Fighting fake news and lazy reporting about the leather industry

Comment
Published:  27 September, 2019
Picture credit: Vincent Delegge

Lately, and all too frequently, it has become commonplace for mainstream as well as social media reports to lay into the leather industry, elements of its supply chain and processes, or the wider meat sector as a whole. Leather is under attack, and leather makers and finished goods producers are increasingly on the backfoot, having to constantly defend themselves and their industry from mistruths and negative, anti-leather propaganda. 

Within the last month alone, British trade body Leather UK publicly hit back twice at defamatory and inaccurate articles against the leather industry from British mainstream media The Guardian and the BBC, and in July international industry associations Cotance, Leather UK and Leather Naturally saw it necessary to jointly respond to inaccurate reporting about the leather industry in a Euronews article.

Just last week, an article on vegan alternatives to leather used in the automotive industry published by U.S. technology news website CNET wrongly quoted UNIDO, The United Nations Industrial Development Organisation, as having stated that “Leather creates a long and nasty chain of CO2 emissions and chemical waste”, adding that “Leather may seem glamourous, but UNIDO sees it primarily as one big toxic mess”. To emphasise the claim further, the article was illustrated with a totally misleading image depicting a tannery in South Asia with poor working conditions. I think most of us in the leather industry know that no tannery anywhere in the world that provides leather for any major OEM would make leather in a facility like this, with such environmental impact and poor health & safety standards. Sadly, as misleading and inaccurate as this may be, it generates headlines.

UNIDO confronted the editor in charge, categorically rejecting the misuse of its name in conjunction with the false accusations and the defamatory language against leather used in the article, as well as the corresponding video. In this instance, the references to UNIDO, the quotes and the image were removed - albeit without an apology by the editor. However, in most cases such calls for corrections are being ignored and these articles remain in the public domain.

Media bias against the leather industry
There seems to be a trend in mass-media to peddle a sensationalist anti-leather agenda with half-fictions, poorly cobbled together assumptions and claims without context or proper research. Social media in particular plays a considerable part; it is all too easy to spread false facts and information in bite-sized chunks, catchy soundbites or deliberately misleading video content which can quickly go viral and can be produced by anyone and everyone.

But the bias against the leather (and meat) industries by respected mainstream media is all the more worrying. It appears that increasingly, proper, thorough journalism is being replaced by lobby-driven - and apparently paid-for - content. In this case, it is in the name of animal rights and environmental concerns, which, in the current, changing climate (pun intended!) are emotive hot topics and resonate with the public. Sponsored articles and paid-for content are nothing new, and nothing dodgy per se in the media world, but where the lines become blurred and edge into the unethical is when these articles are not clearly labelled as such. But this appears to be an increasingly common practice in mainstream media, who drip-feed the same anti-leather message through targeted, one-sided reports on behalf of special interest groups who commission them to do so and to influence public opinion. Take for instance British media group The Guardian, which has been stepping up its anti-meat, and anti-leather narrative for some time now. Could it have something to do with the US$886,600 which it received as a grant by U.S. lobby group Open Philanthropy Project (OPP), whose focus areas include ‘Farm Animal Welfare’? OPP commissioned the Guardian to write a series on factory farming and farm animal cruelty (with the grant openly declared on its website). Bearing in mind that these articles are not labelled as “sponsored” or “partnered” content, it is hard to see how the average reader will be able to make that distinction between neutral and objective reporting and a clear bias towards one side of the story.

On the defensive
What’s all the more frustrating is that none of the media outlets who are happy to publish anti-leather rhetoric seem to have ever reached out to representatives of the industry and asked for the input or discourse with one of the many experts and leaders who are driving change and the move towards a more sustainable, traceable and responsible sector, or have indeed ever visited a modern tannery.

Nobody is saying that the leather industry is without problems, but to ignore a whole side of the argument is short-sighted, poor practice and smacks of lazy journalism. Media have an important role to play in keeping governments, businesses, industry and society in check and hold the mirror up to their flaws, and it is right that they challenge the status quo and highlight issues. But it should be on a neutral and level playing field. If an article is paid-for and commissioned with a set agenda, then it should be clearly labelled as such.

It’s a shame that the leather industry has to be on the defensive. While that is unlikely to change any time soon, the only way to fight back in this era of fake news and alternative truths is to counter with real facts and with a positive message that shouts about the good examples, where transparency, animal welfare and environmental goals are achieved.

Isabella Griffiths, Editor, ILM
isabella@edifydigitalmedia.com

About the author

Isabella Griffiths is an experienced b2b journalist and Editor, having joined ILM from the fashion and retail sector, where she spent 15 years as Editor-in-Chief of a leading national trade title in the UK, reporting on industry news and market developments within clothing wholesale, retail and e-commerce. Originally from Germany, Isabella trained as print journalist and started her career as reporter for one of the country’s largest newspaper groups.