New investigation links H&M and Zara clothing to illegal deforestation in Brazil

Earthsight’s ‘Fashion Crimes’ report, which took over a year to compile, reveals a trail of tainted cotton from Brazilian estates to Asian manufacturers supplying garments to fashion retail giants H&M, Zara and its sister brands including Bershka and Pull&Bear.

The investigation delved into satellite imagery, court rulings, shipment records and even undercover operations at trade shows to trace nearly a million tonnes of cotton from some of Brazil’s estates to clothing manufacturers in Asia.

As per the investigation findings, these estates, owned by Brazil’s wealthiest families, have a history of environmental infractions, corruption and court fines related to the clearance of around 100,000 hectares of the Cerrado wilderness, a vital ecosystem covering a quarter of Brazil’s landmass and home to 5% of all the world’s species.

The findings suggest that the traditional communities in the Cerrado have suffered immensely, facing land theft, violence and dispossession by powerful estate owners.

Earthsight’s investigation traced 816,000 tonnes of tainted cotton to Asian textile and garment manufacturing firms producing clothing for H&M and Zara stores in the UK and other markets. The cotton was certified as sustainable by the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI).

In 2018, fashion brands and retailers collectively sourced more than one million metric tonnes of sustainably certified cotton through the BCI, with H&M Group being the largest procurer of BCI cotton by weight.

Earthsight’s director Sam Lawson said: “These firms talk about good practice, social responsibility and certification schemes, they claim to invest in traceability and sustainability, but all this now looks about as fake as their high street window arrangements.

“It has become very clear that crimes related to the commodities we consume have to be addressed through regulation, not consumer choices. That means lawmakers in consumer countries should put in place strong laws with tough enforcement.”

Brazil is expected to surpass the US as the world’s largest cotton exporter by 2030.

Responses to Earthsight’s allegations

The BCI has confirmed that it has audited three licensed farms in Bahia, Brazil, in response to concerns raised by Earthsight.

The organisation has pledged to share audit findings and to suspend licenses if farms fail to meet the BCI standards. Additionally, the organisation clarified that certain aspects mentioned in the report, such as legal matters and unrelated fires, fall outside its scope.

Its statement reads: “We are working with stakeholders to strengthen mechanisms for oversight processes including more rigorous reviews and cross-checks of partner alignment with Better Cotton’s Standard.”

While the BCI updated its rules last month, Earthsight said that “they remain riddled with holes, conflicts of interest and weak enforcement.”

Under the new rules, cotton from land illegally deforested before 2020 can still be certified as sustainable by the BCI, even if the land was stolen from local communities, according to Earthsight.

Recent developments have seen Inditex, the parent company of Zara, express reservations about Better Cotton in a letter this week, suggesting that the company has heavily relied on Better Cotton to monitor its supply chains.

An Inditex spokesperson said: “We take the allegations against Better Cotton extremely seriously and we urge them to share the outcome of their third-party investigation as soon as possible and take any necessary measures to ensure a sustainable cotton certification that upholds the highest standards.”

Last month, regulators and investors urged Inditex to disclose its full list of suppliers in order to enhance scrutiny of supply chain risks.

Inditex is one of several large retailers that do not currently disclose the factories they source products from. While the company annually publishes the number of suppliers it sources from in 12 core countries, it doesn’t provide any information on individual factories.

In response to Earthsight’s findings, H&M told edie: “The findings from Earthsight’s report are highly concerning and we take these very seriously.

“We are in close dialogue with Better Cotton to follow the result of the investigation and the next steps that will be taken to strengthen and review their standard. Therefore, we kindly refer to Better Cotton for more information on the next steps that are being taken as a result of their investigation.”

Comments (1)

  1. VG says:

    It’s truly disheartening to discover that Anders Polvsen, the mastermind behind H&M, is leveraging the rewilding concept to polish his public image. It’s high time we, as consumers, stop supporting brands that prioritize their reputation over the planet’s well-being.

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