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An obvious mistake from Apple

Mike Redwood addresses the faulty logic in Apple’s decision to drop leather, falsely inflating its carbon footprint.

Mike Redwood

Columnist

International Leather Maker


If you inflate the carbon footprint of leather by inaccurately appropriating methane from cows, then replace leather with a material that is either virgin or post-consumer plastic, you can evidence a big saving, but this probably sits as a mix of virtue signalling and poor science.

It ignores the emissions benefits from the longevity of leather in use and the fact that alternatives produce dangerous microplastics. Additionally, while leather gets better with use, the alternatives wear out and look dirty.

There was a rush last week to install an emergency software update on all Apple devices when Apple announced that a vulnerability had allowed Israel’s NSO Group to inject its Pegasus spyware remotely. All sorts of governments use this software to secretly read encrypted messages, turn on the camera and microphone remotely and track locations.

Annoyingly, some of these devices are old and Apple no longer supports them. History tells us that Apple designs beautiful products and makes them well, but they are not intended to last. The company wants consumers to replace them regularly and they are not designed to be repaired. No wonder e-waste is one of the biggest garbage problems.

Dedicated to leaving the world a better place

Apple’s recent press release on carbon neutral products ends saying: “Apple’s more than 100,000 employees are dedicated to making the best products on earth, and to leaving the world better than we found it.”

It also says the business has a “longstanding and proven commitment to leading the fight against climate change” and that this policy now involves ending the use of leather across all its product lines.

Proper study and normal logic suggests instead that Apple should terminate the use of plastic wherever possible in favour of even more leather, since leather is sustainable, long-lasting and made of natural collagen, which offers the biophilic benefits needed by consumers overwhelmed by technology.

Ten years ago, when the carbon footprint of products was assembled using figures from flawed databases, non-scientifically trained environmental staff could easily be bamboozled. This was the issue with the Higg Index downgrading natural materials compared with synthetic polymers made from fossil fuels over many years. Today, good sustainability scientists and more thorough journalists have changed their approach as a result.

Apple’s Vice President of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives is exceptionally well qualified. She has a master’s degree in Chemical Engineering from Princeton University and a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from Tulane University, along with great experience including working for the EPA in the time of President Obama.

Any basic research would quickly uncover Walter R. Stahel’s founding paper of the circular economy. “The Product Life Factor” was presented at the 1983 Woodlands Conference, a symposium addressing the issues of sustainable societies where it was awarded The Mitchell Prize—a US$100,000 cash prize for the scholarly paper that best communicated the means and possibilities of transition to sustainable societies.

Making things that last longer

Stahel argued for the “service-life extension of goods” – use longer, repair and re-manufacture. Making things that last longer, which the consumer will look after and have repaired, is the best way to really reduce emissions. His 2016 update, published in Nature, highlights that recycling must be a last resort as collecting and transporting used goods, along with remaking, repacking and redistributing, involves too much energy and new resources.

Apple’s laudable goal to make every product carbon neutral by 2030 involves a lot of excellent elements, with the wide-ranging introduction of renewable energy extending out to counterbalance even some home charging. But there is little in the plan about repair and longevity beyond help with screens.

Apple’s VP is quoted as saying “Leather… has a significant carbon footprint, especially at Apple’s scale.” What does this even mean?

A calculation that shows leather to have a higher carbon footprint than the company’s new FineWoven material means that the estimations are fully loading leather with methane emissions from cattle and are happy to completely discount the fossil fuel content of FineWoven, since it is made from 68% post-consumer recycled textiles. This also ignores the microplastic particle production in use and subsequent landfill, which arrives quickly because of poor longevity.

A bit more research would show that as a non-determining co-product, it is wrong to put the emissions from cattle husbandry against leather in this way. The EU allows only 0.44% of cow farming emissions to be added to leather. A short trip to meet Dr Frank Mitloehner, professor and air quality specialist in the Department of Animal Science at UC Davis, would have uncovered how dramatically methane emissions have been reduced from livestock in recent years in California and how biogenic methane from cattle is not a problem if the global livestock population is stable. It would also show how CWP100 usage has been carelessly used to take potentially harmful decisions in some countries like New Zealand and Ireland where grass-fed cattle are important.

A project without logic

Not using leather will not reduce cattle emissions or the numbers of livestock, but it will likely create more damaging emissions by increasing the unused hides going to landfill. This is a project without logic.

Apple is an outstanding company primarily because its founder was absolutely determined to make well-made, well-designed products whose use would be intuitive. We loved him for it. But making short lived disposable items that are covered in a material whose fundamental credentials are unsound is not a business he would have been proud of. It is an abuse of a brand’s power.

More and more, we are actually seeing great brands and designers committing to the sustainability of leather with its fabulous credentials and long-lasting characteristics. Lisa Jackson should check with Leather Naturally and the Leather & Hide Council of America.


mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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