Given that our industry has been so fragmented it was amazing that the Manifesto was produced at all and shows the changes in its public voice that the leather industry has made over the last five+ years, having previously quite aggressively opposed getting together to defend leather’s market share and publicise its consumer and societal benefits.
Many changes were forcing the industry to rethink its bunker mentality, but it has been very resistant to change. The environmental aspects and the improvement in competitiveness of alternate materials have been constant factors additionally the poor practice adopted by groups opposing livestock and leather accelerated, especially the abusive handling of the facts and the science, sometimes looking to deliberately lead customers and consumers to reject leather as their preferred material, with some major institutions following with actual or implied regulations related to meat, livestock and materials.
Fossil fuel industry lobbying
One part of this was an intense lobbying by the fossil fuel industry to reduce action on CO2reduction and to blame livestock and other natural materials for climate change. This was fully proven when fossil fuel companies openly admitted at COP-21 in Paris 2015 that they funded academics to write articles diminishing the role of CO2 and blaming any climate change on livestock emissions instead via major news outlets, while hiding their source of payment.
Throughout all this it cannot be overlooked that the large parts of the leather industry has been busy transforming its approaches and facilities for most of the past thirty years. As we entered the last decade many tanneries were undertaking their own scientific analyses of their carbon footprints and the whole industry has been hugely impacted, for the better, by the exceedingly rigorous activities of the Leather Working Group. Many major tanning groups have become leaders in this precise collecting of data and investing in improvements at every stage. As the leather industry representative organisations slowly changed their approach, they found that the industry had in quite large areas moved on and with other new bodies were working through the science and language with which the industry should talk about leather.
Fossil fabrics are bad for the planet
Hence, we found ourselves with a clear and simple COP-26 Leather Manifesto. Quite different to the “talking to itself material” the decades had made us come to expect. It emphasised the potential value of natural materials replacing fossil carbon based fabrics, offering sustainable, renewable, recyclable and relatively easily biodegradable materials. When ethically and properly produced they reduce the need for continued large scale fossil carbon extraction.
COP-26 offered a good moment to produce this Manifesto and get it into the hands of a wide range of delegates and interested parties; but it could never be expected to have an instant impact. For that everyone in the leather sector has to unite behind roughly the same arguments and be careful that what they say about leather in general and their own products is absolutely accurate and supported with full transparency.
This was timely since arguments over the Higg MSI (Material Sustainability Index) had been building up over some years. In a little over a decade Higg has achieved great power in the marketplace but with data showing polyester leading other synthetics as the best while natural materials all came out very poorly and leather off the chart at the bottom.
Over the years the Higg Index became a major tool for materials. Major brands decided to depend upon it and a number of private organisations promoting sustainability used it as the foundation of their recommendations. It was never fully clear how the data was put together and analysed to the scoring but tanners could see that the leather figure was hugely loaded by livestock emissions (which were both inaccurate and less relevant since the livestock industry is not driven by demand for hides/skins or leather). And no consideration was given to longevity and end-of-life of a product.
For many years tanners chose to try and ignore it, putting it to one side as a one of the unfair arrows leather had to accept. But over the past four or five years attacks from different areas of the leather industry and other natural materials started to increase. The way in which studies for materials such as silk, wool, alpaca and cotton came under considerable scrutiny when it became clear that quite limited work in one country might be extrapolated and used to define a material globally. Cries were that the Higg Index was doing actual harm to good products by using an opaque, and inaccurate, process of material evaluation.
During 2021 it did look as though Higg was listening and there was engagement to allow the fuller publication of actual tannery figures but while industry and individual company concerns drag slowly through the Higg system bodies such as the Norwegian Consumer Agency (NCA) can intervene whenever they feel it appropriate.
In a report and accompanying letters to some brands and the SAC (Sustainable Apparel Coalition), the body that runs the Higg Index, the NCA were upset with the use of Higg as a marketing tool. They complained that “scores were often based on ‘global averaging’ for broad categories, rather than rigorous analysis of the supply chains behind specific products. Some of the data used was outdated or irrelevant. And some important metrics were left out”, according to an article in the Financial Times. SAC has paused its Higg consumer-facing transparency programme and asked members to remove Higg Index data and marketing materials from their websites. A dramatic reversal.
So, I would argue that the COP-26 was a major part of the process of getting a true view of leather and natural materials back onto the agenda and into the awareness of all the decision-making bodies. This is hard and determined work and there are no short cuts.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
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