In a letter sent to the Vice President Frans Timmermans and Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius of the European Commission today, seven leading environmental and forest NGOs demand that leather is kept as a key forest-risk commodity in the upcoming EU law to halt deforestation and forest degradation. The organisations are Fern, Deutsche Umwelthilfe, Ecologistas en acción, Canopée, Mighty Earth, Environmental Investigation Agency and Rainforest Foundation Norway.
While parts of the leather industry and big brands using leather claim that it is an insignificant by-product of meat production, the organisations argue that it is in fact a global multibillion dollar industry. The value of the Brazilian leather industry alone is estimated at over US$50 billion.
The Amazon is currently bracing for what experts warn may be one of the most dramatic fire seasons for decades, after a year of record-breaking deforestation.
- Cattle is the number one driver of deforestation of tropical forests, and leather is intrinsically linked to this production, says Anne Leifsdatter Grønlund, senior adviser and leather campaigner at Rainforest Foundation Norway.
The EU is a key market for leather, especially from South America. Brazilian leather is essential to the Italian tanning industry, which sees €5.2 billion in annual turnover, and accounts for 20% of the total tanning industry turnover worldwide.
- Leather has a considerable market share in the wider European economy and by continuing to buy leather with a high risk of deforestation, leather using industries are driving this deforestation, says Grønlund.
The value of leather imports exceeds that of other forest-risk commodities imported to the EU, such as cocoa, soy, beef and palm oil. Additionally, imported leather carries a greater forest-risk than these other commodities. More than 10% of raw or tanned hides imported to the EU come from the forest-risk countries of Brazil and Paraguay, with a value of US$158 million.
- If we are to pass a bill that will be an effective tool for protecting the world's forests, leather must be included as one of the key commodities, Grønlund continues.
Almost half of the leather exported from Brazil is consumed by the car industry. This includes major European car producers, and EU imports of cars produced in non-EU countries. All of the top five European car manufacturers (Volkswagen Group; BMW Group; Daimler; PSA Groupe and Groupe Renault) source leather from clients of Brazilian companies linked to large-scale deforestation. Between 2019 and 2020 those companies were exposed to at least 1.1 million hectares of recent deforestation through JBS Couros, the leather branch of one of the largest meatpackers in Brazil, according to Rainforest Foundation Norway’s report, Driving deforestation.
The letter argues that as public knowledge of the connections between leather and deforestation risk rises, sourcing leather from South American producers becomes more of a public relations challenge for European producers. Therefore, including leather in the legislation will not disadvantage the European leather industry, it will catalyse it into taking the necessary steps.
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Kristin Rødland Buick