Leather Industry Must Work Out its Own Context for Net-Zero and Chart a Plan

Each stakeholder in the leather industry, be it the tanner, trader, supplier or customer must get involved to get leather to a safe place in the mind of new younger consumers, and throughout the supply network involved. There are no impossible hurdles for a determined leather industry to make great strides quickly and set an achievable target date with milestones.

Long Story, Cut Short
  • Market research by the leather industry has shown that large numbers of consumers still struggle with the “leather is a by-product” argument, a sign of the failure of the leather industry to engage with customers and consumers until recently.
  • Leather is not the enemy of forests; it is the wrong target.
  • Government policy, properly funded law enforcement, opportunistic gold miners, criminals and crooks come far before cattle and farmers in this war.
Marko Milivojevic / Pixnio
Tethering Right The term ‘leather’ should not be used in conjunction with any word to describe a product or material if the product or material does not conform to the definition of leather. Generally speaking, attempts to persuade governments to put this in law have been patchy but national associations should persevere. Marko Milivojevic / Pixnio

The November announcement from Textile Exchange on the definition of leather was a powerful and positive moment.  There is no wonder that many of our top bodies publicly thanked Textile Exchange for its action in helping regularise the language of materials by clarifying the fact that leather can only come from hides and skins.

The move evidences the value of engagement with other bodies interested in materials including leather and the products used alongside it. This recognises that it will be a long slow road to get leather to a safe place in the mind of new younger consumers, and throughout the supply network involved in making and supplying products to them; this action by Textile Exchange is an important part of it, and we must thank the small number of active leather industry bodies that have participated in the discussions.

Textile Exchange itself is a non-profit organisation linked to a number of groupings one of which is called the Apparel Coalition which includes ZDHC, highly respected for its work on chemicals, the Apparel Impact Institute about which I know little and finally the Sustainable Apparel Coalition which runs the Higg Index which has famously (and in my view quite wrongly) argued that polyester and other fibres based on oil and coal are better than natural materials.

The leather industry position has until recently been to “stand off” and worry or complain about all these bodies but, led in large part by Egbert Dikkers while he chaired the Board at Leather Naturally, a willingness to engage has become more typical across several leather bodies.  

Textile Exchange announced via their November 2022 newsletter that they would accept a definition for leather that requires it to come from the hide or skin of animal. It is worth quoting what they say in full:

At Textile Exchange, we define leather according to the following criteria, aligning with the EU directive 94/11/EC, ISO 15115, and EN 15987:2015.

- A hide or skin with its original fibrous structure more or less intact and tanned so it does not rot  

- Either with or without hair or wool attached

- Inclusive of hides or skin split into layers or segmented either before or after tanning

- With any surface coating or surface layer no thicker than 0.15 mm.

- The term “recycled leather" should only be used if the fiber structure remains intact during the recycling process. Leather disintegrated into fibrous particles, small pieces or powders and combined or not with chemical binding agents, and made into sheets, with a minimum amount of 50% in weight of dry leather fibers should be referred to as “recycled leather fibre.”

Materials that do not meet the definition above will not be described by Textile Exchange as leather, regardless of any past designation or common usage of the term. There is currently a gap in the legal framing of the classification and naming of the diverse materials sold as alternative materials to leather. This leads to misleading labeling where a fossil-based synthetic material could be referred to in the same way as an innovative plant-based material, making it difficult for a consumer to differentiate the two. We’re encouraging policymakers to close this gap. For now, these diverse manmade materials, fully or partially plant-based will be grouped in the ‘Manmade non-fiber materials’ category of our reports and programmes, until further legal guidance on the naming and categorisation of these materials is available.

This is almost precisely the definition that has been used for the last fifty years by the International Council of Tanners (ICT) since they unified behind the wording of the famous BS 2780. This was then updated to BS2780:1983+A1:2013 and subsequently incorporated into various EU and ISO standards used by Textile Exchange.

Historically, the definition has used the term “imputrescible” as a definition of the tanning process but “rot” is easier to understand and actually perhaps better since the degree of tanning, especially in historic leathers, is subject to what might loosely be referred to as fuzzy logic.

