Don’t dump it

29 April 2021

As Covid-19 cases rise around the world, although the leather business has shown some timid signs of recovery, it seems that the worst is not over yet. At the same time, consumers are increasingly looking to other materials – which are, in fact, often less sustainable than leather itself. With this in mind, Sam Setter looks at the advantages of leather over its alternatives, and what needs to be done to support the industry’s growth.

Regardless of what consumers say, leather remains a waste product of the meat industry: the animal is processed into meat, whether or not its hide is sold. What’s more, if the hide is sold, it improves the profit margins for the meat producer. If it is not, however, the meat will still be sold at the ruling market price.

Indeed, these days, with prices lower than ever, hide and skin is increasingly being dumped into landfills. This often bears a cost – if the disposal is done in a legitimate way – so the dumping of hide worsens the profit made from the meat. All the more reason to support the leather industry – or, so you would think.

Honesty is the best policy

Unsurprisingly, a large amount of dumping is done illegally in unprotected landfills in order to cut costs. There are numerous videos of hides and blood being dumped in illegally dug holes, with no consideration or respect for the environment. In many instances, by acting in this way, unscrupulous operators are exposing the industry to attacks from the anti-leather lobby, despite the fact that most leather producers are generally mindful of their environmental impact.

However, the problem is not that many people are opposed to the leather industry. Everyone is free to make their own choice about the materials they wish to buy and use. The issue is that leather producers have allowed the anti-leather lobby to use invalid arguments against the industry. The industry is far too tolerant: organisations and associations that represent leather manufacturers haven’t tackled the issue, and instead talk around the problem – meaning that consumers don’t get the information they should.

Why can’t leather manufacturers tell consumers that, on almost all occasions, an animal is killed for its meat and not its skin? It is important for consumers to know that, even in the unlikely event that the world stopped eating meat, there would still be hundreds of millions of cows to provide us with milk – and one day these cows will die.

Better for the planet

As consumers around the world become more concerned about their environmental footprint, and vegetarian and vegan diets become more commonplace, it is not surprising that demand for alternative materials has risen. However, what is seen as a sustainable choice by the consumer may, in fact, be more harmful.

This is why leather manufacturers need to ensure consumers know that alternative materials are often less sustainable, or not sustainable at all, compared with leather. Composite materials used to make car seats, or shoes and bags, for example, are made from fossil-based products – once they are used up, they will be gone forever. Leather, on the other hand, is a waste product of an animal that would, if left untreated, need to be disposed of in a responsible way (in protected landfills, for instance) at high costs.

The consumer needs to know this: it is important for them to be aware that, by not using leather, they are condemning a waste product of the meat industry to be destroyed and, at the same time, choosing to use an alternative material that is helping to deplete the planet’s resources.

The leather industry also needs to make consumers aware that, while there are sustainable alternatives – such as cotton and wool – these materials are far less durable and, therefore, need to be replaced faster. Leather is the strongest natural material and requiring less maintenance.

There is, of course, one consideration to be taken into account: the current fashion business model aims to turn products over every six months, as that feeds the bottom line of the fashion houses. The market needs to understand that, if consumers choose to buy leather, they get a natural product that is transformed in a sustainable way into a durable, useable product without exhausting the planet’s resources. In fact, leather supports the environment by turning a waste product into a fashionable item.

While fossil-based products can be used to produce wearable items such as shoes and dresses, as well as furniture, they often do not have the same comfort or characteristics as leather – and these raw materials are not replaceable. In short, the use of leather improves the environment, whereas fossil-based materials only have a negative effect on the planet.

The leather industry also needs to talk more about water consumption. There is never any discussion about how much water is used to produce leather garments compared with cotton garments. The global average water footprint for 1kg of raw cotton is 10,000L. This may make five or six cotton T-shirts. Therefore, one T-shirt requires about 1,700L of water. One of the world’s leading tanneries revealed that it requires around 3.3L of water to produce 1ft2 of finished leather. With this in mind, if one T-shirt required 10ft2 of leather, this would result in a total water consumption of 33L.

Of course, cows consume thousands of litres of water. But, if the hide was not being tanned, this would not change how much water a cow drinks. It is also important to note that, to grow cotton, irrigation is needed – no irrigation, no cotton. The public is seldom concerned about the use of water to irrigate stadiums or golf courses, so why should it be an issue for the leather industry?

Unless leather producers explain these facts to the consumer in a more compelling way, the way the industry is presented by its opponents will not change, and consumers will continue to believe it. In the world of social media, whoever shouts the loudest wins, and it is vital to appeal to people’s mindsets. Looking back to when Stella McCartney claimed that leather manufacturers used arsenic in their products, the industry hardly reacted. The anti-leather campaign has millions of followers, while the pro-leather lobby has thousands. This is partly because opponents of leather use spectacular, false statements – and have tens of millions of dollars at their disposal. Instead of sitting back and letting false ideas spread, leather producers need to take the initiative and proactively represent the industry with clear scientific figures.

The author’s views are his own and do not necessarily represent those of Leather International.

Leather manufacturers need to make consumers more aware that using leather, rather than disposing of it, is more environmentally friendly.

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