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Do You Know Where Your Shoes Have Been?

 by Keith Goetzman

Tags: Environment, forests, deforestation, Amazon, cattle, leather, sustainable business, business ethics,

Timberland bootWe’ve previously written about “The True Cost of Leather,” citing the Ecologist’s reporting about toxic tanneries in Bangladesh. It turns out there’s even more to the story if you follow the shoe industry’s supply chain to Brazil—and it might change the way you feel about the shoes you’re wearing right now.

Greenpeace this week announced the release of a report, “Slaughtering the Amazon,” that calls out several major shoe makers for using leather from cattle farms in the Amazon, which are gobbling up rainforest at an alarming rate and hence driving greenhouse gas emissions. Among the makers singled out in the report are Nike, Adidas, Reebok, and two brands that have a place in my own closet: Timberland and Clark’s. I specifically sought out the Timberland brand because of the company’s stated environmental consciousness.

Grist’s Tom Philpott notes that the report “is really about the perils of using state policy to prop up global, corporate-dominated trade” and notes three clear themes:

The expansion of cattle production in Brazil drives Amazon deforestation—and deforestation in turn drives climate change.

The Brazilian government and the World Bank actively support the expansion of the nation’s cattle sector.


The real beneficiaries of such policies are not Brazilians. Indeed, labor conditions on Amazonian cattle farms are harrowing—and often tantamount to slavery, Greenpeace shows. Rather, it’s the companies that buy the products cheap and sell them dear.

Greenpeace allows that some of the companies named may not in fact know that they are using leather from unsustainable Amazon farms, due in part to a convoluted supply chain that effectively “launders” leather supplies from criminal or “dirty” sources. But that doesn’t let them off the hook, it argues, and suggests that people write to the companies and urge them to clean up their acts. Timberland and Clark’s, my letter is in the mail.

(Prologue: Timberland spokeswoman Kate King writes that “Timberland wants to engage with Greenpeace on the issue of tropical deforestation” in a response on Greenpeace’s blog.)

Sources: Greenpeace, Grist

Image by re-ality, licensed under Creative Commons.

kurt schmidt
6/10/2009 7:43:38 PM

Thank you for calling attention to the recently released Greenpeace report on cattle farms in the Amazon. The report does indeed expose the stunning rates of deforestation driven by Brazilian leather production, the important commercial and political implications of current trade policies, and the dire labor conditions and cultural "collateral damage" that are also features of the cattle sector. I certainly appreciate and applaud Greenpeace's research and advocacy in the "Slaughtering the Amazon" report. I was a bit surprised, however, not to find any discussion of the raising and slaughtering of the cattle themselves. It seems to me that it would be instructive--and very much in line with the apparent vision and goals of the report--to consider more fully the treatment of the nonhuman animals involved in the leather production. My guess is that the conditions for the cattle are generally as inhumane as the deforestation is damaging and as the labor conditions are enslaving. In short, I suspect that atmosphere of violence and expediency suffuses the entire process on the cattle farms. It would be helpful, at any rate, to have some concrete information about and coverage of the nonhuman animal context included in a report like "Slaughtering the Amazon." It could only make for a stronger case--and, hopefully, increased protection for all the living beings involved. Kurt Schmidt