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Rubber Rules

Matilda Lee

14th March, 2009

A pioneering ethical fashion company is helping maintain traditional livelihoods and prevent deforestation in the Amazon, writes Matilda Lee

Rubber-tapping in the Amazon rainforest is a labour-intensive activity: slashes are cut into rubber trees and the latex sap drains down into a container tied around the trunk. Without the rainforest, traditional rubber-tappers have no livelihood. Cattle ranching is another Amazonian activity, but one in which huge swathes of forest are cut down to create pastureland for cattle. These are two examples of how to create a market for commercial activity in forest areas, but they are drastically different. One helps preserves the forest; the other endangers it.

François-Ghislain Morillion and Sébastien Kopp, two Frenchmen keen on cutting their teeth on sustainable development projects, went around the world after leaving university, working for different companies, from Chinese factories to South African mines and the Amazon rainforest. After witnessing quite a lot of what not to do (‘We thought it was a mistake to send a non-Chinese speaking auditor to do social audits of a Chinese factory’), they joined up with French fairtrade food brand Alter Eco, which, among other things, sources palm hearts from Brazil.

‘Compared with everything else we saw, we were fascinated to find that through this agro-forestry model you could sustain livelihoods, preserve the environment and create a product that was viable in the French market,’ says François. ‘It was a good business model. Businesses can look good by donating to charities, but it’s not the same as changing and improving your own company’s social and environmental impact.’

Both have been trainer fanatics since their teenage years, hence the idea behind Veja, which means ‘look’ in Portuguese. ‘Trainers are the big devils in the fashion industry. They symbolise the relationship between north and south, and the exploitation of people working in factories. Sixty to 70 per cent of the cost of trainers is marketing – we can change this business model,’ says François.

Formed in 2004, Veja works with a co-operative of 42 rubber-tapper families – seringueiros – in Acre, in the heart of the Amazonian rainforest. Rubber-tappers are paid four to five times more than the world market price for their rubber. Building on this ethical supply chain, the canvas of the trainers is made with organic cotton grown by a co-operative in the north east of Brazil. The trainers are assembled in the south of the country, in a factory that ‘respects workers’ rights and dignity’.

For co-founder Sébastien Kopp, Veja represents an act of ‘commercial disobedience’ in terms of the traditional market for trainers, which is obsessed with low prices and profit margins to the extent that the ‘human aspect’ is degraded.

The Amazon is the only place in the world where rubber trees grow in the wild, but the trees are spread out, making the logistics of tapping them difficult and time-consuming. Because of this, much of the world’s rubber production takes place on plantations, where thousands of trees are planted close together.

‘Extractive reserves’ are specific areas of the Amazon set aside by the Brazilian government for the non-destructive activities of local communities, where logging and mining are prohibited. While rubber-tapping is one of the main commercial activities in the reserves, low market prices and high transport costs mean that making them financially viable is often difficult.

Veja’s aim is to valorise traditional rubber-tapping, and by using the triple-bottom-line approach to business, its commercial, social and environmental success will make it that much more lucrative than clear-cutting the forest for cattle ranches.

Find out more about Veja

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2009

 


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