How is the leather industry responsible for deforestation?
by Theo Stanley
Beef production is the largest driver of tropical deforestation in the world – the expansion of cattle ranching drives more forest loss than the production of palm oil, soy and timber products combined. Despite this, the latest Forest 500 Annual Report found that the beef sector still lags behind other sectors in addressing deforestation.
In fact, companies in the beef sector are doing less to address tropical deforestation than companies in soy, palm oil, timber, and pulp & paper supply chains. Only 16 of the 78 companies assessed for beef in the Forest 500 report had commitments to address deforestation. This means a staggering 79% of companies in the beef trade had no commitment to remove deforestation from their beef supply chains.
The average score for beef was just 11%, the lowest of any commodity assessed.
The beef trade
To meet the world’s burgeoning demand, cattle producers are expanding their herds. Native forest, especially in South America, is being slashed, burned and replaced with grazing land, to accommodate for the growing number of cows.
The 2019 Amazon fires were a blazing testimony to the beef industry’s destructive power. Cattle farmers have been found to be responsible for 80% of the current land clearance in the Amazon. Global Forest Watch found that in 2018, Brazil – the largest exporter of beef in the world – lost more primary forest than any other country. In just that one year, 1.3 million hectares of forest were cleared – more than any year since 2008.
Companies taking zero action
The Forest 500 2019 Annual Report found that the private sector is failing to curb the accelerating rates of Amazonian deforestation, which in Brazil, are at their highest rates in more than a decade.
Thirty-four companies assessed for beef (44%) scored zero out of 86. Let alone a public commitment to prevent deforestation in their beef supply chain, they had no public commitments on sustainability, nor policies to protect the human rights of labourers or local people affected by the beef trade. These companies include the European supermarket SPAR and Chinese meat manufacturer WH Group.
The best performing beef company was supermarket group Carrefour, who scored 48 out of 86. And even Carrefour, the most progressive large player in the beef trade, failed to publicly report against their commitments, or even report on the volumes of beef that they source or sell.
Well-known brands are failing
The number of companies with a beef-related deforestation commitment varied depending on which segment of the supply chain they were operating in.
Ten of the 33 (30%) retailers assessed had commitments to not buy beef associated with deforestation, including fast good giant McDonald’s.
But a number of well-known fast food brands including Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut, who are owned by Yum! Brands, pizza outlet Domino’s, and Subway, whose parent company is Doctor’s Associates, did not have forest-related commitments for their beef supply chains.
Just three of the 18 manufacturers assessed – Mars, Nestle and Unilever – had deforestation commitments. Global brands including Kraft Heinz, Oetker-Group and Tyson Foods have not made a public commitment to address deforestation in their beef supply chains, although Tyson Foods is now working on a deforestation risk assessment.
Just three of the 18 largest beef traders – Marfrig, JBS and Minerva S.A. – had a deforestation commitment. However, these three companies with commitments have repeatedly been associated with deforestation in their sourcing of beef. Research from Global Canopy’s Trase initiative has linked these three companies’ beef exports to 500 square kilometers of deforestation-risk a year in Brazil, because they fail to account for the indirect deforestation in their supply chains.
Just six of the 16 companies with deforestation commitments reported on their progress towards their commitments. If companies are not transparent, it is not possible to know if they are hiding behind strong promises but failing to decisively act. UK supermarket chains Sainsbury’s and Tesco both failed to report against their commitments for beef.
The future of beef
The Chinese market for South American beef is expanding and trade deals are being established to increase imports from Brazil. Efforts are also being made to increase the amount of South American beef imported to Europe, through the EU-Mercosur trade deal. Through international agreements such as these, driven by the burgeoning global beef demand, South American forests are being put under increasing pressure.
Forest 500 has shown that more private sector action is needed to protect tropical forests. Companies must introduce commitments to address deforestation and increase the transparency of their reporting.
And the report has also shown that companies in the beef sector cannot be relied upon to drive change. Regulation and legislated have a role in ensuring companies do not buy beef associated with deforestation. As environmental governance is rolled back in production countries like Brazil, the time has come for consumer governments – like the EU – to introduce regulation that prohibits the trade of beef sourced in recently deforested areas.