Don't blame the cow

The Redwood Blog
Published:  25 November, 2014
Mike Redwood

If leather doesn't want the carbon footprint of livestock we should not blame cows for methane. In the leather industry we are very uncomfortable when we get charged with the carbon footprint of livestock. It dwarfs anything we can do in the tannery and has led many environmental experts to condemn leather as a material. Yet measurements on plastics appear to only relate to their manufacture: no obvious huge addition for being made from carbon dug out of the ground. 

I was not comfortable when the leather industry first put its case to start its "carbon boundaries" at the abattoir. I felt we needed a lot more time to fully understand the complex science of Life Cycle Analysis and Carbon Footprinting, when we were pushed into deciding at a UNIDO meeting in Shanghai. The quality of the paper is not the issue as accepting an argument just because someone tells you "it is obviously good for the leather industry" makes me react negatively. Identifying the correct approach for measuring year on year improvement is not the same as an appropriate way of comparing leather against textiles or plastics so for my own peace of mind I am pleased this is now under detailed review in the EU.

You might say I was dancing on a pin; being too worried about detail when it is "obvious" that leather is not the reason farmers keep cows. My major concern remains the need for confidence in the science as if we are to defend our industry against all-comers, as Leather Naturally! is trying to do, our case is totally undermined if we are not scrupulous with all our claims.

I think eating meat is a good thing and I object more to the attacks on cows than I do about the carbon footprint of leather. I have a neighbour who is a highly regarded nutritionist with a very solid scientific background. But she does not eat meat and last week she was proclaiming how much CO2 would be saved per capita if we all followed her and stayed with vegetables. To my astonishment she based this on a 2007 blog discussing the FAO 2006 report Livestock's Long Shadow. I am shocked because this report has long been discredited and even the FAO admit that it tried to compare the carbon footprint of transport with that of cattle using totally improper science, and getting some of it wrong on top of that.

The very fact that those who oppose society using leather are willing to manipulate the science to their ends to my mind means we should be scrupulous in our honesty and transparency about leather. We have nothing to cover up and no need to be fearful of anything about our material as long as we watch out for animal welfare and proper management of processes, people and waste. Even if we have to accept some of load put on cows my view is that good farming and proper science will show cows are benign and beneficial. From what I can see in most situations good husbandry means cows help make good soil and sequester carbon and are on balance good for the environment.

It is digging up carbon deposits to make plastics, which puts the carbon into the atmosphere and is the change since the industrial revolution we must concern ourselves with. 

Mike Redwood

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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