Due to its link with the meat industry, leather is often claimed to be a cause of the deforestation in vulnerable environments, such as the Amazon. Reports by NGOs have attempted to associate fashion brands and automotive companies to deforestation and leather is one of the commodities that may be subject to new due diligence requirements contained in proposed regulations in the EU, UK and possibly, the USA.
These concerns have given rise to considerable activity by the industry to improve transparency and traceability within the leather supply chain. Action has been taken to ensure, as far as possible, that the leather supply chain does not contain hides sourced from illegally deforested areas and to give confidence to downstream customers and consumers that their products are not contributing to deforestation.
However, it must be understood that leather does not drive the rearing of livestock. The production of leather is all but incidental to that. By extension, it does not drive deforestation. Research at the University of Montana has shown that demand for hides for leather has no direct influence on the number of animals reared and slaughtered. This means that even the best efforts of the leather sector will have a limited impact in the fight against illegal deforestation.
It must also be recognised that the illegal deforestation in the regions of concern is due to corruption, abuses of power, ‘land grabbing’ and ‘cattle laundering’. Even the most diligent companies could be misled on the provenance of the raw materials that they source, particularly from its indirect suppliers. Moreover, most tanneries are small, which exacerbates the challenge. As a customer of the meat industry, leather manufacturers are excluded from the first stages of the supply chain and are not involved in the sourcing and tracing of livestock. Furthermore, hides or skins are of little importance to the meat value chain; hides may represent as little as 0.8% of the animal’s value, and globally, up to 40% are simply thrown away.
The leather sector has very little scope to influence the upstream supply chain. Farmers are paid for the whole animal and receive no premium for the hide or skin. As such, hides and skins have no influence on the rearing of livestock. Hence, while the leather industry supports the elimination of deforestation-sourced raw materials from its supply chain, the limitations on its influence on that part of the supply chain must be recognised and expectations must be tempered with pragmatism. Stigmatising leather by defining it legally as a deforestation risk product is unfair and unhelpful.
Nonetheless, the global leather industry does not deny its place in supply chains that carry deforestation risks, and it will play its part in seeking to resolve the issues by pushing for increased transparency and traceability of raw materials. By engaging with our suppliers and insisting on change, leather manufacturers and their customers can be part of the solution.