Recently in the Financial Times an article related to the Rio+20 Summit quoted Puma as saying that it would like to stop using leather. Puma is not the first company to talk about discontinuing using leather as a result of its supposed poor carbon footprint. We have heard such comments from Timberland and from Pentland industries.
Of course the problem is not the leather but the animal, in particularly the cow. The problem with the cow is that eats and it belches. If it eats grain then a lot of energy is used in growing that grain, and if it belches what comes out includes a lot of methane which is accepted as environmentally a very bad greenhouse gas.
This raises a number of questions. Is the data correct is a simple one and anyway is it fair to blame leather for issues related to the animal? Only a tiny minority in the world argue that we should not eat meat, although increasing numbers do suggest that we should limit the amount. While we do eat meat and drink milk we end up with hides, and these hides may be used for leather, for other things or thrown away. However we view it hides are a bi-product which has to be dealt with.
Over time it has become clear that leather is one of the best ways to deal with this bi-product. It is a clearly a bi-product based on the definition that it is very low in value compared to the main element, and it requires significant added processing to be made useful. Over history we have had our environmental issues related to tanning – being careless with waste materials, using too much water and too much energy – but these have largely been addressed and are subject to continued improvement by the best tanners in the world. As a result leather is an elegant solution to the management of a bi-product retaining for the use of society a durable, technically clever natural material with multiple end uses and outstanding characteristics.
Examined this way it should be the case that when entering the tannery the hide or skin should be classed as carbon neutral rather than being condemned because of the cow and its methane. It is too glib just to say leather is bad because of cattle. In his influential book “How bad are bananas” Mike Berners-Lee tells us that about half the carbon footprint of footwear is down to materials and he puts leather shoes as having almost double the carbon footprint of synthetic. He explains this on the basis of the “carbon intensity of cattle farming”. So the leather which should be at worst neutral is made to look artificially worse than a synthetic material that uses up non renewable resources. Where is the logic here?
Furthermore, much of the science of methane and cattle has not been fully evaluated as there is no obvious way to measure how much methane cows expel during a typical days grazing, hence we currently have a new government project in the UK to use lasers to measure how much is in the air and how fast it is flowing. The underlying arguments here came from a five year old FAO report called Livestocks Long Shadow which has become the definitive and much quoted reference to make cattle rearing look as negative for society as possible. This report has never been properly challenged although there is quite a bit of evidence that the calculations used involved stacking up and adding together every worst case element that could be found. It is certainly not the objective peer reviewed analysis that anyone should be forming their opinion upon.
It is also quite clear that there is an enormous difference between grain fed and pasture fed cattle with long term pasture being such a good carbon sink as to more than negate any methane put in the air. There is also a lot of evidence that long term grassland contains herbs and other plants which reduce the methane emissions of cattle and we have learned scientists studying species-rich grassland in Australia in 2009 found that healthy soil bacteria can absorb far more methane from the air than cows emit. Indeed the well known agriculturist Graham Harvey argues in his well researched book “The Carbon Fields” that grassland soils “not only offer food security, they could – if we chose to use them – save the planet”.
Whatever the angle you look at it is premature to use the argument about cattle to condemn all meat and entirely wrong to use it to condemn leather. Leather is not a C02 liability it is a renewable resource which serves society and the planet exceptionally well and should be celebrated as such.
26th June 2012