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Essay twelve: The carbon footprint of leather

The carbon footprint of leather: a drawn-out debate

In 2016 an exercise that began three years ago to reach agreement on how tanners can determine the carbon footprint of the material will move towards its conclusion. This essay tracks the main points of a long-running debate over which aspects of the leather and livestock supply chains should (and should not) form part of tanners’ calculations.

The European Commission supports green products and green industries, but has said it wants consumers to have confidence that products claiming to be green really do have a minimal impact on the environment, a low carbon footprint1. In 2013, the European Commission invited stakeholders in a number of sectors to help it develop agreed methods for measuring environmental performance. The leather industry was one of those that volunteered to take part in a series of pilot exercises that have emerged from the project; its representative body in the European Union, COTANCE2, identified this as a good way to gain recognition of leather as a green product and also for the global leather industry to achieve agreement on a disputed issue: what proportion of the carbon footprint of livestock in the upstream leather supply chain should apply to finished leather?

Because other industries have to wrestle with the same question, the Commission asked representatives of the leather, meat, dairy, animal feed and pet food sectors to agree “system boundaries” between the stakeholders in the cattle value chain on how to share environmental responsibilities. Agreeing “system boundaries” means defining which processes must be included and which excluded in determining the product environmental footprint (PEF) of the diverse products and by-products involved. PEF is a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)-based method of quantifying the environmental impacts of products, goods or services. PEF sets a basis for comparing one product to another, helping consumers decide which is greener. The guiding principle is that a fair comparison is only possible if the results are based on the same product category rules (PCRs)3.

As mentioned above, it was far from the first time the leather industry had attempted to address this question. To offer some context, industry consultant Federico Brugnoli, the main contributor to this Nothing to Hide essay, presented in 2012 an argument that the carbon footprint for leather production should begin at the slaughterhouse and end at the tannery gate when the finished leather is shipped. The effect of this would be to exclude any of the agricultural footprint involved in animal rearing from attaching to the hide or skin in most situations. His report, commissioned by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, drew on earlier work on lifecycle analysis by Danish academic Bo Pedersen Weidema4. The technical name Professor Weidema gives to this idea is ‘system expansion’. His position is simple enough: you have to identify the ‘determining product’, the main product for which the animal is reared, and apportion to it 100% of the environmental weight of rearing the animal, its upstream carbon footprint. Leather that comes from cattle, goat and sheep (which is almost all the leather in the world) is never going to hold ‘main product’ status. Those animals are looked after and sold for meat and milk; their hides and skins also have an economic value, but this is the least relevant reason for farmers and packer companies to take an interest in the animal. It is the products that provide the farmer and the packer with their main reason for going into and staying in business that have to carry the can on carbon footprint.
There is very little tanners can do about the greenhouse gas cows, sheep, goats or other animal emit before packer companies transport them to the abattoir to satisfy consumers’ demand for meat. A hide or skin will become available as a by-product of this process and most consumers and all tanners believe human beings may as well show their appreciation of the beast by using this material to make beautiful, versatile, sensuous, long-lasting leather. What would happen to hides and skins if tanners stopped buying them? Would this affect the number of animals slaughtered?

In September 2012, the Global Leather Co-ordinating Committee (GLCC), formed by the three global industry bodies, the International Council of Tanners (ICT), International Council of Hide Skin & Leather Traders Associations (ICHSLTA) and International Union of Leather Technologists and Chemists Societies (IULTCS), held its fifth meeting in Shanghai and warmly endorsed this position on system expansion.

Pragmatic approach

In spite of this, tanners in the real world have often found themselves pressed by large customers to apportion a percentage of the carbon footprint from raising the animal to the finished leather. Some brands, notably Puma, have even used this argument to justify using non-leather materials in the uppers of some of its shoes5. These tanners’ contention that a pragmatic approach like theirs is the best way to make progress appeared to have won the day in February 2015 when a new document from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre appeared. This made it clear that leather’s partner industries in the PEF project reject claims that a hide’s allocation of the upstream carbon footprint of a cow should be zero. The Joint Research Centre suggested it could still be possible, in theory, to use system expansion for the leather industry’s calculation in future if data and methodologies are further developed, but this would require new resources.

