A drone hovers above, unnoticed by the workmen below, as a yellow excavator plunges its bucket into a large mound of wooden logs, black smoke spewing out its exhaust.
The footage pans out to show a vast expanse of timber piled high in a plot on the outskirts of the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, serving as a mass graveyard for felled trees set to be transported to an adjacent factory.
Without context, it’s a bleak but unremarkable scene of developing world industry—one that usually wouldn’t earn a second glance. But the significance of the images, captured in July, aren’t lost on Laurie Parsons.
The researcher from Royal Holloway, University of London told VICE World News they show, for the first time, trees logged from Cambodian forest being illegally used as fuel in a garment factory supplying major Western brands.
“In terms of the wood burning, it was known in Cambodia and people have been talking about it, but no one has ever put a figure on it and no one has ever got actual proper footage of it,” said Parsons, who specializes in human geography.
The footage, seen by reporters last week, was shot as part of a research project by Parsons exposing the environmental destruction being wrought by supply chains in the developing world producing goods for UK consumers. The damning final report offers the best estimate yet of the amount of woodland being destroyed as Cambodian factories meet an insatiable demand for fast fashion in the West.
Through unpublished data provided exclusively to VICE World News, also directly implicated are several major Western brands—German discount retailer Lidl is the worst offender among them, in a top ten featuring household names Gap Inc, Levi Strauss and Ralph Lauren—as Parsons’ research draws a direct line between them and the environmental destruction committed by their Cambodian suppliers.
“Brands continue to say zero deforestation and zero waste to landfill, and yet many of the factories they use are burning huge amounts of forest wood,” said Parsons, who led the 18-month research project, Disaster Trade: The Hidden Footprint of UK Production Overseas, published on Oct. 13.
“One in three factories in Cambodia now burns forest wood, and those are just the ones that admit it.”
Unlike counterparts like air travel, the global garment industry’s role as a major polluter is often overlooked by consumers. But recent years have seen it described as “the world’s second most polluting industry”, after only oil, while according to the World Bank, it’s responsible for more carbon emissions than international flights and maritime shipping combined.
The key issue, said Parsons, is the environmental destruction hidden in hard-to-trace overseas supply chains, and that although Western nations strictly regulate domestically, overseas it’s like “the wild west”.
“Out of border, out of mind.”
The UK, the focus of Parsons’ research, provides a stark example of this. While domestic environmental legislation is robust, once abroad that “all goes out the window” said Parsons as the country leaves a devastating carbon footprint across the globe.
“The majority of the emissions in countries like the UK are produced overseas,” he said. “Out of border, out of mind.”
Cambodia is one country to which the UK has outsourced carbon emissions through garment production. The Southeast Asian nation produces more than 40,000 tons of clothing for the UK market each year, a figure that despite its vastness only accounts for 4 percent of Britain’s fast-fashion demand.
To produce this, Parsons found that at least 31 percent of the 558 factories represented by the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC) are guilty of illegally burning forest wood—an estimate he said is most certainly far below the true total. Parsons’ findings showed at least 592 tons of forest wood burned by the Cambodian garment industry on a daily basis to produce steam for production purposes, or some 205,130 tons each year.
This practice only adds to Cambodia’s rampant deforestation rates, some of the world’s highest in recent decades. The country lost roughly 24 percent of tree cover between 2001 and 2018, an area equivalent to the size of Israel, eroding wildlife habitats and resulting in once-ubiquitous animals like the Indochinese tiger becoming functionally extinct within its borders.
What’s more, according to Parsons, some 15 percent of factories admitted to burning their own garment waste for fuel, something he said emits “the blackest, thickest smoke you can imagine.”
“There’s a lot of plastic and acrylic in this stuff and it goes up in flames like a kind of fire lighter,” he explained. “I’ve stood around these things as they’re burning with a PM10 meter to measure the atmosphere of the pollution, and it’s literally off the scale.”
The practice contributes to mounting environmental degradation and pollution in Cambodia, encroaching upon the daily lives of nearby residents.
“It’s a massive problem, it’s something that people in the local area are frequently complaining about,” Parsons said. “It’s hugely unhealthy and coats all of their homes and interiors. They have to leave the area when the factory is doing that.”
Dennis Arnold, a geographical political economist at the University of Amsterdam, was not surprised by the findings. He said they demonstrate that the “deleterious consequences of global trade continue to be offshore to poorer countries.”
“These countries are not only stuck at the bottom of the global division of labor in terms of economic development, but they are also suffering the worst forms of environmental degradation,” he said.
When asked by VICE World News about the accusations, Kaing Monika, GMAC deputy secretary general, said that while some isolated incidents of forest wood or garment burning may occur, it didn’t happen at any meaningful scale among its members.
