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Fashion giants linked to deforestation in Brazil

Nadia Pontes
April 11, 2024

Major brands like Zara and H&M sell garments produced with cotton from Brazilian farms. These have been linked to deforestation and land grabbing, according to a new investigation.

A combine harvests cotton in a field in Brazil
Brazil is the world's fourth-largest cotton producerImage: EVARISTO SA/AFP

Before they reach the display windows of fashion giants like Zara and H&M, cotton pants, shorts, shirts and socks leave behind a trail of deforestation, land grabbing and human rights violations in Brazil.
Though many of them carry a sustainable production label,  a yearlong investigation by UK-based NGO Earthsight detailed the connection between crops in Brazil, the world's fourth largest cotton producer, and European brands. Earthsight analyzed satellite images, shipping records, public archives and visited producing regions to track the journey taken by 816,000 tons of cotton.  

According to the report, this raw material was produced specifically for eight Asian companies which, between 2014 and 2023, manufactured around 250 million retail items. Many of them, the investigation claims, supplied brands such as H&M and Zara, among others.

"It's shocking to see these links between very recognizable global brands that apparently don't make enough effort to have control over these supply chains. To know where the cotton comes from and what kind of impact it causes," Rubens Carvalho, head of deforestation research at Earthsight, told DW. 

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The problem lies at the source: Cotton for export is mainly produced in the western part of Brazil's Bahia state, a region immersed in a tropical and extremely biodiverse savanna called the Cerrado. 

Vegetation in the Cerrado is often razed illegally to make space for crops and cultivation. Deforestation there has doubled in the last five years, according to Brazil's National Institute for Space Research. 

Deforestation and land grabbing 

Among the cases analyzed in the report is the SLC Agricola group, which claims to be responsible for 11% of Brazil's cotton exports. The Earthsight report estimates that in the last 12 years, Cerrado land equivalent to 40,000 football fields has been destroyed within SLC's farms.  

And in 2020, the company, which also grows soybeans, was named the biggest deforester in the biome, according to the American think tank Chain Reaction Research. 

In 2021, SLC committed to a zero-deforestation policy with its suppliers. A year later, a report by the nonprofit consultancy Aidenvironment found that 1,365 hectares of the Cerrado had been razed within properties that grow cotton . And almost half of this was within a legal reserve.

When questioned about these allegations, the group told DW that "all of SLC's conversions of native vegetation occurred within the limits established by law."  

Regarding Aidenvironment's accusation, the company said the destruction was caused by "a natural fire, and not to open new areas for production."

Another group analyzed in detail is Horita, which Earthsight has accused of violent land disputes with traditional Indigenous communities. The Horita Group didn't respond to DW's request to comment. 

Cotton linked to European brands 

In its investigation, Earthsight retraced and followed the route of 816,000 tons of cotton exports from SLC Agricola and the Horita Group between 2014 and 2023. The main destinations were China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Turkey, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The traceable data led to eight clothing manufacturers in Asia.  

All the intermediaries identified (PT Kahatex in Indonesia; Noam Group and Jamuna Group in Bangladesh; Nisha, Interloop, YBG, Sapphire, Mtmt, in Pakistan) supply retail products to brands such as Zara and H&M, according to the NGO.

"The cotton that we linked to land rights and environmental abuses in Bahia is Better Cotton-certified. The scheme patently failed to prevent this cotton reaching concerned consumers," said the Earthsight report. 

Launched in 2009 by the fashion industry and organizations such as WWF, Better Cotton created a seal to certify the safe origin of the raw material. According to the initiative, there are 370 certified farms in Brazil in partnership with the country's Cotton Producers Association, Abrapa. 

Switzerland-based Better Cotton told DW that it has just completed an enhanced third-party audit of the farms involved, and that it needs time to analyze the findings and implement changes if necessary.  

"The issues raised [by the report] demonstrate the pressing need for government support in addressing the issues brought to light and ensuring a fair and effective implementation of the rule of law," said the initiative's email.

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More control over supply chains needed

H&M told DW that "the findings of the report are highly worrying," adding that it takes the issue very seriously.  

"We are in close dialogue with Better Cotton to follow the outcome of the investigation and the next steps that will be taken to strengthen and revise its standard," the retailer said in an email. 

Zara told DW that it also takes "the accusations against Better Cotton extremely seriously," and demands that the certifier share the outcome of its investigation as soon as possible.  

On April 10, Inditex, which owns Zara, demanded more transparency from Better Cotton after it was announced that the report would be released the following day. 

Inditex sent a letter to the initiative dated April 8, requesting clarification on the certification process. Inditex does not buy cotton directly from suppliers, but the companies that produce it are audited by certifiers such as Better Cotton. 

For Rubens Carvalho from Earthsight, holding Europeans accountable is part of the solution to ending deforestation and rights violations in commodity-producing centers like Brazil. 

"Cotton is still poorly regulated in European markets. They need to regulate its consumption and decouple it from negative environmental and human impacts," he said. "They need serious regulations that punish non-compliance. This increases the pressure on producers."

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This article was originally written in Portuguese.


Aidenvironment Realtime Deforestation Monitoring (RDM) report - November 2022

Fashion Crimes, Earthsight - 11th April 2024