Lucy Siegle reports from the anti-deforestation ranches in Cuiabá, Mato Grosso, Brazil, which provides the leather for the new GCC Gucci handbag collection.
Sometimes it’s a game of chance. When a big tree (and we’re talking really big) falls for natural reasons such as disease or old age, it takes out hundreds of species below it. But it leaves a space and a patch of sunlight. And through that sprouts an opportunistic new tree seizing the chance to become part of the top canopy. It’s the epitome of organised chaos – but it works.
Into this we must introduce two interlopers who have had a profound and destructive effect. Both species are aliens in this environment: humankind and cattle. Although the former may have been in Amazonia for circa 12,000 years, the latter only appeared in the last century. Often they both look pretty confused to find themselves there with pairs of macaws screeching above their heads.
On this occasion, it’s the cows I’ve come to see. The Green Carpet Challenge has joined forces with Gucci and launched a new range of luxury anti deforestation leather bags – a massive milestone for sustainability in the fashion industry. The bags are produced at the Sao Marcelo ranches in Cuiabá, Mato Grosso, Brazil. I’ve come to investigate just how the bags are made and what exactly makes them ‘anti deforestation.’ Brazil now has the biggest commercial herd of cows in the world at 175 million head (that’s how number of cows is expressed, apparently). It fuels a beef industry that has grown in a fast and furious manner over the past decade. If you’re reading this post in Europe, North America or Australasia, you might know people who’ve given up red meat. Beef consumption might be diminishing in mature, wealthy societies, but in emerging economies it is growing exponentially as a new wealthier middle class gorges itself on protein. Beef is booming.
The cows raised here are elegant, wide-eyed, lop eared Nelore cows that originate from India. They have a look that says ‘I should be painted pink and worshipped,’ but their fate is far more abrupt. At the age of around four they will be slaughtered for meat and their hides processed into wet blue (the first stage on the processing line of leather, where the hide previously covered in guts and blood begins to resemble blue denim). Every part of the cow will be used – even the tallow from the head finds its way to the personal care industry, ending up in a host of everyday products.
But even in countries where beef eating has plateaued or declined, we are still in love with leather. I undertook a surreal journey around one of the main processing facilities where the hides are deposited unceremoniously by dumper truck. They are then strung up on to hooks until they resemble the most macabre velvet theatre curtains, and finally boiled, washed and processed until resembling denim. The smell is almost overwhelming but the process is undeniably fascinating. When I see the Nelore grazing, I start to imagine the folds of skin on its neck as a handbag. One cow hide makes approximately 40 pairs of sandals or 30 small bags, while a medium-sized ranch ‘processes’ 80,0000 cows a year.
As I travelled deeper into the interior of Brazil to Cuiabá, the agricultural capital of the world in the state of Mato Grosso, I am agog at the amount of cattle and grazing land. Much of this land should be rainforest. A law has been passed to limit the size of these huge ranches, supporting the cause of ecology. It dictates that within the Amazon biome, 80 per cent of land must be rainforest while just 20 per cent can be used for cattle ranches and grazing. In all but one ranch I saw (an exemplar), the split was the other way around: 80 per cent grazing, 20 per cent rainforest (if that). Cattle ranches in Brazil have consistently encroached on the rainforest to the extent that their activities are now driving three quarters of all tropical deforestation.
This means we can draw a direct line between the leather used in fashion to the deforestation of the rainforest.
Here comes the science. NGOs have suspected that this was the case for a long time – after all, it’s not hard to find evidence of clear cutting in this strip of the Amazon biome. But it wasn’t until the application of NASA technology that Greenpeace was able to make some very direct connections. Satellite imagery of Brazil’s ranches showed them to be spreading into the rainforest at an alarming rate. This imagery has been a game changer.
Ecologists and agronomists could then compare and contrast these images with the paper maps showing the legal boundaries of ranches. They could measure by how much the ranches were defying these legal parameters. When Greenpeace launched its report, ‘Slaughtering of the Amazon’ (well worth a read), it uncovered the extent of rainforest encroachment by the massive Brazilian herd. Next, it joined the dots between the leather industry and the illegal ranchers. The results were not pretty.
You might say the solution is to stop wearing leather, though I don’t believe this is particularly viable. Leather is a by-product, as well as a hardwearing and widely-prized material. Can we really imagine fashion without it? However, it is still responsible for deforestation. Who wants to be associated with that?
American NGO, the National Wildlife Federation, is focused on reducing climate change emissions (therefore halting rainforest destruction) and practical solutions. It has taken on the leather issue in a novel and practical way. Talking directly to cowboys and processors, who are the very people who encroached on the rainforest, the idea is to reform Brazil’s cattle industry. Unlike the rest of the world, where we’re grappling with the idea of super dairies, etc., Brazil has too few livestock on too much land. Ranching is spectacularly inefficient and the leather is often below par. The key, according to NWF and its partners, is to bring in better farming methods, getting more return on less land. The cowboys are surprisingly receptive to this. After decades of defensive, pioneering behaviour, could they be starting to listen?
Working with one ranch that already has the right mix of ecology and cows, the NWF is moving towards a world first – a leather supply chain that is guaranteed to be free of links to deforestation. At Eco-Age, we are all about the story and the supply chain, so this appeals to us on a number of levels. It also has the potential to counteract what we might term nonsense labels on leather products, such as ‘Made in Italy,’ where consumers assume that the actual product is from an Italian cow. Those are the labels that lull us into a false sense of security, because there’s every chance that the product has been made from untraceable Brazilian leather, as well as a further risk that the leather is illegally from the Amazon biome.