- Global fashion brands touting sustainability claims continue to buy from their contract factories in Cambodia that burn illegally logged wood in their boilers.
- Mongabay reached out to 14 international brands that listed factories identified in a report as using illegal forest wood, but they either didn’t respond or evaded questions on illegal logging in their supply chains.
- One prominent brand, Sweden’s H&M, has developed an app that allows its partner factories to identify deliveries of forest wood, but industry insiders say there are ways to circumvent it, and that the government should be playing a bigger role in the issue.
- This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network where Gerald Flynn was a fellow. *Names have been changed to protect sources who said they feared reprisals from the authorities.
KAMPONG SPEU, Cambodia — “Going into the forest is dangerous, some people die when trees fall on them, but they are desperate,” said Saroeun*, a logger who makes multiple trips each day into Central Cardamoms National Park in southwest Cambodia’s Kampong Speu province.
“They don’t know what else to do: if we don’t go to cut trees, we don’t have money,” he added. “I go every day and risk my life. I struggle and have to persist with my life in the forest.”
The timber that Saroeun illegally cuts and transports from the forest to his village of Kteh will change hands many times, being bought and sold until it comes to rest in a garment factory, possibly in Kampong Speu province, neighboring Kandal province or further afield in Phnom Penh. Whichever factory buys the wood, it will be incinerated to generate thermal energy used for steaming, washing, dyeing or ironing fabrics — likely as part of an international fashion brand’s supply chain.
But Saroeun has no way of knowing this from his wooden stilted house on the outskirts of the forest, largely because he’s insulated — and isolated — by the seemingly deliberate opacity of garment factories’ supply chain. He risks life, limb and liberty each day to scrape by on the few dollars’ profit he can eke out of forest crimes.
And while he’s part of an informal network of illegal loggers who have been cutting, transporting and selling timber to meet the demands of Cambodia’s garment factories for decades, he’s just one of hundreds if not thousands whose logging fuels the factories that fashion brands buy from.
The global fashion industry, valued at $2.5 trillion prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, is no stranger to allegations that its vast profits have come at the expense of forests worldwide. In November 2021, the nonprofit Slow Factory implicated more than 100 international brands in deforestation across the Amazon that was largely linked to opaque cattle supply chains feeding both the beef and fashion industries.
Beyond leather, other materials that the fashion industry relies upon, like rubber, have also been tied to the clearing of huge tracts of forest to make way for commodity plantations. In Cambodia, rubber plantations have seen people lose their farms, homes and freedom in the land disputes between plantation owners and often Indigenous communities.
Even the fashion industry’s attempts to reduce its sprawling environmental footprint have come under scrutiny, with a rising demand for cellulose fabrics having resulted in the loss of “ancient and endangered forests” along with the destruction of other ecosystems to make way for more plantations.
Other environmental impacts of the fashion industry are more direct.
Roughly a third of the estimated 1,200 garment factories across Cambodia were burning through an average of 562 metric tons of forest wood every day, using it as fuel for generating thermal energy, according to researchers at Royal Holloway, University of London, who conducted a study in 2021.
In 2019, international sustainability-focused NGO GERES reported that 70% of the wood used by Cambodian garment factories was sourced from natural forests. According to GERES, some 300,000 metric tons of wood are burned by Cambodian factories each year, releasing roughly 368,000 metric tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere in the process. This makes up more than 38% of the estimated 780,000 metric tons of wood that are burned by Cambodia’s industrial sector every year, according to GERES.
‘No upside, unlimited downside’ to greater transparency
In May 2023, Mongabay reached out to 881 garment factories across Cambodia to ask whether they used wood as fuel. All 881 factories were listed as members of the Textile, Apparel, Footwear & Travel Goods Association in Cambodia (TAFTAC) at the time.
But only one factory responded, denying it was using any wood, legal or otherwise, as a fuel source.
Reporters also sent separate questions directly to the 48 factories that were identified by the Royal Holloway researchers as using forest wood to fuel their boilers.
Again, Mongabay received just one response, again denying the allegations, but offering little else.
Ken Loo, TAFTAC’s secretary-general, said the lack of responses was because “Factories don’t bother responding to journalists. No upside, unlimited downside.”
He added that it wasn’t necessarily the topic of deforestation that factories wanted to avoid, but interactions with the press in general.
When asked if he felt Cambodia’s garment sector could benefit from greater transparency, Loo replied “Not really. Again, no upside, unlimited downside. And what would happen if there was less transparency? Nothing.”
