Cotton used by H&M and Zara linked to illegal deforestation: report

By Staff
4 Min Read

Dive Brief:

  • A year-long investigation by nonprofit Earthsight published last week found that cotton grown on what the group said is “stolen” and “deforested” land in Brazil’s Cerrado region appeared in garments approved by supply chain certifier Better Cotton and sold by retail giants H&M and Zara parent company Inditex.
  • The traced cotton is grown in the Brazilian state of Bahia by two of the country’s largest producers, SLC Agrícola and Grupo Horita, per the report, which said both companies have been fined repeatedly for environmental violations. The investigation traced the cotton to eight Asia-based clothing manufacturers that supply H&M and Inditex with “millions” of garments, per the investigation.
  • Both Inditex and H&M said in letters submitted to Earthsight that they had contacted Better Cotton, which in turn said in a September 2023 letter to Earthsight that it would investigate the matter with local certification partners.

Dive Insight:

Better Cotton certifies Brazilian cotton based on assessment by a national cotton producers’ association. Earthsight’s report called this a “serious conflict of interest.” In its September 2023 letter, Better Cotton said that the most recent audits of these suppliers “have not identified any non-compliance issues on these farms” and that both companies in question “deny all allegations.” That letter also noted that “further research is required to determine if these farms are in compliance with the Better Cotton Standard.”

However, in a statement issued April 11 Better Cotton did not release the results of the investigation and instead said it had “conducted an independent audit of the highly concerning issues raised which relate to three Better Cotton licensed farms in the state of Bahia in Brazil. We are committed to making a summary of the findings of the audit available to Earthsight and all our Members.”

Brazil is the world’s second largest cotton exporter behind the U.S. and is expected to become the largest by 2030, per the report. Earthsight’s investigation noted that almost all this cotton is grown in the Cerrado, a natural savanna that stretches across central Brazil, including Bahia, and into neighboring Paraguay and Bolivia. 

About half of the Cerrado’s native vegetation has been lost to agribusiness, with the rate of deforestation increasing 43% from 2022 to 2023, according to the report. This process generates as much carbon per year as the annual emissions of 50 million cars, Earthsight said in the report.

The Horita Group grows cotton on a plantation that in 2018 was found by Bahia’s attorney general to be “one of the largest areas of land grabbed in Brazilian history,” according to the report. A federal law enforcement agency fined Horita a total of $4.5 million for environmental violations between 2010 and 2019, and in 2019, two members of the local community were allegedly shot by guards on the plantation worked by Horita, per Earthsight’s investigation. One of Horita’s owners is being investigated for corruption and bribing, according to the report.

Meanwhile, SLC has been fined more than $250,000 for environmental infractions since 2008 by a federal law enforcement agency and has been accused of violating its own zero-deforestation policy, per the investigation. Both Horita and SLC work on land in a second area that Bahia’s attorney general has called “one of the most serious land grabbing cases in Bahia,” according to the report. 

In an official statement sent to Earthsight, Inditex said it takes “very seriously any information regarding to improper practices in the textile industry.”

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