Fashion giants Zara and H&M linked to deforestation in Brazil: report

A new investigation says megabrands sell garments produced with cotton from Brazilian farms with links to land grabbing and human rights violations.

Published : Apr 11, 2024 19:12 IST - 5 MINS READ

Brazil is the world’s fourth largest cotton producer.

Brazil is the world’s fourth largest cotton producer. | Photo Credit: 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 year-long investigation by UK-based NGO Earthsight detailed the connection between crops in Brazil, the world’s fourth largest cotton producer, and European brands. Earthsight analysed satellite images, shipping records, and public archives and visited producing regions to track the journey taken by 8,16,000 tonnes 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.

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“It’s shocking to see these links between very recognisable 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.

The problem lies at the source: Cotton for export is mainly produced in the western part of 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 (INPE).

Deforestation and land grabbing

Among the cases analysed in the report is the SLC Agrícola group, which claims to be responsible for 11 per cent of Brazil’s cotton exports. The Earthsight report estimates that in the last 12 years, Cerrado land equivalent to 40,000 soccer fields has been destroyed within SLC’s farms. 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 says the destruction was caused by “a natural fire, and not to open new areas for production”.

Another group analysed in detail is Horita, which Earthsight accuses of violent land disputes with traditional communities. The Horito Group did not respond to DW’s request to comment.

The journey to European brands

In its investigation, Earthsight retraced and followed the route of 8,16,000 tons of cotton exports from SLC Agrícola 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 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,” says 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,” says the initiative’s email.

More control over supply chains

H&M told DW that “the findings of the report are highly worrying” and 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.

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On April 10, Inditex, which owns Zara, demanded more transparency from Better Cotton after it was announced that the report would be released on April 11. 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 centres 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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