Carbon footprint of leather – allocation of cattle management

Stefan Rydin, Nordeconsult Sweden AB
Published:  03 December, 2014

Global climate change has come into focus during the last years. A major source contributing to the global climate change is the emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere. As a consequence, more attention is now made on Product Carbon Footprint, which has been an important factor to assess the environmental sustainability of products. A Product Carbon Footprint describes the sum of greenhouse gas emissions accumulated during the full life cycle of a product and is therefore a measure of the absolute climate impact of a product and its use. 

A controversial point when calculating the carbon footprint for leather has been how to model the cattle management. The question is how much, if any, of the environmental impact of cattle management should be allocated to leather produced from rawhides. This is an important question for the leather industry, because any part of the cattle management that is included in the carbon footprint of leather will dominate the total impact of that product.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)

Calculations of environmental footprint (or carbon footprint) should be based on Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). One type of methodological problem in LCA is the problem of allocation. An important aspect here is the distinction between attributional and consequential LCA.

Attributional LCA should describe the environmentally physical flows to and from the full life cycle. Cattle management is part of the life cycle of a leather product and should be included in an attributional LCA of a leather product. 

Consequential LCA is defined by its aim to describe how environmentally relevant flows will change in response to a possible decision. Cattle management can be excluded from a consequential LCA of leather. However, such a study should include the alternative fate of the rawhide.

Methodology

Consequential system modeling is widely used in LCAs for product improvement and policy-making but so far not commonly used for eco-labelling or Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). This may be explained by the inherent ambiguity in the way EPDs are viewed by the public and by different experts.

Stefan Rydin (blue shirt) with Dr. Rajenda Pachauri who is the chairman of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Delhi.

On one hand, the EPDs are seen as declarations of the past environmental impact of the product also often including the expected use and disposal phase, but not specifically intended to indicate the environmental consequences of buying the declared product.

On the other hand, EPDs can be seen as means for the customer to influence the environmental impact of the purchased products, which gives a requirement on the EPD that it reflects the expected environmental consequences of buying the declared product compared not to buying it (consequential LCA suitable).           

Conclusions and selection of LCA method

The author recommends that consequential LCA should be used for Environmental Product Declarations to ensure that the result describe the environmental consequences of purchase of the declared product.

As a consequence, the environmental burden from cattle management should not be included in the environmental footprint of leather.

This short overview of principles for calculating the carbon footprint/environmental footprint of leather will be followed up by a larger article in ILM in the beginning of 2015 where the views of the author will be supported by scientific results from researchers in the LCA community and arguments given that the use of consequential LCA is in line with standards and guidelines such as the EU Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) guidelines.     

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