Climate science is difficult. How far back do you go to gather your data and develop your trends? Are you looking at the very long term or just a medium or short term view? How good is your data, and how do the ordinary citizens know how to filter out the bias of lobbyists? The truth can be an elusive concept. But it is quite clear that the science indicates clear changes in climate due to increased human activity since the start of the industrial revolution. Not to accept the role of climate change, to set narrow boundaries, would be a grave error. In most scenarios setting narrow boundaries, the silo approach, has huge risks.

Changing climate requires the leather industry to consider the impacts our industry makes on the planet. We should be pleased with our starting position. Most of our supply comes from animals which have the amazing ability to convert grass into a protein, needed for a balanced diet. No need to deplete non-renewable carbon resources. And that long-term grass is quite excellent at carbon sequestration. Although historically we have been a highly polluting industry properly made leather industry can be a good citizen in terms of waste, water and process requirements. We must support action to resolve issues in the few remaining weak areas such as the deprived and dysfunctional Bangladesh.

Yet leather is often classed as a “bad” material because cows apparently produce methane. This is because of one of the most badly written reports ever by the FAO, Livestocks Long Shadow. What is sad is the FAO report was written in 2006 and seems to be a direct attack on the billion plus poorest semi nomadic farmers around the world. It has been shown to be incorrect, and this is accepted by the FAO, but continues to be quoted in the first paragraph of every tirade against the use of leather by animal rights activists.

The bigger picture

All marketers like the big picture. Without the context it provides they risk misinterpreting what is happening around their business. Leather is no different. Tanners have to be intensely interested in where their hides and skins come from, animal welfare, disease, breeding, slaughter, flaying methods and curing. That is how we helped get rid of warble fly in much if the world. Equally a tanner who is not close to designers and willing to understand the issues and needs of brands, retailers and especially consumers will never achieve the best results in terms of product evolution or margin. Putting the boundaries too narrow has great dangers. This does not mean that the tanner is responsible for events outside the tannery, but it does imply great involvement as a stakeholder.

So as well as scientifically the basics of corporate social responsibility make it difficult to fully support an argument to measure the carbon footprint of a piece of leather without the carbon footprint of the cow. That was why at the UNIDO Panel Meeting in Shanghai (September 2012) I was unable to support the conclusions of what has become known as the UNIDO Report on CO2. There were other reasons. The full report was not presented, there was no time to read or check the supporting papers, there was only about 30 minutes for discussion, and the Panel Meeting was the wrong forum for such a document to be scrutinised. The implied, indeed stated, assumption was that the leather industry was being damaged by the methane claims and that the simplest thing would be to exclude the cow from the calculation. Anyone who voted against supporting the recommendations, as opposed to noting the report, was viewed as an enemy of the leather industry.

On first examination one can see the sense of this. For most leather made in the world the creation of leather is not the first consideration of the farmer so therefore leather should not take a charge for living animal, only after its death. But the argument that hides and skins are somehow an aggravating by-product, or really a waste product, is difficult to wholly accept given the huge investment many meat suppliers put into their hides and skins divisions and the price tanners are willing to pay for raw material. At the same time a UNIDO forum is heavily weighted towards countries with subsistence farmers to whom the skin values are absolutely essential. Our western black and white approach to things does not fit the reality in a complex, fuzzy world.

The trouble with the FAO 2006 report is that it compared emissions from transport against livestock using different criteria. If I understand it correctly it mixed its LCA and CO2 approach to give different, non-comparable boundaries to the two sectors making transport look less damaging and livestock more so. So to do something similar for leather would appear unfortunate. I did not know Charlie Clark at the time of the UNIDO meeting but reading his views, published in International Leather Maker (Dec-Jan 2014, pages 24-26), on the dangers inherent in the leather industry approach I do hope the industry will give him a full hearing.

Hides and skins may be a by-product for most, but it is one we pay top-dollar for and telling many customers who are increasingly careful with their CSR policies, and hiring well educated staff to manage them, that the cow has nothing to do with us will be difficult. If they come to think that tanners are using manipulated science to pretend leather is better than it is then this will rebound on us. That is Charlie’s fear, and he has my full support. Let us be sure to involve some of the climate change experts amongst our customers in this decision making.

On top of the errors in the overall calculations the 2006 report from the FAO appears flawed on methane itself, the rainforest debit and on water usage. A newer report from them cuts the CO2 footprint of hides and skins by over a third and implies with husbandry changes it could drop to a quarter of even that figure. So the actually load could be very small indeed and certainly fully neutralised by the benefits of long term grassland. Perhaps our focus we should be on getting the whole truth out about the cow. A renewable resource of huge value to us all, without recourse to scarce carbon resources.

Renewable, sustainable, beautiful. No gimmicks. Some imperfections but we are working on them together. That’s leather. 

Mike Redwood

Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood