SUSTAINABILITY
21/08/2020 11:02 AM AEST | Updated 21/08/2020 11:02 AM AEST

Fashion And Beauty Industries Have A Huge, Invisible Environmental Cost

Clothing and beauty companies can have a terrible impact on wildlife, but these brands are working to tackle that.

Petmal via Getty Images
People rarely think about where the raw materials to make their clothes and beauty products come from.

When you pull on that T-shirt or pair of shoes, you probably don’t think about where the cotton or leather to make them came from. The same is likely true when you apply lotion or spritz your favorite fragrance. 

Many of the raw materials in your clothes and beauty products come from farms and forests (or more specifically deforested areas) — and the environmental costs can be huge. The fashion and beauty industries are big drivers of deforestation and biodiversity loss. But a handful of big brands are trying to change that.

Natura &Co, the Brazilian beauty group that counts Avon, Body Shop and Aesop among its brands, announced ambitious goals in June to halt any deforestation of the Amazon rainforest associated with production of its cosmetics by 2030. The counterintuitive plan? Take more from the forest than ever before.

The company currently uses 38 ingredients derived from Amazonian plants for its lotions, soaps and fragrances. It plans to add an additional 55 ingredients from the area and nearly double its forest footprint. The strategy is to help preserve the forest by paying local communities more for continuing to harvest seeds and fruits from trees than they would make cutting the trees down to sell.

Natural ingredients for cosmetics can be worth hundreds of times the value of the tree they grow on. Buriti oil from the fruit of the moriche palm, for instance, which Natura uses in hair oils and soaps, can command as much as $200 per kilogram in Europe. By buying the fruit, brands save the trees, protect wildlife and keep important carbon-sequestering land intact.

Guenter Fischer via Getty Images
The moriche palm growing in the Amazon river basin in Brazil. Buriti oil from the fruit of the palm sells for as much as $200 per kilogram in Europe.

“The Amazon is one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth,” said Silvia Lagnado, sustainable growth officer at Natura &Co. “With more than three million species living in the rainforest — more than 2,500 tree species, and one-third of all tropical trees that exist on earth — it should be important to us all.”

The beauty group, which has been working to protect biodiversity in the Amazon for 16 years, is one of a number of fashion and cosmetics companies digging deep into their supply chains to investigate the impact of their products on biodiversity and making bold promises to change their practices to protect the Earth’s species.

Damage to wildlife is often invisible to consumers.

“Nature loss is a planetary emergency,” said Samantha Deacon, senior management consultant at Ramboll, a Danish engineering consultancy with a focus on sustainable change. Human activity has caused the loss of more than 80% of wild land animals and half of plants and threatens some one million species with extinction. 

From wildlife loss to deforestation, the decrease in biodiversity weakens ecosystems. That in turn threatens food security, fresh water supplies and soil fertility, as well as increasing the risk of infectious diseases and diminishing the natural storage of carbon, exacerbating the climate crisis. 

What’s more, it’s bad for business. “Fashion and cosmetics industries rely directly on natural resources for their products,” Deacon said. Globally, $44 trillion — over half of the world’s gross domestic product — depends on thriving natural ecosystems

While overconsumption and garment workers’ rights have rightly captured public attention in recent years, the way raw materials for clothing are obtained and the biodiversity harmed in the process is often “invisible to consumers,” said Julie Stein, co-founder and executive director of the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network (WFEN). “Consumers don’t intuitively think, ‘What’s happening to wildlife?’” 

But it’s a question that needs asking. The land- and water-intensive growing of cotton uses more pesticides and insecticides than almost any other major crop, threatening soil biodiversity, toxifying rivers and lakes, and leading to declines in pollinator populations. To make viscose, rayon and other “cellulosic” fabrics ― very popular alternatives to cotton, polyester and silk ― the world cuts down 150 million trees a year. High demand for skin and hair care ingredients has led to illegal logging and deforestation in the already-threatened Amazon. 