An associate point is that the term ‘leather’ should not be used in conjunction with any word to describe a product or material if the product or material does not conform to the definition of leather. Generally speaking, attempts to persuade governments to put this in law have been patchy but national associations should persevere. It does sit in a 1960s law in Brazil and other more recent laws in various EU countries including a recent one in Italy. Nevertheless, global enforcement has been very poor and external bodies like Textile Exchange appeared to be content to allow consumers to be confused by terms like “vegan leather”, “cactus leather” and the like which are mostly pure plastic or heavily loaded with plastic in order to meet performance specifications. A well publicised research study by the respected German research institute FILK Freiberg Institute demonstrated this aspect clearly when it examined all the commercialised and close to market “biomaterials” being offered as leather substitutes.

Some of the very rich vegan and animal rights (as opposed to animal welfare which the leather industry supports) bodies be they individuals or organisations are so vehemently against livestock production and leather that they see this confusion as a useful tool to promote all types of non-leather materials. That it has been successful is indicated by an interview I have recently seen published in a book on sustainable materials for footwear where a Kanpur tanner talks about “cork leather” and “man-made leather” as though they are now accepted terms. Consumer research carried out by Institutes for Creative Leather Technologies, Northampton University (ICLT) and Leather Naturally confirms this consumer confusion while suggesting that they are still enthusiastic for the real article if it is responsibly produced.

My hope is that the Textile Exchange move will bring an end to such confusion, and the abuse of what should be a simple term. They have many major brands as members and if they all follow this approach, we will certainly notice a change and be better able to pressure retailers who continue to mislead consumers.

In general, the whole area of sustainability contains many complex and contentious terms, which are often abused for ideological or greenwash purposes.

The term “leather” should not be one of them and we as an industry need to be rigorous in our use of terminology. I have always rather disliked the hide-shaped logo being used to promote leather as an old-fashioned producer-oriented symbol; perhaps it needs to be reintroduced worldwide.

Net-zero is a difficult concept. In crude terms you can say that net-zero is an ideal state where the amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) released into the earth’s atmosphere is balanced by the amount of GHGs removed, but in terms of what that means for a tannery it becomes very hard to comprehend.
Net Zero Net-zero is a difficult concept. In crude terms you can say that net-zero is an ideal state where the amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) released into the earth’s atmosphere is balanced by the amount of GHGs removed, but in terms of what that means for a tannery it becomes very hard to comprehend. Flickr 2.0 / Ralf Steinberger

On COP27, Emissions and Leather Industry

My personal view is that we have now missed the 1.5C level and need to start planning for mitigation—uninhabitable cities, harvest failures, water shortages and the like.  I thought that COP26 had done enough to give us a chance to stay within it but the impact of the incredible and quite mediaeval attack on Ukraine by Vladimir Putin appears to have reversed progress at a key moment. With countries around the world rushing to secure what they describe as affordable energy supplies by using more coal and oil rather than accelerating the transfer to renewables I think we will slip past 1.5C and need to hope that too many tipping points are passed that will make things even worse—such as mass melting of permafrost areas releasing huge quantities of methane, or catastrophic levels of polar ice melting and flooding entire areas like Bangladesh and Florida.

Most of the world’s big cities are coastal and vulnerable and it is too costly to defend them. We should remember too that coal mining releases enormous amounts of methane, as does the flaring and loss of gas with oil production. The oil and gas lobby at COP27 was bigger and more successful than ever and there are leaders blaming methane emissions on livestock (a bandwagon that animal rights activists jump on) and this trend makes the battle for leather even harder.

Net-zero is a difficult concept. In crude terms you can say that net-zero is an ideal state where the amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) released into the earth’s atmosphere is balanced by the amount of GHGs removed, but in terms of what that means for a tannery it becomes very hard to comprehend.

I have been pushing out to the leather industry after COP26 that trying to understand what net-zero should mean for leather and laying out a plan would be a good thing but have found no takers. My first ever attendance at an International Council of Tanners meeting was in Buenos Aires in 1978 and I remember some strong discussions at a large meeting on the definition of leather. The ICT today does not seem as strong as it was then or able to grapple with some of these big issues, so my plea to the national organisations who form it is to give it more support so that it can start to show leadership.

The one tannery group who do talk publicly about net-zero is the Scottish Leather Group and they have set a target of 2025, but are only able to do so because of 20 years of dedicated investment to move entirely to renewable energy, mostly generated from tannery wastes, and tight control on the sources of all raw material, chemicals and also of their own by-products. They work with all customers on product end of life options, and make extensive use of comprehensive lifecycle analyses (LCAs). They are members of United Nations Global Compact.

They publish their targets along with that of 4000-plus other companies on the Science Based Targets (SBTi) website which is a partnership between CDP, the United Nations Global Compact, World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The SBTi call to action is one of the We Mean Business Coalition commitments.

Having seen some of the Scottish Leather Group’s work in detail up until the start of 2020 I very much support what they are doing and believe it to be well founded on good science. To me it indicates that there are perfectly good routes for the leather industry more generally to get on an open and transparent course to a quantifiable net-zero; but it does indicate there must be long term commitment from the top to the bottom of the organisation which is not an easy task.

Given that so many tanneries are in places with good sunlight or with ground source options I am saddened how few tanneries have made the shift to renewables. Why do we not have a sea of solar panels on the tops of our tanneries everywhere in the world, their car parks and lands?

Turning fleshings into biodiesel is also relatively straightforward and is far less common than it should be, and other wastes can be treated with anaerobic digestion to convert tannery wastes into energy. This produces biogas and leaves a residue which can be used as a low-grade fertilizer. Elsewhere solid tannery wastes can be dealt with by pyrolytic burning, which also produces power and effectively deals with chromium wastes such as trimmings, which otherwise have to be removed separately.

And as a separate matter, no tannery should be sending so called wastes to landfill by 2030. Large uncontrolled landfills are big sources of methane. Recent satellite surveys showed top methane super emitters were a coal mine in Russia, a series of oil and gas wells in Turkmenistan; “Two other large emitters were an oilfield in New Mexico, and a waste-processing complex in Iran, emitting nearly 29,000kg of methane per hour combined. JPL officials said neither were previously known to scientists.”

Achieving all this is costly and we do not have decades to get it done but what is clear is that there are no impossible hurdles for a determined leather industry to make great strides quickly and set an achievable target date with milestones. Part of that investment will of course involve modernising some old tannery equipment, especially in the area of drums, to introduce energy efficiencies, but this should also raise productivity and quality.  

However, there are now a number of funds being put aside for funding climate change initiatives or for diminishing climate damage. One has to think that a determined tanning industry offering big employment and GDP growth in many countries should be given access to them. Another reasons for national tannery organisations and their overall body the ICT to get involved is to fight for these and spread best practices.

We should also note that in the greenhouse gas (GHG) discussion we have a new calculation for livestock methane using GWP* which better assesses this methane than the previous GWP100 figure. Readers should look at the work of Prof Frank Mitloehner in California where he is helping the livestock successfully reduce methane output and has written a number of papers demonstrating how via this sort of action livestock farming can actually reduce climate. It is all wasted, though, if we are determined to use more oil, gas and coal and obfuscate the data to pretend it is not going to lead to catastrophe.

LCA is a costly but important tool in all this but those done to date, mostly by determined individual tanners, have played a big role in our industry being able to challenge the errors in the Higg Index. Shouting is not enough; we must use and trust good science. The industry must thank fine tanning groups like Prime Asia for doing LCAs and making them public.

Tough Call
Tough Call Most of the world’s big cities are coastal and vulnerable and it is too costly to defend them. We should remember too that coal mining releases enormous amounts of methane, as does the flaring and loss of gas with oil production. The oil and gas lobby at COP27 was bigger and more successful than ever and there are leaders blaming methane emissions on livestock (a bandwagon that animal rights activists jump on) and this trend makes the battle for leather even harder. Ferdinand Studio / Pexels

Beyond the Leather Manifesto

In making the COP27 statement, which I thought was an excellent follow on from the COP26 Leather Manifesto, I imagine it was intended to emphasise that since leather is such a good, renewable, natural material that avoids the use of ever more fossil fuel-based material, society as a whole should work to get back to the historic situation when all hides and skins around the world ended up as leather.

Such a change will obviously take time but to stimulate it I would suggest that national tanning associations should identify and publish all the appropriate data for their country. We have been given good information for hides being lost in the US but for the rest of the world we have been mostly dependent on press reports or anecdotal information. With a precise understanding of the problem, trade associations would be in a position to develop plans to stop this costly waste.

The consequence of this loss has been that the size of the tanning industry has seen slower growth, or perhaps even a decline. The tanning industry can only grow by between 1% and 2% per annum in line with the demand for meat and dairy products so we cannot afford any losses at all.

In addition to getting lost raw material back, it is my thinking that tanners should embrace the idea of working with some of the new biomaterials to push out PU-coated fabrics and other coal and oil plastics that are being used instead of leather. Tanners know the market, understand non-woven structures and in many instances could find a useful opportunity for growth via the Ansoff’s Growth Matrix route of same market, new (but similar) product.

There is currently a gap in the legal framing of the classification and naming of the diverse materials sold as alternative materials to leather. This leads to misleading labeling where a fossil-based synthetic material could be referred to in the same way as an innovative plant-based material, making it difficult for a consumer to differentiate the two. Policymakers need to close this gap.
Plug the gap There is currently a gap in the legal framing of the classification and naming of the diverse materials sold as alternative materials to leather. This leads to misleading labelling where a fossil-based synthetic material could be referred to in the same way as an innovative plant-based material, making it difficult for a consumer to differentiate the two. Policymakers need to close this gap. Rachel Claire / Pexels

Leather Has a Voice and Needs to Make it Heard

Market research by the leather industry has shown that quite large numbers of consumers still struggle with the “leather is a by-product” argument—a sign of the failure of the leather industry to engage with customers and consumers until recently. If a tannery employee is reading this—they should be asking what is their company’s communication policy for schools and colleges? Is their national association active? Are they as an individual tannery a member of Leather Naturally where they can help in the preparation and use of the educational material they need?

If the answer is no to any of these then therein lies the problem. Long before the forest issue, the consumer needs to understand that the livestock we use is not kept for leather and without leather would still be kept. Leather is not the enemy of forests; it is the wrong target. Government policy, properly funded law enforcement, opportunistic gold miners, criminals and crooks come far before cattle and farmers in this war.

Hides and skins are not products that play any part in the fate of livestock and leather is attacked mostly because with big luxury and footwear brands using it, animal rights vigilantes can create publicity attacking stores and events in a way not so simple with a meat packing plant or a dairy.

There is, however, a real problem with our forests, especially the Amazon, and livestock is involved. The leather has a voice and needs to make it heard.

There was an increase in Amazon deforestation in the early 2000s that was partly accelerated by a surge in demand for soya meal from the EU to feed pigs, who were to be banned from eating the food waste used historically (and which should now be allowed again). After that, Amazon deforestation began to diminish and the world hoped it was being controlled.

A paper by Dr Rafael de Oliveira Silva and others published in Nature Climate Change in January 2016 argued that any link between beef and deforestation was broken and that Brazil needed to increase beef production to improve soil quality in the Savanna (Cerrado) grassland area. This had a big capability to sequester carbon dioxide and help Brazil meet its climate targets, but required correct levels of grazing to improve soil quality; about 70% of the Cerrado grassland was estimated as being in a very poor state.

The author is quoted as saying “after peaking in 2005, deforestation rates have been on a downward trend in all Brazilian biomes [habitats], while beef production has simultaneously been increasing.” He goes on: “Lower demand and smaller herds require less grass production, reducing the incentive to maintain or increase productivity; pastures then degrade, losing organic matter and soil carbon stocks.” He suggested that Brazil needed to up its beef production on the Cerrado steadily to 2030 as long as it was only on the grasslands and did not involve any displacement of trees.

Many other papers supported this approach, which is very similar to the regenerative agriculture methodology being seen elsewhere in the world where sensible, but adequate, levels of grazing improve soils and biodiversity. Renewed soils hold much more carbon and in Brazil this is sent deeper by the specific nature of the Savanna grasses with higher volumes of carbon held tighter in the soil. Brazil cannot afford to lose more of this grassland to crops.

However, matters reversed with the change of President and there is no doubt that cattle have been involved in the forest land grab, and that cattle are also involved in other countries that are part of the Amazon forest area. In the main the land is being taken for gold mining or growing crops like soya, as livestock is not profitable enough, but pushing cattle straight onto the land for a period to demonstrate “ownership” is common and easy.

The leather industry has not ignored this, and many tanners have stopped buying raw material from Brazil as a result. Additionally, there has been intense supply chain reporting and transparency work going on to map the farms from where hides are collected. Satellites are used to monitor this, and I believe JBS Industries, one of the largest tanning groups in Brazil, have published online the names of tens of thousands of certified farms which they use, and monitor.  

Marcus Silva / Pexels
Engage Better Market research by the leather industry has shown that quite large numbers of consumers still struggle with the “leather is a by-product” argument—a sign of the failure of the leather industry to engage with customers and consumers until recently. Marcus Silva / Pexels

Animals get moved around during their lifetimes so given that the Amazon deforestation has been illegal, although deliberately ignored by the government, corruption related to the integrity of sourcing remains common despite all best efforts.

Given this and the importance of the subject the Leather Working Group and the Textile Exchange have joined forces to launch a call to action for brands and retailers to “commit to sourcing all their leather from verified deforestation-free supply chains by 2030 or earlier.” This was launched at the Textile Exchange Conference in November 2022 and specifically covers bovine leather from cattle raised for beef production.

The official launch date of the call to action will be 21 March 2023, which is the International Day of Forests, and will be aligned with upcoming EU Deforestation Regulation (EUDR) expected before the end of 2022.

According to the announcement committed companies will need to meet the following targets, though additional targets may be added over time and Textile Exchange and LWG encourage setting an earlier target than 2030 if possible:

  • Set up a deforestation-free leather sourcing policy within six months of joining the call to action;
  • Publicise the details of its commitment to source all leather from verified deforestation-free by 2030 or earlier within six months;
  • Invest in deforestation-free cattle farming within one year of joining;
  • Map their bovine leather supply chains to slaughter and identify the location of all slaughterhouses within 18 months.

This looks like a good programme and LWG have a first-rate international record for their work and the involvement of their members from every part of the supply network, including most major leather using brands.

While leather may be a by-product or even a waste product, tanners have always been close to farmers, keen to ensure proper animal welfare and to understand developments in husbandry. Consequently, while tanners cannot stop deforestation, they should not be party to it and it is a clear responsibility that we both do nothing that might encourage it, and everything possible to stop it.

This is of course something which all tanners, shoemakers and users of leather should be pushing for, along with retailers. The message for every individual stakeholder in the leather industry, every tanner, trader, supplier and customer is to get involved, support your national trade associations and push them to action and join bodies like Leather Naturally where industry volunteers are giving freely of their time to produce educational and promotion materials on behalf of the industry. The time is long past when you can sit back, complain about life, and expect others to solve your problems.

Mike Redwood

Mike Redwood retired some years ago from a 50-year career in the leather industry, where he started as a technician holding many senior positions around the world, latterly focusing on marketing and innovation. During his retirement he has supported Leather Naturally and now spends most of his time as a Trustee of the Leather Conservation Centre. 

 
References:
  1. de Oliveira Silva, R., Barioni, L., Hall, J. et al. Increasing beef production could lower greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil if decoupled from deforestation. Nature Clim Change6, 493–497 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2916

 
 
  • Dated posted 9 December 2022
  • Last modified 9 December 2022