But while Loo wouldn’t elaborate on what “unlimited downsides” might consist of, Cambodia’s garment sector has already faced intense scrutiny from the European Union, which in February 2020 chose to partially reduce Cambodia’s access to its preferential trading system Everything But Arms in response to human and labor rights abuses.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia since 1985, recently dismissed the impact of a potential full revocation from the EU. But even prior to the EU making any final decision, Cambodia’s garment sector has seen a roughly 20% drop in the value of its exports between the first five months of 2022 and 2023, the government’s own export data show.
With the passage of the EU’s anti-deforestation legislation on April 19, the potential for this law’s scope — which already covers leather and rubber — to expand could see further punitive measures taken due to the Cambodian garment sector’s refusal to acknowledge or address its longstanding connection to illegal deforestation.
Laurie Parsons, senior lecturer in human geography at Royal Holloway, said in a 2021 interview with Mongabay that the figure of 562 metric tons of forest wood incinerated daily by Cambodian factories was likely an underestimate.
Reporters were able to independently verify the use of forest wood in a handful of factories in Kampong Speu province by following loggers into the biodiverse, 402,352-hectare (994,233-acre) protected area of Central Cardamoms National Park, revealing the supply chain as the wood traveled, being sold and resold, from province to province before reaching garment factories.
But Parsons said in a 2023 interview with Mongabay that the scale of the problem requires a top-down approach.
“In the case of the garment sector, the responsibility lies with the brands who have the funds and capacity to oversee fuel use in their supply chains — and who ultimately profit from claims of good environmental practice,” Parsons said by email. “Brands like to pass the buck on to ‘partner’ factories themselves, but this is such a widespread issue that you can’t place the blame on any given factory.”
Fashion brands fall largely silent
Using data generated by Parsons, Mongabay reached out to 14 international brands that listed factories identified during Parsons’ 2021 report as part of their 2023 supply chains, to gauge the urgency with which fashion brands view alleged illegal deforestation within their supply chains.
Target Group, which reported $109 billion in profits for 2022, owns at least 25 brands, many of them selling apparel and bedding. According to its most recently published suppliers’ list, Target sources from 58 Cambodian factories. The lack of detail between specific brands the group owns and the Cambodian factories they buy from makes it difficult to determine which factories provide which products to Target Group, but five factories listed as suppliers of Target in October 2022 were also listed on Parsons’ data set as using forest wood.
Target Group did not respond to questions sent by Mongabay. The company’s own forest products policy makes little mention of garments, clothing or its apparel brands, but states “Target will work actively with its vendors, suppliers and other stakeholders to implement our policy by eliminating any unacceptable sources, and progressively increasing the amount of responsible wood, paper, paper-based packaging and wood-based fiber over time.”
It remains unclear what Target Group view as “unacceptable sources” although the scope of this policy seemingly extends beyond just packaging to cover “all of Target’s owned brand products and packaging containing a majority of wood-based material.”
Another five factories that Parsons’ data found to be using forest wood also appeared in British retailer Next PLC’s March 2023 suppliers’ list available on the Open Supply Hub. Next PLC, which reported £823 million ($1.05 billion) in profits before tax for 2022, did not respond to a request for comment from Mongabay.
But the company’s January 2023 corporate responsibility report acknowledges risks of deforestation among products made using timber and leather, without mentioning the issue of wood burned by the factories it sources its clothing and footwear from.
Likewise, VF Corporation, whose brands include Vans, Timberland, The North Face, Eastpak, JanSport and Supreme, to name a few, did not respond to questions sent by Mongabay about three factories that the Open Supply Hub lists as suppliers per VF Corporation’s 2023 Q4 supplier list. Out of the 49 factories listed by VF Corporation as Cambodian suppliers, three were identified as using forest wood by Parsons’ data.
Jammers Apparel Group is a Canadian company that trade records show has received shipments from Cambodia’s Hui Yuan Garment since 2019, with the last known shipment reported on July 17, 2022. Hui Yuan Garment is one of the factories that Mongabay reporters verified earlier this year was using forest wood. It’s unclear whether Jammers still sources from Hui Yuan Garment, but the apparel company declined to answer questions sent by Mongabay.
Similarly, Gap Inc., C&A, Levi Strauss, Kiabi Fashion and Matalan did not respond to requests for comment, despite all having at least one factory listed as a current supplier that was found to be using forest wood in 2021 by Parsons. British retailer Asda only lists press contacts’ phone numbers, but repeated calls to both, as well as filing a request through Asda’s online contact portal, went unanswered.
A representative of Inditex, the Spanish-owned self-proclaimed “family of brands” that includes Zara, responded only to inquire about the Cambodian factory, saying it would check to see if it was currently one of its suppliers. Inditex did not respond to questions put forth by reporters.
