The honest truth about leather

Guest comment
Published:  19 August, 2019
Agha Saiddain

Agha Saiddain, Marketing Director of Pakistan based tanners, Royal Leather Industries located in Lahore and the current Chairman of the Pakistan Tanners’ Association (PTA) Central section, has presented his thoughts to ILM around some of the untruths and misconceptions around leather and leather products in the current market. He urges the tanning industry to work together to fight on common ground. 

From the very beginning of humanity animal meat and skins were an essential partner for the human race. It would have vanished to exist without animal meat and skins. Both remained as important as water and oxygen till humans started growing other foodstuffs and fabrics. However, both meat and their skins remained important for people to survive. The use of animal meat, milk, and it’s hide, or skin is part of the human race as most of us are both carnivorous and vegetarian. 

The need hierarchy theory of famous psychologist, Maslow states that hunger and thirst are two basic needs of any human or animal. Any interference in this natural system is unnatural and bound to disappear after some time. Some NGOs through publicity and advertising are using false facts and are busy creating dissonance among consumers about natural leather. Their ultimate goal is to raise negativity around leather to a point where consumers will check the label before buying any leather product and may prefer to buy plastics and synthetic materials instead! These NGOs want to distort the perception of the consumer to the level where big brands will write on the labels “No animal skin is used, only synthetic material”. What we can see in their publicity campaigns is that all these are based on element of fear and hypocritical love for animals. Attacking meat and beef by creating stories around animal welfare, traceability, animal slaughter etc. They also stoke up fears around the environmental of leather making, chrome tanning, emissions of methane gas during the life-cycle of the animal. With incorrect information they are busy developing a perception among the masses that leather making is toxic and the rearing of livestock is a major source of global warming. Up until now the global tanning sector has not really challenged these false claims. However, the tanning industry has gathered information and does have valid arguments which are based on the honest truth as well as solid facts. 

Throwing a useable resource into landfill

According to FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation) statistics, the global cattle herd was 1035.3 million in 2013 and it says that there is an average annual growth rate of the global cattle herd around 0.8%.  Therefore, the size of the global cattle herd in 2018 should be around 1077.38 million head. According to a study conducted by the U.S. Hide, Skin and Leather Association (USHSLA) the annual slaughter of cattle at a global level was 240 million head in 2013. The same source says that the average weight per hide is approximately 30 kilos meaning that total annual weight of hides would 7.2 billion kilos. To dump these into landfill would cost US$950 million per year. Similarly, the global population of sheep and goats was 1172 million and 1005 million heads respectively and according to the FAO, the annual global slaughter of sheep and goat was 542.50 million and 424 million head respectively. Based on the average weight of sheep and goatskins is around conservatively 700 grams per skin. Therefore, the total weight of sheepskins and goatskins works out 675 million kilos which could cost another US$90 million per annum to dump. Every year, developing nations are spending US$45 billion on municipal waste management which is estimated to reach US$150 billion by 2025 (Source: PROPARCO). Adding another 7.875 billion kilos to this would cost a huge adding to ground contamination and air pollution. The tanning industry itself is a pollution controlling and waste management sector handling 7.875 billion kilos of raw hides and skins and each year. Hides and skins that are a by-product of the meat industry. Who on earth raises an animal for leather? The answer is none, when it comes to mainstream farm animals. 

Why do these NGOs blame the leather sector for the degradation of the Amazon, methane emissions, and bad practices during animal rearing and for other environmental issues? The tanning industry is recycling the hides and skins into leather and beautiful leather goods such as shoes, garments, gloves, bags, automotive and furniture upholstery, and many other articles. This recycling industry of hides and skins provides jobs to millions of people across the world and especially in poor and developing countries. The developed nations are also benefitting by selling their leather chemicals, accessories, and machinery in to the industry. 

The industry needs to face anti-leather NGOs and challenge their narrative based on falsehoods. As ILM Columnist Mike Redwood says, tanners must raise their honest voice, we must combine and sing in harmony. 

Misdescriptions of leather 

The Global Leather Coordinating Committee (GLCC) which brings together the ICT, ICHSLTA and IULTCS has challenged big brands such as Nike about its ‘Fly Leather’ and its environmental credentials as well as the use of the term ‘leather’ in this material. 

The leather sector needs to raise a combined voice to not allow the use of the word “leather” in such products and prevent terms such as synthetic leather or bonded leather etc. We must introduce a true “Leather Mark” like the “Wool Mark” to save this ancient industry which has put a lot of effort into reducing its consumption of water and energy together with use of more environmentally friendly chemicals. If we compare the pollution load of the tanning industry as compared with other industries and carbon emissions caused by the use of fossil fuels, then it’s impact is only a fraction of the total. 

In my view, the leather industry needs to work on building up more fact data, especially around the environmental impact when comparing synthetic materials and natural leather. And, to create a new love for this ancient material we have to join together and develop a narrative based on the honest truth and follow it strongly and aggressively.

Agha SaiddainChairmanPakistan Tanners' Association (Central).