Why 437 equals zero

In the global marketplace at the moment, there are 437 eco-labels, covering 25 industrial sectors in 197 countries. Having 437 eco-labels is the same as having zero eco-labels because none of the 437 is strong enough to achieve real recognition in the market. A number of them are emerging more clearly, but the danger of ‘greenwashing’ is still there. The truth is that no product can be allowed into the marketplace today if it’s demonstrably unsustainable. Even a pair of the cheapest shoes, made for a few euros in China for a market in the developing world, cannot afford to be unsustainable; and it is especially true that a perceived lack of sustainability would detract from the appeal of high-end products, such as those made from leather. These eco-label initiatives cover different aspects of business and more than 100 of them could be suitable for the leather industry. Nevertheless, it’s hard to believe all the figures that market research exercises have produced on this subject, for example that 80% of consumers in the European Union are willing to spend more on environmentally sound products. Consumers say that, but when they go to buy something, it seems that they can easily change their minds. What does seem clear, though, is that there is a trend towards placing greater emphasis on the sustainable credentials of manufactured products, even if there has perhaps been greater progress in business-to-business than in business-to-consumer.

Levers for change

The exercise that COTANCE began to engage with in 2013, the PEF pilots, has its origins in the development of the European Commission’s Single Market Act, which consists of “levers to boost growth and strengthen confidence in the economy”6. In explaining one of the initial set of 12 levers, ‘consumer empowerment’, the Commission said: “To ensure that consumers receive reliable information on the environmental performance of products, the Commission will propose an initiative on the ecological footprint of products.”

This is also one of the reasons why there has been a proliferation of methodologies and standards to attempt to work out what the ecological footprint of a product is. Fastest-growing in terms of use are the methodologies that are based on quantitative information and on the sound scientific basis that LCA offers. As the name suggests, LCA studies environmental impact throughout the whole product lifecycle. In the leather supply chain, this has meant identifying all the main actors in the supply chain, (from the farm all the way through to chemical suppliers and tanneries) and encouraging each of them to put in place lower environmental impact processes, leading to a final product that has secure information and high-quality data to show that it has a low environmental impact, with numbers that can be communicated to the market. Carbon footprint is expressed as the sum of and removal of greenhouse gases in a product system: in our case kilos of CO2-equivalent per square-metre of leather or one kilogramme of sole leather (thickness matters because the more material you include, the more impact you bring from upstream). To work this out, we obtained data from tanneries and put that data into internationally accepted models, linked to datasets, to produce results to submit to the European Commission.

Political strength

It is the system boundaries, the processes that need to be taken into account when calculating the environmental footprint of a product, that have provoked the greatest debate here. Agriculture and livestock farming should have been excluded and the lifecycle of leather should start at the slaughterhouse, or to be more precise, on the floor of the slaughterhouse because it’s when the hide hits the floor that this by-product of the meat industry begins to have its own separate commercial value. What this means is that we can also identify which phases of the operation at the slaughterhouse relate to the supply of raw hides. Only a small proportion of the activities that take place in the slaughterhouse relate to the raw material tanners use: after flaying, everything else that happens in the slaughterhouse is related to meat. Pointing all of this out has made the meat industry very unhappy because this approach suggests the meat industry should accept responsibility for all the environmental impact before the abattoir. Nevertheless, it is still true that the leather industry only has raw hides to work with because of the meat industry; no cattle anywhere are raised for the sake of making leather. If there were no demand for meat, there would be no availability of raw hides. Meat is the determining product. But in an exercise such as the European Commission’s look at PEF, it’s one thing to be technically sound and another thing altogether to be politically strong. In meetings with the other sectors that are taking part in the European Commission’s PEF of a cow initiative (it’s called the Cattle Model Working Group), it’s clear that what wins the day is not determined by how good your arguments are but by how powerful your industry is.

It would be better to avoid allocation of different shares of the environmental footprint of a cow. It has proved impossible to avoid it, however, and it is at this point that other physical and economic relationships must come into consideration; the physical aspects of what goes on in the supply chain should take precedence over the economic aspects when deciding how to proceed. Unfortunately, a number of the earlier LCA exercises that have been adopted seem to give preference to economic allocation for raw hides. The Cattle Model Working Group has taken a different approach, following a European Commission idea of linking to protein content, which is very much a physical question. It is complicated, but has been good for us because this method says that, on average, 88% of the impact of dairy cattle, for example, should go to milk and only 12% to meat. An animal’s entry into the food chain at the slaughterhouse, therefore, brings only 12% of the upstream carbon footprint with it. At the abattoir, an economic model takes over, attributing 3.5% to the hide, but it means leather’s share of the upstream carbon footprint, according to the Cattle Model Working Group’s submission, is just over 0.4%. This is the good news. The bad news is that reports are still being published containing figures such as many thousands of litres of water being required to make one pair of leather shoes7. These numbers, which seek to allocate to leather volumes of water ‘consumed’ at the farm (sometimes just by falling on fields as rain or snow), resonate with consumers and create a bad feeling. This is a battle that the leather industry is going to have to continue to fight.

Making leather from the meat industry’s by-product means avoiding having to put that material into landfill and it means the world is also able to avoid the production of alternative materials to leather, materials that often have a great environmental impact in their own right. We can also talk about the removal of carbon emissions, another interesting aspect for the leather sector. There are, for example, some tanning agents that can actually store carbon dioxide; the tanning process takes carbon from the atmosphere.

Efficiency gains

Whichever LCA study we develop for leather, the starting point has to be a precise definition of the product, followed by a definition of the PCRs, which are very important because, once defined and presented in a way that allows them to be verified by third parties, they can be applied to all the LCA calculations. It’s certainly an exercise that can make companies look at their products and processes in a different way. Most of the time, reducing carbon footprint is linked to gains in efficiencies in energy consumption, supply chain management and so on.
Leather is one of 27 non-food products to have taken part in the European Commission’s PEF initiative, which is the biggest lifecycle assessment initiative there has ever been. When the pilot process ends, it will be subject to review by the Commission. Then policy discussions will take place for the politicians in Brussels to decide what to do with all the information. One possibility is that, in future, PEF may help decide trade policies: companies or products that fare badly according to the PEF could miss out on being able to trade with the European Union. However, before then, the Cattle Model Working Group will meet again in 2016. It is likely that some of the industries involved will have been able to produce new studies seeking to give leather a greater share of the overall environmental impact. Therefore the leather industry’s work to prepare its own studies and to be ready to fight its corner must continue. Tanneries, their customers, chemical suppliers and hide suppliers should join together to develop analysis of what constitutes the optimal leather supply chain. Some of this is already going on; it would be good to see more of it.


1.    europa.eu/rapid/press-release_SPEECH-13-879_en.htm  Speech on 5 November 2013 by Janez Potonik, European Commissioner for Environment.
2.    leatherbiz.com/fullitem.aspx?id=13041  COTANCE announcement in July 2013 of pilot initiative to determine the environmental footprint of leather.
3.    http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-13-310_en.htm
4.    onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1162/108819800300106366/abstract  Avoiding Co-Product Allocation in Life-Cycle Assessment, a paper by Bo Pedersen Weidema in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, Volume 4, Issue 3, pages 11–33, July 2000.
5.    www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/blog/puma-scales-up-environmental-profit-loss-product  Interview in The Guardian in 2012 with then-CEO of Puma, Jochen Zeitz.
6.    eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content /EN/ALL/?uri=CELEX:52011DC0206   Background to the “levers” mentioned in the Single Market Act
7.    www.foe.co.uk/sites/default/files/downloads /mind-your-step-report-76803.pdf  Friends of the Earth report called Mind Your Step, published 2015, claiming 14,503 litres as the volume of water required to make a pair of leather boots. The UK Leather Federation has said a figure of 60 litres would be a fair reflection of the European average, and points out that many tanneries in Europe achieve far greater water efficiency than the average.
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