Primark, the Irish discount fashion brand, similarly requested the names of the factories listed as using forest wood, “so that we can investigate this,” but did not answer specific questions about illegal logging within its supply chain by press time.
At press time, it was unclear whether Inditex or Primark had conducted any investigation.
Much of the information that Mongabay used to track brands’ supply chains across Cambodia stems from each brand’s willingness to publish their supplier lists. Many do so through the Open Supply Hub, an open-access database of supply chains that aims to help make sense of the — sometimes deliberately — opaque networks that make up global trade.
“It’s a symptom of the way the whole garment industry works: as a series of disintegrated production processes over which most brands have little direct oversight and claim very little responsibility,” said Parsons of Royal Holloway when asked about how the opacity of fashion brands’ supply chains affects accountability when it comes to deforestation.
“It’s a great arrangement for lead firm profits,” he added. “But a terrible one for environmental protection, so that mindset needs to change.”
As such, it’s easier to scrutinize the brands that have committed to uploading their supplier data either to the Open Supply Hub or independently than it is those that still refuse to make their source of profits public.
“Without any legally mandated requirement for increased transparency by factories or brands in garment producing countries, then it’s often much easier not to share data,” said one industry insider who requested anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the press.
Many big brands, such as Walmart, continue to hide this information from the public, opting not to publish supplier lists — although efforts have been made, via 2013 shipping data, to understand Walmart’s presence in Cambodia. Walmart did not respond to requests for comment via its online press portal.
But Walmart is just one example, according to the 2022 Fashion Transparency Index: out of 250 brands surveyed, 48% disclosed their tier 1 factories, those that produce the final products for brands.
But only 32% of brands surveyed published details of their processing facilities, and just 12% released their raw material supplier lists. As such, brands that deliberately obfuscate their supply chains by refusing to publish data often find they can better escape accountability and scrutiny than those that abide by best practices regarding transparency.
Transparency? There’s an app for that
All of the brands that opted not to respond to Mongabay boast variations of commitments to environmentally conscious or sustainable business practices. However, only two of the 15 fashion companies that reporters reached out to were willing to discuss deforestation within their supply chains.
Among those was Swedish conglomerate H&M Group, a pioneer of the environmentally devastating fast fashion movement that has seen waste produced by brands — and consumers — soar in conjunction with shifting trends. It has also faced allegations that the brand has greenwashed its environmental impact by marketing H&M Group’s products as more environmentally and socially sustainable than those of its competitors, resulting in lawsuits.
A representative for the Swedish brand initially offered reporters a tour of a factory to see a boiler in action, but that offer was rescinded after reporters requested being allowed to take photos and speak to factory workers independent of brand representatives or factory management. H&M said it was unable to find a factory that could accommodate these requests.
Reporters identified four Cambodian factories listed as suppliers by H&M Group that were found to be using forest wood in 2021, including one factory burning a mixture of cashew wood, forest wood and garments as fuel for its boiler.
A spokesperson for H&M Group responded to questions from Mongabay without referring directly to the four factories, noting that the Swedish fashion giant had introduced a policy in 2021 preventing the onboarding of new factories that use fabric waste as fuel while also helping existing suppliers find replacements for burning fabric waste. This practice, despite releasing chemicals toxic to both workers and the environment, has long been carried out using brick kilns across Cambodia. H&M Group maintained that none of its factories is still burning fabric waste as fuel.
“Supporting factories to have the lowest environmental impact possible is key to H&M Group’s sustainability work, and the Wood AI app is one tool in Cambodia to ensure this,” the spokesperson said in an email to Mongabay.
Developed over two years by Forests.ai and piloted over the course of 2022, the Wood AI app was conceived by H&M Group in partnership with WWF to identify wood species arriving at Cambodian garment factories, allowing factory staff to reject deliveries of wood identified as natural forest wood, which is more likely to have been sourced illegally.
The app requires staff at factories supplying to H&M Group to take three samples of wood from each delivery, score a notch in the wood using a knife, and then examine the sample with a macro lens attached to a smartphone. The images are then fed into a database where artificial intelligence examines the samples and matches them up against known species of wood, thereby determining their legality.
“The Wood AI app represents an important contribution to addressing some of the drivers that are causing deforestation,” Neth Pheaktra, spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment, said in a joint press release with H&M Group and WWF. “The Ministry encourages other clothing brands to follow this example and also support efforts to save natural forests and wildlife for the long-term benefit of people and nature.”
While attending an August 2022 press conference for the launch of Wood AI, Pheaktra declined to answer questions on the need for the app and lack of sustainable timber supplies in Cambodia, saying he “encouraged people not to use forest wood.” But H&M Group’s spokesperson detailed the necessity of steps to address the issue.
An unpublished 2021 report by GERES that was commissioned by H&M Group and seen by Mongabay said that up to 70% of wood used in Cambodian garment factories, not just those that H&M Group buys from, comes from legal and illegal sources, representing little change in the two years since GERES’s last public report on the issue. “But proving provenance is difficult due to the unclear nature of certification and permits for legal sources, and the overlapping wood species included in both illegal and legal wood sources,” said H&M Group’s spokesperson.
In particular, the spokesperson noted that the demand for forest wood stems from the perception that it has a higher calorific content than plantation woods such as cashew, acacia, mango or rubber trees.
However, a legal distinction that applies specifically to the Cambodian context is the division of forest wood: that which is illegally harvested from protected forests, and that which is legally cleared from economic land concessions or community forests.
“The reason for the app’s existence is to overcome this challenge,” the spokesperson continued. “And it has therefore been a strong success. Any piece of mango, acacia, rubber, tamarind or cashew tree is identified as such, and any other wood species will similarly be flagged to not be accepted by our suppliers.”
Limitations to the solution
But while the Wood AI app attempts to bring about transparency in an area where the Cambodian garment sector has thrived in opacity, the success — or failure — of H&M Group’s initiative will “rest on the denial of sale at the factories,” according to one regional researcher familiar with Cambodia’s garment sector who requested their name not be published.
“Factories are being told to shape up, but middlemen who buy and sell the wood aren’t being kept in the loop,” the regional researcher said, adding that this could likely lead to middlemen stacking forest wood at the bottom of their minivans, so that when three pieces are taken as samples, they will likely come from the top of the pile.
“These trucks and vans arrive layered with wood, it’s heavy, it’s hard to check beyond the first or second layer,” they added. “Factory owners can and will cheat the system because it’s grim work.”
The risk that bad-faith actors may try to game the system is one that H&M Group said it’s aware of.
“No system is perfect,” H&M Group’s spokesperson said. “But we are confident that the tool represents a huge leap forward in boosting transparency around biomass sources, and therefore reduces the potential use of non-sustainable biomass sources.”
The level of scrutiny applied by the app, they added, far exceeds anything currently seen in Cambodian factories, and the app’s usage is monitored, allowing H&M to see how many pieces of wood have been scanned, whether this matches the number of deliveries reported, and what level of forest wood is being detected in comparison to plantation wood.
Yet even H&M Group conceded that the app’s effectiveness at phasing out forest wood will hinge on factories training workers how to use the app, as well as engagement with the middlemen who provide the wood to establish clearer supply chains. But the app was never touted as a magic bullet. Even at the press conference in August 2022 launching Wood AI, representatives from H&M Group and WWF presented it more as a tool within a toolbox.
To reduce the reliance on forest wood would require proper distribution networks for sustainable biomass, H&M Group’s spokesperson said, pointing to rice husks, cashew shells, sugarcane stalks and other agricultural waste products.
There would also need to be a shift from wood as fuel to electricity, although garment factories are banned from generating more than 50% of their electricity via on-site solar by Electricité du Cambodge (EDC), Cambodia’s state-owned power utility.
However, a new document published in April 2023 by the Ministry of Mines and Energy suggests that new tariffs could replace the current system of monthly capacity fees that have been the bane of factory owners and potential investors hoping to capitalize on Cambodia’s potential for solar power generation as a means to escape high electricity prices and frequent blackouts.
“The barriers include the cost of electricity compared to biomass, the upfront cost of replacing existing boilers with electric systems, some technical limitations in which processes and steam-pressures there are good alternatives for electrification for, and the disruption to production linked to power cuts,” H&M Group’s spokesperson said, adding that this was felt particularly keenly among factories where fabrics are washed or dyed due to the large volume of water needed.
The industry insider, who requested anonymity, said Cambodia’s electricity prices are some of the highest in Asia, driving factories to cheaper fuel sources like wood. But they added that electric boilers would be “totally feasible.”
“How positive the new rules are is still to be seen, as the twice-yearly pricing impacts a factory’s ability to predict energy costs, and therefore what to charge brands for products made,” they said, adding that power purchase agreements could be worked out by the government for factories to contract renewable energy from the national grid.
The regional researcher who also requested anonymity agreed with the industry insider’s assessment that electric boilers are feasible. But they warned the instability surrounding Cambodia’s access to the EU’s preferential trading scheme has made more factory owners reluctant to buy into newer, cleaner equipment over fears they won’t be able to recoup their investments.
