The garment sector in Cambodia is fueled by illegal logging. In the global fashion industry, the accusation of profiting at the expense of forests is nothing new. Last year, we published an article about research that highlighted the link between fashion and deforestation in the Amazon.
The protected forest of 402,352 hectares that extends across the provinces of Kampong Speu, Koh Kong and Pursat is considered one of the best preserved rainforests in the country. It is an area rich in biodiversity.
According to a survey conducted by Mongabay (2023)*, garment factories in Cambodia are using wood illegally harvested from these protected areas to fuel their boilers.
The garment industry in Cambodia is a multibillion-dollar industry employing approximately 750,000 people, mostly women, in approximately 1,200 factories that produce clothing, footwear and textile products for the domestic market and for export. Among these factories, about 680 are involved in the production of clothing, footwear and travel items for export.
A Mongabay’s team followed the entire chain from loggers living in impoverished villages risking their lives to find more and more trees, to traders, middlemen operating on very small margins and factories receiving large quantities of wood. In December 2022, reporters discovered that the wood used in one factory came from the depot in Chbar Mon and that the timber was obtained from the Aural Wildlife Sanctuary. The first vehicle seen transporting lumber to the factory was a truck loaded with logs.
The clothing industry association, interested in defending the reputation of the industry, denies that its members use wood from forests. However, due to the informal and opaque nature of the supply chain, it is virtually impossible to guarantee this claim.
Academics have in the past tried to estimate how much wood from forests ends up in Cambodian garment factories. Research conducted in 2021 by Royal Holloway, University of London looked at 255 randomly selected factories to analyze the fuel sources used in their boilers. Out of 160 factories from which responses were obtained, 48 admitted to using exclusively forest-derived wood or a combination of forest-derived wood and other fuel sources. According to Laurie Parsons, senior lecturer in human geography at Royal Holloway, around 30% of factories use wood from forests, which highlights the extent of the problem. Given the sheer scale of deforestation in Cambodia, large-scale industrial use like this may seem insignificant but it is not.
Large quantities of timber continue to be harvested illegally by informal networks of local people, making it even more difficult to control the timber trade.
A study conducted in 2021 by Royal Holloway, University of London, revealed that around a third of Cambodia’s estimated 1,200 garment factories burned an average of 562 tonnes of wood from forests each day as fuel to generate heat. In 2019, the international NGO GERES reported that 70% of the wood used by Cambodian garment factories came from natural forests. According to GERES, about 300,000 tons of wood from forests are burned each year,causing the emission of about 368,000 tons of carbon into the atmosphere.
A local logger, who is part of an informal illegal network that has been operating for decades to meet demand from garment factories, said: “We cut three or four trees per trip. Unless we find a really big one. This tree is already dead, so it’s less risky for us to take it. When we get home, I’ll call a few traders, mostly middlemen who sell the timber to the garment factories.”
Questi taglialegna supply the wood to the factories through intermediaries. A man from Chbar Mon stated that he transports and sells wood to regular customers who then resell the wood to garment factories. He also said that many middlemen cannot sell directly to factories because they take the wood on credit and often refuse to pay at the end of the month, knowing there are no legal consequences for stealing illegally harvested timber.
Mongabay contacted 14 international brands listed in the Parsons report as users of forest-sourced wood, but none responded or provided clear answers on the issue of illegal logging in their supply chains. Mongabay also contacted 881 garment factories in Cambodia that were listed as members of the Textile, Apparel, Footwear & Travel Goods Association of Cambodia (TAFTAC), but only one factory responded denying the use of wood, legal or illegal, as a fuel source.
Among the brands named in the Parsons report as companies with factories that use wood as fuel are:
- Target Group
- Next PLC
- VF Corporation (that includes Vans, Timberland, The North Face, Eastpak, JanSport and Supreme)
- Gap Inc.
- Levi Strauss
- Kiabi Fashion
- Inditex (that includes Zara)
When asked for information, an Inditex representative only replied that he would check if he was currently one of its suppliers. Primark asked for the names of factories listed for using forest timber, “so we can investigate this”, but did not respond to specific questions about illegal logging within its supply chain.
H&M said it uses an app called Wood AI, developed by Forests.ai in collaboration with WWF, which allows partner factories to identify wood from forests. H&M says it monitors usage of the app to ensure wood deliveries match reported information and to detect the level of wood from forests versus plantation wood. However, according to insiders, there are ways to circumvent the system, and they believe the government should play a more active role in the matter.
Wood consumption in Cambodia is exploiting the country’s natural resources and requires government intervention to ensure compliance with internationally recognized rules on biomass sustainability. Dealing with sustainability is a complex task, with countless facets that are difficult to manage, and it needs attention especially before stating that your brand is sustainable.
*Flynn G. e Ball A. 2023, Forests in the furnace: Cambodia’s garment sector is fueled by illegal logging (Part I) e Forests in the furnace: Can fashion brands tackle illegal logging in their Cambodian supply chains? (Part 2), in Mongabay, accessible from https://news.mongabay.com/
Mongabay’s note: 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.