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Mike Redwood looks at the vital connection between leather and livestock, and whether we have the information we need on the livestock industry.
The “circular” argument applied to hides and skins as waste material from the livestock industry, especially given the quantities being thrown away in the U.S. and elsewhere, has now been widely understood and is being openly discussed in the press as well as the materials industry.
The connection between the tanner and the farmer nevertheless remains close. Tanners wanting better quality hides and skins recognise the need for better husbandry and good animal welfare and have watched in dismay as costs have caused declines in many parts of the world. The farmer/tanner connection is also needed to monitor traceability and eliminate modern-day slavery, deforestation or other unacceptable activities involved.
Complex supply chains involving semi-processed material, multiple animal movements prior to arrival in the abattoir, differing laws regarding slaughterhouse management and inconsistent or absent enforcement of regulations can make this very complicated.
Increasingly today, the industry is seeking supply sources that involve regenerative farming, which is recognised as beneficial for both climate change via carbon sequestration in higher quality soils as well as for biodiversity. But it is an area where every type of livestock rearing appears to be claiming involvement and we need some clarity before those with deep pockets crowd out the truth once more.
How do we compare grass-fed livestock to feedlots? Silage or hay with animal feed systems? Modern industrial dairy units with grazed dairy cows? And what are the issues around breeds, water consumption and crops grown for feeding grazing animals? Related to the latter, how much is feed for pigs and chickens being confused with that used with cattle or sheep?
We know it is a nuanced situation. Back in 2012 at the Asian Leather Conference in Taipei, Dr Raymond Desjardins had made it clear that not all cows were the same and that making global claims was difficult. Since the U.S. hide and leather trade bodies combined in 2020, we have had a number of talks which make it very clear that even grain-fed cattle usually spend more of their lives on grass.
At the 2011 World Leather Congress in Rio de Janeiro, we were told that Brazilian cattle have a 90-day fattening spell before slaughter. “Not like a feedlot, but more like a spa” was the explanation. It did not dispel concern that this movement was as much to hide the actual origins of the cattle as to improve the meat, a situation made worse since the 2018 election of President Bolsonaro, who appears to support the illegal destruction of the forests.
At my home in Southwest England, walking North from my door I pass through intensively farmed arable land largely devoid of biodiversity these days (a huge decline in just the 35 years we have lived here), whereas to the South the major farming area is now dedicated to regenerative farming with mixed arable and livestock, supporting new meadow areas and ponds. Nature flourishes.
Yet the hills of Wales or the English Lake District have regenerative farming more dedicated to livestock since the land being mountainous is unsuited to crops. Most livestock stays out on the grass all year, occasionally given some supplementary hay in the depth of winter.
At a time when the leather industry has been producing excellent positioning papers on all aspects of the manufacturing process, there is an obvious gap here: we need solid information about what is happening in the livestock and farming sector around the world, what the terminology means and who all of these new accreditation organisations are that we see springing up.
The relevance of this goes beyond traceability as it relates to comparison indices such as the recently discredited Higg Material Sustainability Index (MSI). The Higg MSI has always positioned treated natural materials badly while putting leather as the worst material because of its livestock origins.
In an excellent recent paper on life cycle analyses The Rise of Life Cycle Analysis and the Fall of Sustainability –- Illustrations from the Apparel and Leather Sector, Veronica Bates-Kassatly and Dorothée Baumann-Pauly identified some of the problems: “In the LCA behind the Higg MSI for organic cotton, manure was treated as the worthless waste of another system and, so, impact free.
“In the LCA behind the silk MSI, in contrast, the manure used on the mulberry trees was treated as a valuable coproduct of livestock and consequently had hefty environmental impacts attached.”
Worryingly, they also suggest that the Sustainable Apparel Coalition has accepted funding from a foundation indirectly financed by the fossil fuel industry, one which, if I understand the facts correctly, has been involved in fracking.
As most tanners know, fracking is an enormous producer of escaping methane which is very hard to eliminate and has been largely avoided being measured. It is a section of a fossil-fuel industry that likes to blame livestock for climate change to deflect attention from the huge damage being done by extracting and using fossil fuels.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
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