The Cost of Wellness: How Collagen Is Driving Amazon Deforestation

The Cost of Wellness: How Collagen Is Driving Amazon Deforestation

Photograph by TCHC x Trunk Archive / Eden Jetschmann

 

A new report has linked the procurement of collagen, the popular protein driving a new wellness fad, to deforestation in the Amazon and violence against Indigenous people. What will it take for the beauty industry to take meaningful action on its environmental wrongdoings?

When Kristy Drutman read that collagen was driving deforestation in the Amazon rainforest she was shocked.

 

It wasn’t the connection between a raw ingredient and deforestation that surprised her. In fact, she was quick to acknowledge that “deforestation has long been driven by our demand for many different ingredients,” she said. Rather, it was the link between the destruction of natural habitats to specifically collagen, a protein at the center of the beauty industry’s new fad that has routinely been marketed as an animal by-product.

 

“Many [wellness brands] have made out like collagen is an organic waste product,” said Drutman, who is a public speaker, consultant, media producer, and founder of Brown Girl Green, an online platform about climate change that includes training and workshops, informative videos, and a green jobs board. “I’ve bought collagen drinks before, and they make it sound like it’s this trendy, sustainable ingredient. I’m shook right now.”

 

The demand for collagen as a health supplement has skyrocketed in recent years as more and more wellness brands invest in the protein for its potential health benefits, which include improving skin elasticity, joint agility, and gut health. Its popularity is reflected in the figures: the estimated worth of the global collagen market in 2022 was $4.7 billion, a figure that is projected to reach $7.2 billion by 2030. The main source of collagen, however, is animal products, particularly bovine and porcine hides, which are typically sourced from countries like Brazil, the world’s largest exporter of beef. In order to meet the booming demand for animal hides, farmers in the region are clearing vast areas of the forest—areas that aren’t theirs to begin with—in order to make space for cattle farming.

 

Yet, the full extent of collagen’s effect on the Amazon rainforest has been made more clear in a new joint investigation by the Guardian, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Center for Climate Crime Analysis (CCCA), ITV, and O Joio e O Trigo in Brazil, which found that tens of thousands of cattle raised on farms that contribute to deforestation in the rainforest were processed at abattoirs that are linked to international collagen supply chains. These supply chains include well-known brands such as Nestlé-owned Vital Proteins, which is a leading producer of collagen supplements that have been promoted by high-profile celebrities like Jennifer Aniston.

 

More specifically, the report found that the supply chains of just two Brazil-based collagen operations were linked to 2,600 square kilometers of deforestation in the Amazon. The investigation was also the first to connect bovine collagen, a popular type of collagen protein derived from cow skin, bones, and muscle, with violence against Indigenous people.

 

“Some of these farms were either entirely on Indigenous territories or overlapping partially with Indigenous territories,” said Gustavo Faleiros, director of environmental investigations for the Pulitzer Center, which supported lead reporter Elisângela Mendonça on the collagen investigation. “All the links between the farms, the suppliers, and the byproduct companies that sell [the collagen] to the producers that then create the products that end up in the hands of the customers in the U.K. or in the U.S. are now well-documented.”

“Some of these farms were either entirely on Indigenous territories or overlapping partially with Indigenous territories.”

Gustavo Faleiros
director of environmental investigations, Pulitzer Center

The information may be documented thanks to independent research, but brands intentionally omit details about their supply chains from consumers in order to give the impression that their products are more environmentally friendly than they actually are. In the case of collagen, this means using purposefully obscure language to dilute the link between collagen, the health supplement, and collagen, the ingredient for which animals are farmed and slaughtered.

 

It’s a sentiment that’s echoed by Drutman, who points out that the term “animal by-product” is misleading as it gives the impression that collagen is an excess product incidental to cattle farming—when in fact it is a valuable commodity that drives demand for cattle products.

 

“A lot of these wellness brands try to get away with unethical behavior by sticking some buzzwords—like calling something a healthy, natural by-product—onto their packaging,” she said. “But that also means they don’t really have to address the practices that go into sourcing the product. So yes, maybe collagen itself is a natural by-product from these animals. But are they transparent about where it’s sourced from? No.”

 

The issue doesn’t stop with greenwashing. The beauty sector’s explosive growth is driven in part by a shifting narrative that positions products not as cosmetic luxuries but as essential to our wellbeing. Consider how many brands are now making health claims about the immunity-boosting or stress-reducing qualities in their products aimed at our desire for quick-fix solutions to what are often systemic issues such as productivity culture or unattainable beauty standards.

 

“If we stopped with the industrialization of skincare, our skin would actually be in a much healthier place,” said beauty expert and journalist Jessica DeFino. “For instance, the number one thing that breaks down collagen in the body before its time is cortisol; stress. So, by stressing about how young and beautiful we look and consuming collagen, we’re actually breaking down our own collagen prematurely. None of it makes sense—it doesn’t make sense to sacrifice so much just to have ingestible collagen, which doesn’t work anyway.”

 

In order to better regulate the environmental impact of collagen procurement, the changes made to the production and distribution of raw ingredients within the beauty sector must be structural; innovations that will require bottom-up and top-down changes, including “transparency [becoming] increasingly important to consumers as part of their informed decision-making process; emerging and evolving legislation at political-regulatory level, particularly in large markets like the EU [which] will establish methods for accountability; and increased investor interest in sustainability, [meaning] there is a fundamental need for companies to be transparent and adapt to the green transition to increase their regulatory compliance and competitiveness,” said Mark Smith, director general of nonprofit NATRUE and member of the Sustainable Beauty Coalition Steering Committee.

“If we stopped with the industrialization of skincare, our skin would actually be in a much healthier place.”

Jessica DeFino
beauty expert and journalist

The problem is that collagen production has not been subject to the same level of scrutiny and regulation as other farm-intensive exports like beef and soy production. For instance, due diligence legislation set to be implemented in the U.K. and the EU makes it illegal for companies to sell goods that contribute to deforestation and forest degradation, including palm oil, beef, soy, coffee, and cocoa. Collagen, however, falls outside such laws, meaning companies are not legally required to track its environmental footprint.

 

“Historically, beauty hasn’t been taken very seriously,” said DeFino. “​​In the broader collective consciousness, it’s seen as more dire to regulate something like meat because it’s this masculine symbol, and it feels serious and substantial, which of course it is. But I don’t think the same weight is given to beauty because it’s considered more frivolous and feminine. ”

 

Where regulation does exist, it needs to be more rigorous, reactive, and representative of the complex range of issues caused by consumer-driven deforestation. The EU’s forthcoming due diligence legislation took years to draft, finalize, and implement, despite confirmed reports about cattle farming driving deforestation in the Amazon having been common knowledge for decades. The legislation is also missing safeguards for Indigenous people, who are by far the best guardians of the regions’ forests. “The legislation will need to continue becoming more and more comprehensive in terms of byproducts and other ingredients because a lot is [missing],” added Faleiros.

 

The industry’s reluctance to commit to clear environmental goals coupled with a sluggish response time to wrongdoing is why DeFino harbors little hope that transformative action will take place any time soon.

 

“The response to some of the issues in this report from Vital Proteins and about Nestlé was essentially that they aimed to be free from deforestation-linked products by 2025,” she said. “That’s a really long time even though the change is to some degree imposed. I don’t want to be all doom and gloom, but then [consider] when change isn’t legally enforced—what hope do we have?”

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