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Amazon deforestation and your shoes

 Posted by on August 14, 2009
Aug 142009

By Ashley Phillips
Green Right Now

When we put our shoes on, we don’t really think about where they’ve been before they got to us.

Most likely, they were manufactured somewhere overseas, China or Vietnam perhaps, then shipped to the United States. But where did the material used to manufacture them come from? Are your shoes made of leather? If so, there’s a chance they’re contributing to climate change — and the illegal destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

Greenpeace International says rainforests are being needlessly lost not just to the meat trade but to the leather industry, as cattle ranches expand illegally in Brazilian Amazon region.

In June, Greenpeace released Slaughtering the Amazon, a three year investigation into the deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon. The group found that illegal incursions by cattle ranchers were rapidly depleting the forests, which released large quantities of greenhouse gases otherwise stored in the tropical environment.

“Forest destruction accounts for almost 1/5 of global emissions-that is more climate pollution than all the world’s cars, trucks, trains, planes, and ships combined,” said Lindsey Allen, Forest Campaigner for Greenpeace.

“Slaughtering the Amazon” estimates that illegal expansion of cattle ranches is responsible for 80% of all deforestation, and according to Greenpeace, “the cattle sector in the Brazilian Amazon is the largest driver of deforestation in the world, responsible for an average of one acre lost every 8 seconds.”

Usually, this would be when we would expect for someone to tell us to pay attention to where our steak is coming from. It’s true that Brazil is now the world’s largest beef exporter, and the meat trade is a huge player in deforestation. But the actual beef is not the only big money maker.  The hides of the cattle play a larger role than you might imagine in its value.

Leather accounts for more than one quarter of the total value of the cattle trade for Brazil. The report states that “the Brazilian leather industry’s total export revenue in 2008 was $1.9 billion from some 24,800,000 million hides.” The largest use of the leather is not furniture or garments, but shoe production.

Bertin, the world’s largest leather trader, receives their hides from the Brazilian Amazon and supplies brands such as Nike, Adidas/Reebok, Timberland, Prada, Geox, and Clarks.

These surprising details contained in the “Slaughtering of the Amazon” were eye-opening to these shoe manufactures. Nike took the first step.

“When Greenpeace brought this issue to our attention we knew that Amazon deforestation is a serious concern and one that required we immediately look into our supply chain and leather sourcing,” stated Kate Meyers, Corporate Communications Manager for Nike. The company has developed a new policy that’s asking suppliers to verify where they’re getting their leather.

Putting Leather on a More Sustainable Track

Nike is giving suppliers until July 1, 2010, to create a transparent system showing none of the leather came from ranches responsible for illegal deforestation. Nike also will require that suppliers join the Leather Working Group by December 2009.

“Our hope for the new policy is that through the Leather Working Group the industry will work together over the next 12 months to institute a traceability system that the entire industry can use,” said Meyers.

The Leather Working Group (LWG), founded in 2005, is engaged in reducing environmental impacts through the footwear leather supply chain. They audit leather manufacturers, ranking them on environmental stewardship. The LWG will help set the traceability and measurement requirements for the new system, which will be incorporated into current protocol.

Other shoe companies also are trying to make changes. Adidas/Reebok released their policy last week.

Greenpeace, however, is not certain the Adidas/Reebok plan goes far enough, because it may not hold all suppliers accountable. The Adidas/Reebok policy restricts all leather trading with the Amazon Biome suppliers, but Greenpeace worries that other leather traders could still receive leather from the rainforest  and sell to Adidas/Reebok.

“The policy in our opinion needs to be strengthened a bit…We believe it is better to set a timeline to suppliers of leather to commit to an end of new deforestation within the Amazon,” said Oliver Salge, Head Forest and Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace. Adidas/Reebok and Greenpeace are currently working together to develop a stronger policy.

Meanwhile, Bertin also is under guidance from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation to tighten its supply chain and make sure its operations do not encourage illegal deforestation or the illegal use of lands belonging to indigenous people.

For consumers who want to be part of the solution, environmentally friendly shoes are popping up everywhere.

  • Online mega-shoe store Zappos has eco-friendly and vegan categories.
  • La Sportiva has a new line of recycled shoes. Their new sustainable shoes are made of recycled rubber for the outsole and recycled nylon for the mesh, laces, webbing, and lining.
  • Another brand, Simple shoes, whose slogan is “shoes for a happy planet”, offers a 100% sustainable product. You will never guess what things they use to make their shoes. Simple Shoes (pictured, right) are made out of materials such as hemp, bamboo, corks, car tires, and coconut shells.

(Photo credits: Greenpeace International, Nike, Simple Shoes.)

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