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Walking the Talk
As Amazon Burns, VF Corp Says No to Brazilian Leather

As fires continue to ravage parts of the Amazon, the apparel giant says no more leather from Brazil until “we have the confidence and assurance that the materials used in our products do not contribute to environmental harm in the country.”

As fires continue to rage in parts of the Amazon rainforest; and Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, refuses to accept foreign aid to help control them, it raises the question: What can business do?

US-based VF Corporation — parent company of apparel and shoe brands Timberland, Vans and The North Face — for one, has decided that it will no longer buy leather from Brazil; the company says the Amazon fires are evidence of lax environmental governance policies that are not only allowing, but encouraging, the country’s businesses to contribute to the destruction of the world’s largest rainforest.

The move is one of the first of what will likely be many concrete, economic consequences resulting from mishandling of the fires, which Bolsonaro has insisted are under control, despite wide reports to the contrary.

According to Reuters, environmental groups claim that the fires were set by real estate speculators and ranchers, who often clear land for agricultural use.

These latest fires, which have been raging throughout the Amazon for weeks, have renewed scrutiny of Brazil’s beef industry, one of the country’s largest. New maps and analysis from Mighty Earth — based on data from NASA, CONAB and Imazon — link Cargill and JBS, the world’s largest meatpacker and leather producer, most closely to the burning.

What business can do

In 2013, Asia Pulp & Paper, the largest paper company in Indonesia and one of the largest in the world, abruptly turned over a new leaf and ended the clearing of natural forest across its entire supply chain in Indonesia. Why? Nearly 100 of its international corporate customers — including Disney, Levi Strauss and Mattel — had jumped ship, after years of criticism over the paper company’s role in harming Indonesia’s endangered rainforests and communities. VF Corp’s move in Brazil is a great step in this direction; now, Mighty Earth is calling on the corporate customers of Cargill and JBS to use their buying power to influence a similar change in policies.

“The Amazon is burning, and politely written letters simply won't cut it anymore: Cargill and JBS continue to buy billions of dollars’ worth of meat linked to deforestation,” said Mighty Earth CEO Glenn Hurowitz. “That has to end. If Ahold Delhaize, McDonald’s, Carrefour and others want to credibly demonstrate their commitment to forest protection, it’s time to start cancelling contracts with companies like Cargill and JBS.”

It’s not the first time the finger has been pointed at JBS for exploitation in the Amazon: According to Reuters, an investigative report in July by Brazilian news media showed that JBS had been buying cattle from ranchers operating on land that the government has said must not be used for grazing. JBS denied fault, although it acknowledged the difficulty of tracing some cattle’s origin.

In a statement, VF Corp — also home to the Dickies, Smartwool and JanSport brands — said, “As a result of ... detailed diligence, we are no longer able to satisfactorily assure ourselves that our de minimis volume of leather purchased from Brazilian suppliers upholds (our responsible sourcing) commitment.” The company told Reuters 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.”

The fires have reignited the world’s concern over the health and preservation of the Amazon and the countless resources it provides, which have been the basis for a decades-long fight between indigenous communities, environmentalists and business interests in Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and beyond; a new telenovela called Aruanas has brought a dramatized version of the complex, ongoing, real-life drama to global television audiences. Regardless of growing business, NGO and investor understanding of the long-term value of these resources, and the fervor with which we argue the business case for the protection of the Amazon and other biodiversity-rich areas, profit — the original bottom line (and still the only one, for many) — remains the primary driver in the region; and, until short-termism, pro-deforestation government policies, and financial mechanisms such as tax havens are a thing of the past, it will likely remain so.

One sliver of light has emerged: As of press time, Bolsonaro has reportedly banned setting fires to clear land for 60 days. But, as the BBC points out, It is unclear what impact the ban will have, as environmentalists say the overwhelming majority of forest clearance in the Brazilian Amazon is already illegal and enforcement is lax.