Leathers footprint - science versus emotion

ILM Editorial blog - Martin Ricker
Published:  06 November, 2013
Martin Ricker

It is good to know that through COTANCE the European Commission is going to fund a Pilot to develop a carbon and water footprint for the leather industry. They should be congratulated for their work along with others in this area. Several studies and research have been carried out and a report was submitted to the UNIDO Leather Products Panel during there last meeting in Shanghai, September 2012 which has been adopted by COTANCE and IULTCS and others as the best way forward.

This report, written by Federico Brugnoli under the auspices of UNIDO, is based on the assumption of certain “system boundaries” which each industrial segment within the supply chain is responsible for or not as the case maybe.

Just to re-cap the leather industry is proposing that its takes on the “responsibility” of the environmental footprint at the point of at which the animal is slaughtered and the hide/skin removed from the carcass. The responsibility ends at the point the leather is shipped to the finished product producer such as footwear maker, auto OEM etc. Within the boundaries the leather industry has to account for all energy inputs, wastes, emissions etc. but may also gain credits for recycling materials, green energy and utilizing by-products such as hair, splits, gelatine etc.

The IULTCS technical committee recognised as the main international scientific body within the industry has also supported the research carried out by Brugnoli and have assisted in getting it recognised as a proposed international method.

Dinner conversation

I was recently involved in a conversation on the subject of environmental footprint of leather over dinner during the Bologna fair in October.

However, although there was a broad agreement on the science - the two parties leading the conversation had opposing views when one partially removed science and data from the discussion and threw in the emotional response consumers have with this topic and the real influence NGO’s have on forming consumer opinions.

As this was a private discussion I won’t name the individuals or the companies they represent. But I can say that one represented a major international chemicals company and the one of the worlds leading international sports brands.

Despite the convincing scientific argument about leather and where the system boundaries should be drawn the person from the sports brand said that the brands do listen to and take note of what NGO’s and campaign groups such as Greenpeace and Peta do as it influences consumer buying decisions.

When I challenged them to use accurate science to convince their customers that their products are environmentally sound they reiterated the point that science is only part of the consideration. The emotional story is also a factor that the brand must consider even if the scientific fact may not back-up the rhetoric of campaigners who have their own agenda.

One of my conclusions from the dinner table discussion was that no matter what the leather industry does to improve its environmental credentials and come up with a clear and rational case for measuring the footprint of leather and its boundaries, the brands are just going to decide what criteria they think is best regardless of the facts. A mix of science and emotion, which puts the tanner in an unwinnable position. 

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