Nothing to Hide

cows

Leather facts

The carbon footprint of leather

About this essay

In essay number 12 in the Nothing to Hide series we cover in the greatest possible depth the arguments that have raged for the whole of this decade, at least, over the best and fairest way to calculate the carbon footprint of leather. Owing to the complexity of the subject in hand, and to competing vested interests, there is no agreement yet over which parts of the supply chain the leather industry should include when calculating its product environmental footprint. Few people have kept better track of the debate than the author of this Nothing to Hide essay, Milan-based consultant Federico Brugnoli, whose work with and on behalf of the leather industry dates back almost 20 years.

This essay tackles the following misrepresentations:

  • MYTH: Leather has an extensive carbon footprint.
  • FACT: Tanners take a waste product from the meat industry and turn it into a highly versatile and deeply beautiful material.
  • MYTH: Leather is best avoided because of cattle’s impact on the environment.
  • FACT: Cows have an impact on the environment, although it is often exaggerated. Responsibility for almost all of the animals’ environmental footprint rests with the “determining products”, milk and meat.

Executive summary

In 2013, the European Commission agreed to fund a series of pilot projects to examine the environmental footprint of a range of consumer products, part of a wider initiative to define what makes a ‘green product’. The leather industry’s representative body in Europe, COTANCE, applied, with the backing of the global leather industry, to take part. The work is ongoing, with how big a share of a cow’s carbon emissions tanners need to include in their own carbon footprint calculations, one of the trickiest hurdles to overcome.
A clear definition of the environmental impact of a product and of its lifecycle can be a key market driver these days and calculating a product’s impact correctly is a strategic element in global competition. However, working out how to calculate environmental impact or carbon footprint of products linked with livestock can be particularly difficult. Such product chains can be complex because of the variety of manufactured product types that often start from the same agriculture or livestock phase. A case in point is the cattle industry and leather.
Since 1990, most of the carbon footprint and lifecycle analysis studies that have been produced for leather have failed in defining clearly enough the role by-products play within the allocation of the whole environmental impact of the livestock and meat supply chains from which the raw material for leather comes. In recent times, there has been more clarity around this thanks to proposals for a better ‘mass balance partition’ involving all the different by-products (from many different industries) that come from the bovine lifecycle. However, the problem of deciding and agreeing how best to allocate the shared environmental impact remains.
Several approaches to allocate the impacts of the different by-products are available. Some of these point clearly towards a 0% allocation for a hide until it reaches the abattoir; others even lend themselves to the idea that leather makes a positive environmental impact because it adds high value to waste. These factors are still the subject of intense debate, both in academia and industry.

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