Kelly Cheng Travel Photography via Getty Images
Rusting ships around the Aral Sea, which lies between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. It was once the world's fourth-largest lake, but overextraction of water to irrigate cotton crops has shrunk the Aral Sea by more than 90%.

“The connection between fashion and agriculture is often overlooked,” said Katrina ole-MoiYoi, sustainable sourcing specialist at Kering, the fashion group that owns Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, among other high-end retail brands. “Yet because the materials in our clothing come from farms, rangelands and forests, our core business is dependent on the health of those ecosystems.”

How to tackle a problem like biodiversity. 

Kering has been publicly tracking the environmental impacts of its supply chain since 2012. Following the path of clothing items from raw material to processing, manufacturing, assembly and finally stocking stores and warehouses, the company figured out how much each step contributes to total emissions, water use, pollution and waste. 

It identified the sourcing of raw materials as the biggest factor in nearly every impact category. Around the globe, from Mongolia to New Zealand to Sweden, the company tallied some 330,000 hectares of farmland, rangeland, mining sites, and other areas used to produce its raw materials, including sheep’s wool, cashmere, viscose, gold and gemstones.

In July, Kering set out a strategy to reverse its negative effects on plant and animal species in those regions and beyond. Among its targets is a commitment to have a “net positive” impact on biodiversity by 2025 by “regenerating and protecting an area around six times the total land footprint of [its] entire supply chain.” 

Working with academics and conservation organizations, the company developed plans that involve reforesting; monitoring soil health, tree development and carbon sequestration levels; reducing the use of agro-chemicals; restoring former gold mining sites; and planting species with high nitrogen-fixation, which helps fertilize soil.

The strategy also commits Kering to convert one million hectares of farms and rangeland to regenerative agriculture by 2025. This means working with farmers around the world to cultivate with a focus on soil health, water management, crop rotation, plant diversity and improving natural resources rather than depleting them. 

How exactly these plans will affect operations is not yet clear. The next step is to “develop an operational plan” and publicly report on key areas of progress, the company says in its report.

We ignore the interconnected nature of biodiversity and human life at our peril.Lee Holdstock of Soil Association Certification

“This kind of attention to biodiversity is really important,” said Ray Victurine, also a WFEN co-founder and a director at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “We need brands to commit to supporting sustainable production approaches and actively committing to purchase materials that are produced to the highest standards ― ecologically and socially.”

For efforts like these to have a truly meaningful effect, they have to be replicated across the industry, which is why Kering spearheaded the 2019 Fashion Pact, a promise by 250 global fashion and textile brands to fight global warming, protect the oceans and restore biodiversity. 

“Collaborating with our peers to promote good practices and goals around biodiversity is vital,” ole-MoiYoi said. 

Victurine agrees: “If we get too focused on one brand, it’s not going to be sustainable.” He added that it’s crucial to enlist the cooperation of non-governmental organizations and governments to set and enforce sustainability standards on national scales.

Like Natura &Co, Kering plans to protect biodiversity by expanding the “basket of materials” used by its brands, meaning that it will manufacture with a wider range of materials and rely less on those now heavily used. 

“There is a need to vary the product materials, alleviating the pressure on resources,” said Lee Holdstock of Soil Association Certification, a leading U.K.-based provider of organic certification services. 

Strategies aimed at preserving natural habitats often have the added benefits of preserving traditional trades and supporting local economies. For the soles of all of its sneakers, the organic and fair trade French shoe brand Veja buys Amazonian rubber from the far western corner of Brazil, where seringueiros, or rubber tappers, bleed latex (rubber in its liquid form) from trees according to Indigenous traditions dating back hundreds of years. 

When synthetic rubber made from petroleum came on the market in the 1980s, the price of natural rubber dropped, said Sebastian Kopp, co-founder of Veja. “Many seringueiros abandoned this work, too tiring for the financial reward, and turned to cattle breeding.”

