Leather must stay focused on the environment

Redwood Comment
Published:  23 March, 2022
Credit: design36/Shutterstock.com

The war in Ukraine has driven other issues out of the news and redrawn the priorities for business, writes Mike Redwood, but one item that must stay on the agenda for tanners is climate change. 

COP26 remains open and active until the start of COP27 in November with the commitment of countries to return with substantially improved commitments. It is a perfect moment for leather to engage with a well thought through and agreed plan for prosperity through sustainability.

All countries worry first about national security and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought a threat over the supplies of its vast oil and gas production and the West now plans to remove Russia from its energy supply.

We are reminded how many of the nations with big oil supplies are autocracies who have taken little or no action to diversify their economies away from fossil fuel production. Equally many countries have put aside their 2021 promises to end mining and using coal while a major restart of fracking in the U.S. and elsewhere is likely.

Elastic ESG agenda

While the pandemic had pushed much of business and the investing community towards a high integrity sustainable trajectory, an already elastic ESG agenda has fast become a stretch of the imagination and the whole sustainability debate is back in a more contested space.

This does not mean that meat and leather will suddenly have it easy, quite the reverse. Letters and articles in the quality press are already shouting “stop flying and eating meat to save the planet”, and a recent study in Nature Food promises spectacular numbers from a total shift to plant-based diets in the 54 high-income countries that eat the most meat.

Given that 2022 is already being predicted by the U.N. World Food Programme to be “a year of catastrophic hunger”, with countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon and Turkey all dependent on wheat from Ukraine, the importance of retaining a strong global livestock industry to support needed protein supplies appears clear. There will be a charged discussion.

A comprehensive scientific foundation

It is vital that the livestock industry engages fully in this on areas including regenerative farming, pastoral subsistence support, slurry to biogas or hydrogen and the proper understanding of GWP. The leather trade must support them. But the real task of the leather sector is wider and so much more positive now that individual tanneries, national bodies and better coordinated industry leaders have started to make their mark based on a more comprehensive scientific foundation.

Based on this, tanneries have been able to engage meaningfully with customers to help them navigate the complexity of competing sustainability narratives. They have started to address the longstanding issues with the Higg Index, which has battered natural materials using opaque and incomplete LCAs yet remained unchallenged for a decade. The LWG continues to build its reputation as one of the best auditing systems in the world of modern materials and the industry is steadily advancing towards better processes such as Zeology and others.

Along with the COP26 Leather Manifesto, these will start to earn the leather industry access to a fairer share of voice wherever sustainable materials are discussed. Achieving this is hard work and does not come with one well-crafted press release or noisy shouting in the narrow space of our own industry.

An enduring material

Leather is an enduring material that deserves more than just acceptance and recognition. Is leather already a net-zero material? How should this even be measured? How should the industry handle tanners who view environmental responsibilities and labour rights as problems for others? How will we ensure that new tanneries in areas like Africa do meet proper standards in all regards?

Whatever the outcome of this apparent de-globalisation the leather industry will remain interconnected. Over thousands of years leather has adapted to changing supply chains, work patterns, sourcing, trade hubs and new technologies. One thing always remains: the image and value of leather is only as good as its weakest link.

Leather cannot ignore these issues and pretend “they are not for us”. Driving leather forward needs new processes, improved older processes, the use of renewable energy and its production from tannery waste and many other things. And, while the world argues about what ESG is, leather needs a plan of action to sort out our global black spots.

This is much more of an opportunity than it is a threat. Building on the solid foundation of so many well-made productions with good life cycle analysis, putting in place objectives and timelines for net-zero and a plan for black spot elimination would show immense leadership and integrity in our small industry.

We will make 2022 a good year for leather by our leaders continuing the switch from defence to building strongly and logically on the positives. Let us hope our politicians are able to achieve the same for planetary peace. 

Mike Redwood

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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