Blackwashed much, leather is standing up as a material which is irrefutably a by-product of food production and could well be a waste on a huge scale of a natural material which instead is turned into something useful for society.
Much-maligned, the leather industry is taking steps to not just minimise the negative impact it has on the people and planet, but also affirming that it is not a fossil-based carbon and that when it “reaches the end of its life, it can be safely returned to the soil as compost. Leather does not create micro-plastics or linger for millennia in landfills. The majority of the world’s leather is made responsibly and does not harm the planet”.
The ‘Leather Manifesto’ said: “We urge people to stop and to think. To decide for themselves whether they truly believe that plastics are better for our environment than natural, renewable, biodegradable materials. We believe that the use of leather can support our journey to living in harmony with our planet. Leather is the ultimate responsible legacy – it lasts for decades, encouraging re-use and slow-fashion. The industry is modern, the chemicals are safe, the material is an ideal choice for a sustainable future.
…Support LCA methodologies that accurately account for the environmental impact of all materials, including end of life properties.
…Promote slow fashion, durable products, and items that can be used many times, repaired and refurbished, and last for years”.
We asked: Groups like Earthsight and Global Witness have continuously pointed out the impact of beef production on deforestation, particularly in the Amazon. The leather industry keeps insisting leather is a by-product, and does not drive deforestation. Increasingly, people are not buying this defence. Comments, please. Here’s what key stakeholders in the leather industry had to say in defense:
President / Leather & Hide Council of America
These are separate issues and should to be treated as such. Deforestation is wrong, and the leather industry wants to be part of the solution to end it. Full stop. However, leather’s status as a byproduct of food production is irrefutable and should be acknowledged in these conversations as well. There is not a farmer or rancher in the world that is raising cattle (or sheep, pigs, or any other livestock) for leather purposes. These animals are raised for food, and we have an ethical duty to use every single product results from that process, including hides and skins.
Director / Leather UK
The claims by NGOs like Earthsight are driven by an anti-leather agenda and completely disconnected from the economic reality of livestock rearing. The hide is undeniably a by-product, as acknowledged by the WWF, who state – "Leather is entirely a by-product of the beef and dairy industries.” On average, the hide represents only 1% of the animal, assuming it has any value at all; it is estimated that up to 40% of hides are simply thrown away.
The situation for small skins, such as sheep and goat, is far worse and represents a terrible waste of raw material. Furthermore, economic analysis has shown that demand for hides has no direct impact on the rearing and slaughter of animals; livestock are not reared for their hides and skins.
The value in the leather supply chain is value added downstream from farming, by tanners, manufacturers and brands, of which the farmer receives nothing. The brand has far more impact on the value of a luxury handbag than the materials used to make it. For example, put Stella McCartney on a plastic bag and it will sell for £650, considerably more than the value of the polyester and polyurethane it is made from.
Executive Secretary / International Union of Leather Technologists and Chemists Societies
The cow hides have 1– 2% of the value of a cow. How is it possible that people believe that this small value is big enough to drive raising the cows? Maybe the same way as millions of people still believe that the earth is flat! Cows are raised for the meat and hides are a by-product. This is what I understand as a scientist; if somebody can prove me wrong with scientific data I will accept. I had the opportunity to visit the Amazon Forest several times. The cycle starts with the removal of the trees that by themselves have a high value, being enough reason for deforestation. Then land is prepared to raise cattle and after few years the land is converted for soybean production.
Therefore, we have wood, cow and soybean as products from deforestation areas, but the misleading statement is always that cow hides (and leather production) drive deforestation. If the cattle industry could do a better job not raising animals in deforested areas all their products and byproducts would be certified as deforestation free. This doesn’t happen and the burden is on the tanneries to spend fortunes on traceability of the hides that would not be needed in a responsible industry.
Managing Director / Sustainable Leather Foundation
The vast majority of leather originates from livestock that has been reared first and foremost for meat and dairy, the exact percentages vary but approximately 90%. The remaining leather will come from exotics (already heavily regulated by CITES) and there is a tiny percentage (less than 1% that may come from areas in the world where hunting still exists for food and clothing). For a rancher or a farmer there is no value in the hide/skin of the animal and if they were raising animals just for the hide/skin it would cost them more to raise than the hide/skin is worth—it doesn’t make financial sense so those that keep perpetuating the myth that animals are killed for their hides is wilful blackwashing.
Additionally, if the leather industry ceased tomorrow, the raising of livestock would continue but without the hide and skins being utilised to provide the raw material for a global economy that supports millions of people. The leather industry takes a pretty worthless part of the meat and dairy industry and converts it into a valuable and fit for purchase commodity. There are many other by-products of livestock that go unrecognised largely such as gelatin, bonemeal, tallow (used for soap), proteins, hair, wool, etc. Many everyday products including instrument strings and ointments come from byproduct of animals.
What is very clear is that the leather is secondary to the meat and diary so when we talk about deforestation in Brazil, targeting the leather industry is largely ineffective. A worst case scenario would be everyone abandons Brazil as a sourcing country for raw material, which has huge consequences for supply and demand in the rest of the world and therefore on the economics involved. Meanwhile, the ranching will continue because 80% of the meat produced in Brazil stays in the domestic market. But suddenly the leather industry in Brazil that supports communities is dead. The meatpackers continue to trade but they send it through even more opaque supply chains and we still have the original problem but now with additional problems heaped on top.
What SLF believes and is actively working on, is finding real solutions that support continued economic solvency for the industry in Brazil without any need for deforestation, and to actively support regeneration within the Amazon region and other areas. My concern with any of the reports from groups such as the ones you mention, is that they are funded generally by organisations with hidden agendas and are not designed with solutions in mind, but are focused on demonising with intent to damage. It just exchanges one problem with another and that’s no solution.
Management Board / Leather Naturally
Leather is a by-product, that is a fact, not a matter for defending. Livestock is not raised for leather and if not used for leather, the hides and skins are thrown away, which is waste on a huge scale of a natural material that could be turned into something useful for society. If we are serious about climate change it is the responsibility of everyone to understand the origins of ALL materials, not just leather, which cycles us back to the importance of clear product labelling.