You almost sensed it was coming.
First oil, then gas, then sweatshops, then diamonds, then palm oil, cotton, soy and now beef.
Just a few of the products we consume every day where tracing back the supply chain can have shocking results.
Increasingly, findings back in the chain are becoming more widely publicised and companies are having to be ever-nimbler in their responses.
Greenpeace is now targeting high street brand names that source Brazilian leather in their latest campaign.
Typically, the companies named as not being good enough at tracing where in Brazil their leather comes from are some of the leading brands in sustainability.
Nike, Timberland and Adidas are all mentioned several times on the first page of the report's website.
And in going after the leaders in the field, Greenpeace do not mince their words:
"While the US-based companies behind reputable global brands like Adidas, Nike, Reebok, and Timberland appear to believe that Amazon sources are excluded from their products, our investigations expose for the first time how their blind consumption of raw materials fuels deforestation and climate change"
Greenpeace says the value of Brazil’s cattle trade in 2008 was: "nearly $7 billion, more than a quarter of which came from leather. One in every three tons of beef traded internationally comes from Brazil, and the country’s government forecasts that by 2018 almost two out of every three tons of beef will come from Brazil."
And, alongside deforestation there are human rights issues too:
"Trade data also reveal trade with ranches using modern-day slavery".
Many of the papers have covered the new report in various amounts of detail.
For the brands, here is the most important bit:
"...criminal or “dirty” supplies of cattle are being “laundered” through this supply chain to an unwitting global market"
Greenpeace is using the old tactic of highlighting the most visible and active brands in the supply chain space (Nike and Timberland particularly) to gain traction on others when they announce changes to their sourcing and supply chain auditing policies.
But asking companies such as these to police the whole supply chain, or drive systemic change on their own, is unrealistic.
Greenpeace wants these companies to put pressure on both the Brazilian government and the big producers of leather in Brazil (which aside from climate change has a really serious environmental impact) as a result of their campaign.
This may annoy some companies, who feel they are being made responsible for the state and structure of the Brazilian leather market. No doubt some of the big firms mentioned indeed source little or nothing from the Amazon region, whilst others do, often unknowingly.
Critics will argue that such campaigns often push the biggest companies into better sourcing, but many below that top tier, under the brand radar, simply carry on as before and not much changes except among 5-10 companies at the top end.
Advocates will retort that getting Nike and Timberland (for example) to guarantee their leather is not from the Amazon and to be transparent about where they do get it, could push other big players into action and herald some kind of market shift.
I can see the latter point, but with 90% + of the global apparel market unbranded, it will be a long time before the purchasing power of the well known brands can influence the other nine tenths of the supply chain. Unfortunately.
What is needed is investment into Brazilian institutions and law enforcement. And that is not something apparel brands tend to spend much time or money on.
A few other companies have given this a try in the past. We published a report on them last year that's available here and an article summarising is available, entitled Essay: Governance and institutions – Big brands’ capacity-building success.