“When people see the wood, they assume it comes from the forest, or from a protected area, which is not the case,” he said, adding that these were likely unproductive rubber trees being burned. “Wood from a protected area is mainly high value wood, it would not be used for burning just to produce just steam.”
But for those close to the industry in Cambodia, there is little to dispute in Parsons’ findings. For one insider, who works on environmental issues for a Western brand but requested not to be named due to the issue’s sensitivity, the “challenges of improving transparency around biomass has been known for a while.”
“The issue is that only a few brands have environmental teams in Cambodia,” they told VICE World News.
But scrutiny over supply chains isn’t currently happening among the vast majority of Western brands sourcing from Cambodian factories, with Parsons claiming that they are choosing to exercise “wilful ignorance.”
In an extensive list of 40 fashion brands—compiled as part of Parsons’ research, but unpublished and provided to VICE World News—virtually all those operating in the country were implicated in the problem to greater or lesser degrees. Drawing from the most recent public information available on the Open Apparel Registry, the rankings consider the number of factories used by a brand in which garment and forest wood burning is known to occur, while also accounting for the tonnage of wood known to be burned in those factories.
Featuring in the top five worst offenders over the past three years are the likes of Tu, C&A, Next and Bestseller, while the top ten includes major names Gap Inc, H&M, Levi Strauss and Ralph Lauren. But topping the table in terms of the number of offending factories it sources from, as well as the total tonnage of forest wood burned by those factories, is German discount retailer Lidl.
Primarily known for its discount supermarkets, Lidl’s place atop a clothing list is a surprise entry. But the retailer has made forays into ultra-cheap fashion lines in the UK since 2014, with an initial range including a leather jacket for £14.99 ($17.50) and jeans for £6.99. More recently, the brand has found immense success marketing Lidl own-brand clothing to a young, fashion-conscious audience. Just last month, British press reported £12.99 Lidl trainers selling on some auction sites for £1,000 as lines sold out nationwide.
For Parsons, though emphasizing that “this is by no means a problem unique to Lidl,” he stated that currently available data shows that they “appear to be the worst offenders.” He speculated that the combination of their inexperience in fast fashion and ultra low-cost model could explain this.
“It could be either inexperience, or a desire to keep costs as low as possible. In either case, being clear outliers in terms of the environmental degradation in your supply chain is not a good place to be,” he said, pointing to the company's sustainability strategies, which claim a commitment to issues of climate change and deforestation.
“The consistency of Lidl’s involvement in some of Cambodia’s worst offending factories indicates that they are not prioritising sustainability in their manufacturing processes and/or that they are not conducting due diligence of the factories they subcontract to manufacture goods.”
Gap Inc, Ralph Lauren and Next did not immediately respond to VICE World News’ requests for comment. C&A and H&M declined to comment, while Levi Strauss and Bestseller said they would look into the suppliers implicated. Tu said it no longer works with two of the factories implicated, and would be “urgently investigating” a third. A Lidl spokesperson said they take their “social and environmental responsibilities very seriously” and were conducting an investigation into the matter.
But while Parsons’ research offers the best understanding yet of the scale of the issue in Cambodia, and the links between offending factories and Western brands clearer than ever, the crucial next step is changing the situation.
Some brands are making strides to improve oversight in their supply chains. While implicated in Parsons’ findings, he said that Swedish brand H&M appears to be making moves in the right direction as it has assigned someone, based in Cambodia, to oversee environmental sustainability across the Mekong region in recent years. Puma has an equivalent based in Vietnam, also covering Cambodia.
But Katherine Brickell, a professor of human geography and colleague of Parsons’ at Royal Holloway, said these findings should be a wakeup call for consumers, while also calling for greater repercussions for brands.
“Brands need to be held more accountable for this—they need to fully understand their supply chain and live up to environmental commitments they are making in practice,” she told VICE World News.
“The research shows how fast fashion’s model is broken. Consumers in the UK are not just buying a T-shirt they might wear one season, they are also buying into environmental destruction that has a much longer impact.”
For his part, Parsons sees opportunity at the COP26 climate change summit of international leaders being held in Glasgow, Scotland in early November. He said that he will be “bringing as many copies of the report” as he can carry to the event, with his message a simple one for all those in power willing to listen.
“It’s important to emphasise these issues as they contrast so sharply with the high-flowing rhetoric around environmental protection that we know we’re going to hear at COP26,” he said, highlighting the lack of an effective international system of accountability.
“What we’re actually doing underneath all this high-flowing rhetoric is essentially moving problems outside of our purview of regulation. Just moving problems into the dark.”
But fundamentally, fashion is an industry that listens to consumer demands like few else. Parsons said that the first step in Western consumers demanding change is knowledge that the issues around environmental destruction in their supply chains even exist.
“Fashion has had a bit of tension on it in recent years and still, despite that, these issues are still mostly completely invisible,” said Parsons. “People have no idea.”