Leather, an intrinsically circular material!

The future of fashion has to be eco-responsible.
Leather is rising to the challenge, taking into account the questions raised in the media about animal well-being and the environment and working to carve out its place in a virtuous future for fashion.

Première Vision Leather is committed to supporting the emergence of this responsible future for leather and to this end is creating a “Guide to sourcing eco-responsible leather” for future editions of the show. This involves clearly setting out the core principles about leather, its production and its impacts and this first part – scheduled for September 2020 – is thus dedicated to the upstream industry, the origins and the intrinsic characteristics of leather as a material.

Note that here we are focusing on leather produced from the farming of cows, sheep and goats, which makes up 99% of the sector.

A natural, technological and sustainable material

Produced from a natural raw material, leather is paradoxically technological and high-performance. Naturally resistant and rotproof, it is also breathable. Versatile, it combines softness, structure and elasticity, making it a unique and inimitable material.

The innovations of the tanning industry have also made it water-resistant, machine-washable, printable, perfumed, stretch, ultra-light, and their inventiveness knows no limits.

© FFTM  Metropolitan Influence

Imitating the characteristics of leather in other materials means combining complex technological processes which often use non-renewable resources and are high consumers of energy, whereas these characteristics are inherent to leather.

Of its many qualities, the most decisive and under-estimated is its sustainability, which compensates over time for the negative impacts generated during its production. The environmental assessment of a material must be measured over its entire life cycle.

An intrinsically circular potential
Another demonstration of the circularity of leather comes from the fact that it upcycles a waste product into a useful and beautiful item. Without meat eating, there is no leather: it is a by-product, 99% of which comes from livestock farming. Without leather, it would be necessary to bury in landfill or incinerate almost all the 7 million tons of skins generated each year (2)  by the consumption of bovines, which has a substantial economic, energetic and environmental impact.

A complex ecosystem

As a by-product of the meat industry, leather is at the heart of a complex system of inter-dependency around the agri-food industry.

Slaughtering animals produces meat plus by-products (skin, blood, horns, bones, viscera, tallow, tendons, etc.) known as the “fifth quarter”. They are processed by other industries, namely the pharmaceutical, cosmetic, fertilizer, pet food, biofuel, food-grade gelatine, oleochemical and tannery sectors.

And yet, in this distribution, the skin or hide represents barely 8% of the economic value of the animal and the farmer is not the beneficiary of this income.

Understanding the environmental impacts of leather requires a cross-cutting and global approach, taking into account all stakeholders including the farming sector.

Environmental impacts relating to farming and animal well-being

What is the environmental impact of leather from farming? Unfortunately, there is no easy response without being simplistic. It all depends on context: the environmental impacts vary according to the animal, the place and style of farming, and the local regulations governing the sector.

Similarly, farming conditions and regulations directly affect animal well-being. Giving the farmer a larger share in the value of skins or hides could lead to improved well-being, as an animal that has been well-treated from birth through to slaughter will produce a superior quality of leather, with higher monetary value.

Services provided by farming and the leather sector.

Farming provides important social, environmental and cultural services which receive less attention than its negative effects.

© FFTM  Metropolitan Influence

Going beyond farming, the leather industry also offers significant positive economic, social and cultural services. It generates economic value and employment, particularly within locally-based small companies, as well as preserving heritage and artisanal know-how.

Created from the upcycling of a waste product, leather is a high-performance and sustainable material with an intrinsically circular potential when it is manufactured responsibly. In the upstream sectors of the industry, leather has an indirect role to play in the impact created by farming, where the specific context is a deciding factor. Confirming this circular potential means meeting the challenge of the traceability of leather. That will be the subject of our next article: don’t miss it!