But raising cattle is a leading cause of deforestation. To help support Indigenous communities that carry on rubber tapping and to preserve trees, Veja pays seringueiros double the market rate for their rubber. 

“By economically valuing the alive forest, we show them that bleeding the trees and collecting the latex will enable them to earn more money than by raising cattle,” Kopp said. It’s exactly the same approach as that of Natura &Co: Protect the forest by creating sustainable economic opportunities for those who live there.

This link between preservation and livelihood is vital, said Holdstock. “We ignore the interconnected nature of biodiversity and human life at our peril,” he said. “Whilst organizations may want to promote biodiversity, if they do not ensure fair pay and treatment of the people within their supply chains then this may be at risk.”

None of this is a straightforward journey and the fashion and beauty industries have a long way to go. 

Veja still uses leather ― which is another driver of deforestation. Kopp said the brand makes sure the material doesn’t come from deforested areas but admits it is hard to track leather supply chains. “It can be very opaque and have many suppliers from the farms to the tanneries,” where hide is processed into leather, he said, adding that Veja plans to post a full report on its website soon.

The company works with the Leather Working Group, a sustainability nonprofit, to ensure the chemicals used in its tanning processes don’t negatively affect the environment.

Kering, which also uses leather, states in its biodiversity strategy that it too does not work with suppliers that source from farms involved in deforestation of the Amazon. The company has managed to trace 90% of its leather to the countries where the cows were raised and to the individual slaughterhouses; ole-MoiYoi said it is working toward 100% traceability to the farm by 2025. 

For its watch straps, shoes and bags, Kering also continues to use crocodilian skins — those from crocodiles, alligators and caimans. They come from areas such as Madagascar and the U.S., and are processed in the company’s own tannery in Normandy.

Killing animals may seem counter to preservation goals, but some conservation experts say that raising animals in a carefully managed way can have net benefits for biodiversity. A species that is highly valued by humans can lead to habitat protection, explained Daniel Natusch, a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) specialist groups on crocodiles, boas and pythons, and lizards. For example, in Louisiana, a popular spot for alligator farming, just 20 nests can earn tens of thousands of dollars each year. That makes it worthwhile for landowners to spend the $150,000 per acre needed to restore native wetlands degraded by years of oil drilling and keep them healthy enough to sustain new generations of animals.

Natusch admits that for animal lovers like him, it’s unsettling “that a beautiful animal might get taken ... and made into a handbag.” But he noted that while farmers may take up to 80% of eggs, the mortality rate for alligator young in the wild is actually as high as 90%. 

A lower rate of mortality and renewed habitat is “great for the alligators,” he said, “but it’s also phenomenal for the snapping turtles and fish and all the other biodiversity that calls the habitat home. The reason IUCN supports it is ... wetlands sequester about 50 times more carbon than your average Amazon rainforest.”

The time to act is now.

While starting points, focuses and targets may differ, everyone that HuffPost spoke to agreed on the importance of the fashion and beauty industries taking action to save biodiversity. “I never thought I’d see it happen in my lifetime, frankly,” Stein said. 

She pointed to the Kering strategy as being particularly pioneering thanks, in part, to the wildlife experts on its staff.

Stein also noted potential challenges and oversights among brand biodiversity strategies as a whole: Corporate plans often lack detail on how targets are defined and set, do not “drill down deep enough” into issues such as endangered species needing rapid interventions, and do not actively incorporate the recommendations of global experts. 

But what we’re seeing so far from fashion and beauty is a good start, she emphasized.

“We all have to do what we can right now,” Deacon said. “If we do it in five or 10 years, it’s going to be too late. This is nature’s moment.”

HuffPost’s “Work In Progress” series focuses on the impact of business on society and the environment and is funded by Porticus. It is part of the “This New World” series. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from Porticus. If you have an idea or tip for the editorial series, send an email to thisnewworld@huffpost.com.

Polling, News, Analysis
All the latest from the 2020 presidential election from HuffPost reporters in the US and around the world