deforested.
Bertin said 82.5% of its leather comes from its own operations and is legally acquired and processed. The company added that it would check the origin of leather supplied from other companies, "and if there are any irregular situations, there will be an immediate interruption of the business agreement between Bertin and these suppliers, until everything is absolutely within the standards required by legislation."
Photo by Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace