Is leather sustainable?At a recent conference on Leather & Sustainability in Retail Leather Naturally Chairman Egbert Dikkers spent a few moments telling the attending brands about the danger of “fake news” related to livestock and leather.
by Mike Redwood – spokesman of Leather Naturally
The cherry picking of facts, addition of long out of date technology and straight lies to create a narrative against leather has become commonplace and fake news is a sensible term to apply. With a few emotive images from a slaughterhouse then it is easy to see why our urban youth, used only to animals as pets, are easily swayed.
During the course of this year Leather Naturally has increasingly fought head on against these false arguments and promoted leather as a sustainable material. In fact we have sometimes said that it is one of the most sustainable materials available. When one of our friends quietly asked us “is it?” we had to do some serious thinking.
One aspect of Leather Naturally is that honesty, transparency and an objective view of science that underpins our activities so promoting leather correctly is important for us. So we took a moment to reconsider what we have been saying and the terminology we use.
We consistently make the point that tanning needs to be responsibly done and fully accept that in the past the leather industry had many problems. Still today there are significant pockets of tanning around the world where leather is processed without providing the work force with proper protective clothing or where the tannery waste streams are not being treated. These are clearly not sustainable, and while fifty or sixty years ago we did not know the dangers of some chemicals or the real damage being done to the planet by intensive industrialization there is no excuse today. Furthermore these dreadful locations do untold harm to the “brand” leather by suggesting there is a general truth in many of the complaints and dreadful photos.
This all emphasizes the need for being open and straightforward with customers, and there were some complaints from the brands that tanneries were not clear about the chemicals being used and other items. We cannot be expected to divulge detailed processes but we must be transparent about what is in the leather.
For those who have been in the industry for a long time the culture change in the industry from minimal compliance to taking leadership in CSR matters has been dramatic. When I first drove down the hill into Santa Croce the effluent plant was only starting to be built and Europe and the US was covered in town centre tanneries without any treatment plants. Those days this feels like ancient history, with organisations such as the Leather Working Group being described as best in class by other industries.
The vast majority of tanners around the world now use proper equipment and waste management procedures to make good quality leather. The workforce is treated correctly and given appropriate work wear and training.
We believe that leather from these tanneries can legitimately be called sustainable. It comes from a renewable organic source and is produced safely without undue waste.
In fact most of what we used to call waste in the tannery is now a raw material for other products like gelatin or energy, and the water is cleaned and increasingly re-used. The use of materials, water and power in the tannery has been greatly reduced. Another major benefit of leather, even heavily coated items, is that it usually lasts a long time – much longer than synthetics. This is recognized as of vital importance in sustainability as it avoids wasteful short-term use of resources. What is more with leather articles it is usually not the leather which goes wrong but the zips and threads, so unlike synthetics which peel and crumble, leather items can mostly be repaired, another huge benefit in avoiding using up resources.
We should not be on the defensive about livestock
When we started looking at carbon footprints a few years ago the most significant points that came to light was that synthetics were not given any loading from being based on fossil fuels whereas leather was given a huge one because it comes from livestock. This was even more hurtful when research proved that the figures for livestock were totally wrong. Evidence today shows that livestock play a useful role in a balanced environment and we should not be on the defensive about this.
The definition most often used for sustainability comes from the Brundtland Commission in the 1980s:
’Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’
There is no precise scientific formula for us to apply to the leather industry that measures the difference between sustainable and non-sustainable so we have to use our judgement and keep updating our approach as things change. With this in mind there were two qualifications attached to the definition by the Commission which said that pulling the disadvantaged out of poverty had to be the top priority and the future development of society remained vital, which both mean that society will have to make some compromises.
This highlights the need for continued improvement and analysis of our position as responsible producers. At the same time we can recognize that the leather and leather using industries have a had a huge role in the last half century in providing jobs in emerging markets like Korea, Taiwan, India and China. As we move through the tannery we can see at each stage from tanning, through dyeing and retanning and into finishing we employ more people to produce the same amount of leather, but when we get to footwear manufacture that number multiplies hugely. The same goes for leather garments, gloves or leather goods. The machinery involved to employ these people is not so capital intensive as in the tanning industry and training is simpler. This is why now that Africa appears to be turning to leather making as a key element in development, as we can see in Ethiopia.
From its renewable raw material, through its manufacture, its versatility and longevity in use, and the fact that it provides so many jobs the manufacture of leather looks to be good for humanity and good for the planet. As long as we face up to the realities of the sections of our industry that are misbehaving, and as long as we continuously strive to learn and improve, being open and transparent in all our activities then leather is unquestionably a sustainable material. One we can be proud to be involved in making.