Three areas have left the leather industry vulnerable: Unacceptable business practices in tanning in many parts of the world; leather industry ambiguity when talking about chemical processing, in particular chromium; and the entirely false climate negative label that has been handed to livestock through inappropriate use of science related to greenhouse gases.

These have been effectively picked up by a variety of pressure groups, many of whom appeared to have coalesced into a general opposition for all things to do with business or what they define as ‘capitalism’. They have provided wonderful material for the uncompromising animal rights and vegan groups who in many cases will ignore norms of behaviour and integrity of science to promote their absolutist beliefs. Occasionally, support has come from the fossil fuel industry, who appear interested to confuse the clear concern about their carbon dioxide emissions by placing blame on livestock methane.

While railing loudly on social media and elsewhere to audiences mostly made up of ourselves is understandable, there will be no benefit to leather unless we can reach out with the truth to a wider audience that includes school children, younger generations of consumers, designers, retailers and brands.

For this to be meaningful, a start needs to be made with the Higg Index, an influential measuring system for materials started over a decade ago by Nike, but now in the hands of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, in which many other major brands such as VF Corp, M&S, Patagonia and H&M are now involved.

From the beginning, the Higg Index appears to have favoured fossil-based materials over natural ones and joined the fast fashion catastrophe that has been enabled and led by polyester.

Leather suffers from inaccurate weightings applied to livestock, which add over 90% to the carbon footprint. By comparison, synthetics and oil-based materials like polyester have zero applied to them for their non-renewable origins, making the comparison inaccurate from the start. Huge errors in the figures for livestock came from the 2006 FAO report on livestock, where methane calculations were wrong, as well as calculations of water consumption. For many years, these figures were not disputed and they continue to form the foundation of influential indexes like Higg.

There are a number of commercial and subscription bodies working in this space. I have been watching one, Common Objective, and knowing their positive intentions made an investment in them during their recent crowdfunding. Yet, their position on leather still points to the Higg Index:

“The Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Materials Sustainability Index – which measures impact up to the point of fabrication – gives most leathers an impact of 159 (compared with 44 for polyester and 98 for cotton), due to its high contribution to global warming and water use and pollution”.

They then talk about processing leather using toxic chemicals and “produc(ing) a slush of chemicals and gases, including carcinogenic chromium (IV). This is so noxious that strict regulations governing it have forced the closure of tanneries in the US and Europe.”

There is no doubt that many of those hired to work in this area are either lacking the scientific skills to undertake their own calculations or are afraid to question the data that has been previously published, despite it now being widely accepted as erroneous. The references used by Common Objective are not what would be expected of 2020 science.

When I asked Mike Berners-Lee about his sources for his influential environmental book ‘How Bad are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything’, published back in 2010, he responded that in line with other experts he took his figures from the published tables and did not question them. Neither the leather industry, nor the livestock industry, was really fighting its corner in those days, and thus bad science became normalised in the debate.

The leather industry is in a weak place to fight back
With climate, pollution and human issues to deal with, the leather industry is in a weak place to fight back. Yet, the negatives do not hold for 90% of our industry. As well as planning how to deal with these internal matters, the Higg Index would be a good start. The brands involved are not a foolish group and should listen to reasoned argument.

The silk industry appears to be taking a lead, arguing that an opaque analysis from India appears to have been translated into the figures for the entire industry and ignores many positive social impacts. Summarising a detailed analysis and article on the Higg Index by Veronica Bates Kassatly in Apparel Insider, its Editor, Brett Mathews, said that the Higg MSI cannot “be trusted and lacks all credibility”. “It ignores socioeconomic impact, it is cradle-to-grave only and it ignores the appalling environmental impact of polyester microfibre shedding”. 

If the leather industry could influence some of the SAC supporting brands to get the Higg Index to detail how its indexes are calculated, as is expected of an index that has become the self appointed sole arbiter of material sustainability, and to engage honestly on the science, we would have achieved a big step forward.

Success is when leather is accepted as being the best material
Leather, and livestock, in 2020 withstands scrutiny well from any objective and a circular economy point of view. Success should be measured when leather is accepted as being the best, rather than the worst, material for designers to use and other biomaterials to emulate.

Mike Redwood
October 7, 2020

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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