Leather as a sustainable textile

This article by Lauren Stine was published on 27th February by Sacred Cow.

Many people view livestock production as providing one simple output: meat. But when you add up the many products that source ingredients from cattle alone including tallow for beauty products, cartilage for osteoarthritis medications, and gelatin for foods as a few examples, it paints a much different picture of a cow’s contribution to our society.

Perhaps one of the most understated contributions that cattle make to our society is leather, which has been used to make everything from automotive interiors to clothing to furniture. Humans have been relying on animal hides for centuries with Egyptians documenting leather use as early as 1300 B.C.

But unfortunately, a rise in synthetic substitutes marketing themselves as animal-free, cruelty-free, vegan leather has given consumers a negative perception of leather.

“Around 2014, a lot of footwear designers saw the price of raw material for leather becoming expensive and they said can we take the leather out of finished goods without changing consumers’ perception of luxury?” Stephen Sothmann, president of the US Leather & Hide Council of America, told Sacred Cow. “They did a fantastic job of fooling consumers into thinking synthetics are the same as leather and in doing so leather is now experiencing the worst market it’s ever faced.” 

What Sothmann and many leather producers would like consumers to understand, however, is that the synthetic swaps pack a seriously harmful punch when it comes to sustainability. 

In most cases, synthetic leather is made from two plastic-based substances polyurethane (PU) and polyvinylchloride (PVC). The process involves bonding a plastic coating to a fabric backing to create the look and feel of genuine leather. PVC has been identified by numerous organizations as one of the most environmentally damaging types of plastic. Many vegan leather makers also rely on plasticisers like phthalates to make the material flexible.

“We are seeing massive environmental consequences with using plastic in disposable consumer items. When they break down in a landfill, they stick around for thousands of years and can enter waterways. Synthetics have not been good in terms of their environmental impact.”

And while some companies are trying to make leather substitutes out of materials like mushrooms or pineapples, they are barely putting a dent in meeting the global demand for leather, he adds. Considering that cattle hides end up being tossed in landfills if not upcycled into leather goods, the choice to search for synthetic plastic-based substitutes seems particularly wasteful.

Next to synthetic leather’s reliance on harmful plastics, Sothmann grows tired of the common sentiment from vegan leather manufacturers that animals are harvested for their hides. In reality, the hide comprises only 2% of the animal’s economic value. Leather is just one of the many upcycled products that result from cattle production. Without consumers understanding that vegan leathers pose serious environmental consequences, however, the upcycling opportunity is lost.

Another common yet misguided criticism is that the tanning process involves using harmful chemicals that have environmental consequences. Tanneries can be harmful to the environment if not run properly, according to Chad Roberston with Harland M. Braun & Co., which processes and sells cattle hides, but the industry has crafted protocols to address its broader particularly with wastewater. Over 75% of the leather produced today is tanned with chromium, a metal naturally present in minerals using a process that was developed over a century ago.

The leather industry has developed an environmental certification group called The Leather Working Group that regulates the impacts of production. The vast majority of internationally traded leather is produced under these protocols, according to Sothmann. World Leather magazine also started the Nothing to Hide initiative, which includes a series of essays to educate consumers about leather production and its environmental footprint.

“The vast majority of leather produced and traded globally is done so in a safe, sustainable, and non-polluting manner under strong environmental and safety regulatory and certification systems,” Sothmann says. “Certainly, this is the case for the leather consumers will receive from major brands and retailers. It is misleading to paint an entire global industry using single, isolated incidents of corporate malfeasance in remote regions of the world where the product produced in this manner would never make it into global supply chains.”

Unfortunately, the wool industry has seen a similar turn of events. Competition from synthetic fibers has led to a reduction in the price for wool leaving many sheep producers in the lurch particularly in New Zealand and Australia. Wool synthetics can be manufactured cheaply and quickly out of plastic-based ingredients. The rise of synthetic wool production has led to a sharp decline in the number of sheep that New Zealand produces.

As consumers renew their interest in sourcing genuine leather and wool products over synthetic substitutes, however, companies are being taken to task. Clothing manufacturer Duluth Trading Co. described one of their men’s fleece-lined jackets as containing “no smelly animal fur” and using polyester fleece instead. The company faced serious backlash from sheep producers and consumers who viewed the comment as derogatory towards authentic wool.

The dawn of regenerative leather 

As more people understand that cattle production can provide incredible ecosystem services like sequestering carbon through managed grazing, maintaining the health of grasslands, providing wildlife habitat, and providing nutrient-dense food containing vitamins not found in plants, leather is experiencing a bit of a comeback.

Timberland recently announced that it plans to build a responsible leather supply chain in partnership with Other Half Processing. During the initial pilot project, Timberland will source traceable hides from cattle produced by farmers using regenerative practices. The material will be used in select footwear and accessory projects that will debut in Autumn 2020.

“By developing a transparent supply chain in partnership with OHP, Timberland’s goal is to provide extra value back to the farmers pioneering these practices in order to support early-adopters and help incentivize additional farmers to implement these practices in the future,” Zachary Angelini, environmental stewardship manager at Timberland told Sacred Cow. “In Fall 2020, Timberland will launch a collection of boots made from leather sourced from Thousand Hill Cattle Company ranches, which practice regenerative agriculture. The brand plans to expand the program significantly over time.”

Like Timberland, some companies are adding regeneratively-sourced fiber to the mix. In 2018, North Face sourced wool from farmers in North America using regenerative practices for its Cali Wool Collection, marketing them as having a net negative carbon effect at the ranching stage.

The upcoming documentary and book project Sacred Cow is about more than simply making the case for better meat. Cattle truly provide countless gifts to our society on top of nutrient-dense protein and grazing management. Click here to learn more about Sacred Cow or here to contribute.

Lauren Stine, Esq., LL.M., is a cattle farmer, agricultural law professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law, food journalist, and contributor to the forthcoming documentary and book project Sacred Cow: The environmental, nutritional, and ethical case for better meat.

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