Calculating the damage
“As a business sourcing commodities from countries where these issues [are] a risk, we recognize this threat and are working both within our supply chain and across the sector to ensure the products we sell are deforestation and conversion free,” wrote Danni Burnett, media relations manager at Sainsbury’s, a British supermarket chain that owns Tu clothing and retailer Argos, in response to questions from Mongabay about deforestation within Sainsbury’s supply chain.
“We conducted investigations into suppliers which were previously identified and continue to engage Winsand Garment and Knitting Factory and Goldfame Star Enterprises on their sourcing practices for fuel,” Burnett wrote, although it’s unclear what Sainsbury’s found or what, if any, actions it took.
Winsand Garment and Knitting Factory, based in Kandal province, was among the 48 identified by Royal Holloway’s Parsons as using forest wood in 2021. But reporters weren’t able to independently verify whether it continued to use forest wood as a fuel source. The factory owners didn’t respond to questions posed by Mongabay.
Goldfame Star Enterprises, while not identified as using forest wood by Parsons, is one of the largest factories in Cambodia and is widely regarded by industry insiders as having the largest reliance on wood, yet nobody seems to know where the wood comes from.
Neither attempts to reach Catherine Chan, director of Goldfame Group, nor the contact details listed for Goldfame Star Enterprises in Cambodian Ministry of Commerce records yielded any response from the factory, leaving the source of its uniquely large supply of timber difficult to determine.
Burnett went on to detail various initiatives that Sainsbury’s partakes in that aim to curb deforestation within its supply chain. She noted that, in 2021, Sainsbury’s announced its own-brand products will have supply chains free from deforestation and land conversion by 2025, albeit with a 2020 cutoff date.
“To deliver this, we require all our garment suppliers to complete the Higg facility environmental module [Higg FEM],” she said. “This helps us to understand how our facilities measure and evaluate their environmental performance, including the energy sources that they use.”
In 2011, the Higg Index was created by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), an industry-led group, that aims to standardize the measures of sustainability within supply chains through certifications across emissions, waste management, energy use, chemical management, wastewater and other environmental management systems.
The Higg FEM assessment provides each factory with a score out of 100 based on how sustainable its environmental impact is deemed by the index’s criteria.
According to Angela Ng, director of Higg Facility Tools at the SAC, there are some 400 factories across Cambodia that have adopted the Higg FEM tool, with another 60-80% more engaging with it each year.
“Sustainability issues are in the spotlight like never before, and this should be welcomed,” Ng told Mongabay via email.
Better government oversight needed
However, when reporters requested Higg FEM scores of participating factories in Cambodia, Ng and the SAC declined to share this data — even in aggregate form to avoid singling out individual factories.
“We agree that singling out factories or brands is not the way to drive productive industry-wide change,” Ng said, adding that the SAC had seen, on average, a 15% year-on-year improvement among participating Cambodian factories.
But the limited transparency from the SAC makes it hard to discern where progress has been made, or from what baseline. Ng also conceded that, “At the moment the Higg FEM tool does not take into account locations of where biomass is sourced from.”
As such, Cambodian factories currently receive a better Higg FEM score for burning wood — whether legally sourced from a plantation or illegally logged from a protected forest — than they would for converting to an electric boiler and relying on mains electricity that is largely sourced from fossil fuels.
Ng was quick to add that this is something the new and revised Higg FEM 4.0 seeks to address.
“The main difference in the Higg FEM 4.0 is that we will be able to capture, report and identify how many facilities are using biomass without a sustainable certificate, as well as what type of biomass they are using,” she said.
For the industry insider, Higg FEM remains “the best tool the sector has” and noted that Higg FEM 4.0 will partially address the issue of illegal logging within brands’ supply chain. But, they added, “Where is the role of Cambodian government in this discussion?”
Despite appearing at the joint press conference in August 2022 for the launch of the Wood AI app, Pheaktra, a former journalist turned government spokesperson, has since not responded to specific questions about the garment sector’s contribution toward the loss of Cambodia’s forests.
When told of the silence reporters were met with when contacting Pheaktra at the Ministry of Environment, the industry insider responded, “Again, where is the role of the Cambodian government in enforcing its already existing laws on forest clearance?”
“The consumption of wood in Cambodia for thermal heat, whether for garments, bricks or ice is simply making use of the available resources,” they added. “It requires a level of due diligence far beyond [corporate] compliance in Cambodia to ensure that globally understood rules of sustainably sourced biomass are met.”
Banner image: An aerial view of the 2.25 hectare timber depot at Goldfame Star Enterprises’ garment factory in Kandal province, Cambodia. Image by Andy Ball for Mongabay.
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