On 30th January 2020, a chance series of clicks from LinkedIn took us to the Common Objective website and their briefing on leather.
Common Objective is linked to the Ethical Fashion Forum and claims to be "the global tech solution for sustainable fashion business" offering "Case studies, tools, and checklists for building sustainable supply chains.".
However, it is quite clear that they have no understanding of leather. They ask for feedback, so we gave them some, shown below. This type of misinformation must be challenged.
Fibres & Fabrics
The level of ignorance and dishonesty in this briefing is quite staggering. It has clearly been written with the intention of maligning leather as a material and makes no effort to consider that leather is a renewable waste product transformed into a sustainable, long-lasting, durable, repairable, versatile, beautiful and ultimately biodegradable product. These are exactly the features that should be looked for in the quest for more sustainable materials for fashion.
Considering the points made in the briefing, firstly you claim that, according to the FAO, 3.8 billion bovine animals are used in leather production every year. The volume of leather this would entail would require everyone on the planet buying something like a new leather sofa every year. More importantly, it shows that the author was either incapable of understanding the statistics on the FAO site or deliberately chose to misrepresent them.
From the FAO site, in 2017 there were approximately 1.7 billion live bovines (cattle and buffalo) on the planet, i.e. less than half the number claimed to be used in the manufacture of leather each year. In fact, the total number of live animals of the species that account for 93% of leather production (cattle, buffalo, sheep, and goats) was approximately 3.9 billion in 2017. Even assuming that all animals were considered, the suggestion that over 97% of these livestock are slaughtered every year, for any reason, let alone the manufacture of leather, is utter fantasy. In fact, total slaughter of cattle, goats and sheep in 2016, was estimated to be a little over 1 billion animals (https://faunalytics.org/global-animal-slaughter-statistics-and-charts/), not even close to the claimed 3.8 billion.
On the environment, the environmental impact of livestock rearing is far more nuanced that presented and a blanket statement that rearing livestock 'has a severe environmental impact' is simplistic and ignorant. Furthermore, leather is a by-product of cattle rearing and does not drive it. Cattle are reared for beef and globally, meat consumption is rising. In contrast, demand for hides and leather has fallen.
With specific reference to the Amazon, this disconnect is quite clear. In Brazil, hide and leather prices have fallen by 53% in the past two years, and leather exports have also fallen. Ten percent of the hides produced are now not even prepared for leather manufacture and are simply being thrown away. The hide and subsequent leather are by-products for which farmers receives no return. If leather was the driving force for deforestation in the Amazon, it would not be happening. In contrast the Brazilian meat industry is expecting record exports in 2020. As long as people eat meat, there will be hides and skins that will need to be disposed of. The most elegant and sustainable solution to that problem is to make leather.
The author clearly has no understanding of tanning chemistry and instead, opts to parrot the myths about chromium-tanned leather. Between 85 and 90% of global leather production is tanned with chromium and the vast majority is done without any negative impact on workers, consumers or the environment. This is because, like all other industries, the leather industry is subject to very stringent regulation, particularly in the EU and the USA. The claim that tanneries in the USA and Europe have been closed due Chromium VI in their effluent is a blatant untruth. Chromium VI can be an issue in poorly made leather but does not present a cancer risk. In fact, Chromium VI in leather is regulated in the EU solely on its potential as a skin sensitiser.
The discharge of untreated effluents is entirely unacceptable but the situation in countries like Bangladesh is the exception not the rule. The vast majority of leather production is subject to stringent environmental controls and effluents are contained and treated to the required standards before discharge. The issue in places like Bangladesh is a low level of regulation and poor enforcement and even here, this is not necessarily definitive of the industry. Similarly, the failure to protect workers from chemicals or the use of child labour is entirely unacceptable but in no way representative of the global leather industry. The protection of tannery workers is the same as that applied to any other industry.
It is encouraging that you note the use of vegetable-tanning chemistry, which produces a very beautiful type of leather. However, this type of leather is not suitable for all applications and as such, the choice of tanning chemistry must be determined by the design requirements of the product. Furthermore, Life Cycle Analysis of the three main tanning chemistries – chromium, synthetic and vegetable – carried out by Eurofins BLC Leather Technology Centre, found that the overall impact of the different chemistries was approximately the same, i.e. it’s not the chemical, it’s how you use it.
The greatest irony in this advice on sustainability is the suggestion that leather be replaced by recycled PU. It is well known that recovery and recycling rates for textile fibres are very low and as such, PU, whether recycled or not, will in all probability become another non-biodegradable plastic waste that is thrown away. This is hardly a sustainable solution.
The replacement of leather with ‘natural’ alternatives is also highly questionable as these materials are heavily dependent on synthetic binders (PU and PVC) to hold them together. ‘Pineapple leather’ can be 28% plastic and some ‘apple leather’ is 50% PU, far more than even the most heavily coated leathers. While these materials offer a laudable solution to valorising waste materials, any claims about their sustainability should be carefully scrutinised. You should also note that all leathers are biodegradable. The caveat here is that some leathers are finished with synthetic materials including PU and this component will not degrade. However, the industry is researching and developing bio-based finishing chemistries that will eventually replace the current finishing materials
The ambition to inform material users on the best and most sustainable options is one that is easy to support. However, the minimum threshold for any advice is that should accurate and balanced. This briefing falls woefully short of that threshold.