What effects has COP26 had for the leather industry?

ILM Comment
Published:  26 November, 2021
Credit: COP26

While much of the world waited and hoped during COP26 that the world leaders present would make some noticeable commitment to correcting the climate change path we have all found ourselves heading towards, the leather industry waited to see if methane would be a priority in those commitments and how tightly leather would be linked to the issue. Tom Hogarth breaks down the fallout and what we can expect going forward.

You only have to glance through the news section on any given day here at ILM to know how committed the leather industry is to sustainability. Despite misguided attacks from animal welfare groups, environmentalists and vegans, many companies leading the industry commit their time, money and business agendas towards making leather as sustainable and circular as possible.

Indeed, many leaders in our field will jump at the chance to explain that leather is a recycled material, fits with a circular economy and a bonafide sustainable alternative to plastic-based materials. And those same leaders are making moves to further that truth, to make leather more sustainable and more circular with every product launch or new tannery build or upgrade.

Plenty will also agree that leather has a responsibility through its ties to the livestock industry to promote a more sustainable and environmentally-friendly way of working. At the upcoming ILM Automotive Leather Supply Chain Digital Forum in December, Mauricio Bauer of the World Wildlife Fund will speak to key leather stakeholders about the importance of standing up to spread the message of sustainability to the rest of the supply chain, particularly when it comes to deforestation related to livestock.

And, while it is certainly true that more can always be done, the leather industry has not shied away from standing as an example and encouraging change beyond its own efforts. Yet, unfortunately, COP26 is the latest example of a misguided effort to tar leather as a villain in the deforestation issue, with one major outcome being the European Commission’s decision to propose a law which would prevent the import of goods to European Union countries linked to deforestation, by requiring companies to prove their global supply chains are not contributing to the problem. The law would apply to leather (including raw materials, semi-processed and finished leather) and beef as well as products such as soy, palm oil, wood, cocoa, coffee, chocolate and furniture.

Leather industry organisations have responded to this with understandable confusion and concern. Luca Boltri, Vice Director of Italian tanners’ association UNIC, explained that there seems to be a critical misunderstanding of the responsibility of what the Commission has already admits are derived products, such as leather.

He told ILM: “We are highly concerned by the draft measure announced by the EU Commission. In our opinion, including hides, skins and leather among the ‘relevant commodities’ is not likely to save a single tree, or curb deforestation. Yet the consequences for tanners, leather article manufacturers and retailers, the legislative proposal risk could be disastrous. And not only in Europe, but on a global level.

“We all know that farming is not driven by hide production, as the recent U.S. Study by Brewster and Swanser demonstrates, which is also true for Brazil. We are a sustainable industry and we do not want to be linked with potentially unsustainable practices. That’s why our industry has been working with important NGOs on projects and tools to minimise the risk of sourcing hides from deforested areas for many years.”

This proposed legislation comes at the same time as a collaboration between the National Wildlife Federation, World Wildlife Fund, Leather Working Group and the Gibbs Land Use and Environment Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which will tackle deforestation and its links to leather supply chains through mapping and assessing the latest data related to deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon and Cerrado, and Paraguayan Chaco.

This will then serve as the basis for a gap analysis by which companies can align themselves with an upcoming Leather Working Group Traceability Roadmap, planned for release in early 2022.

It would take thousands of words to cover the other sustainability-focused projects in leather over just the last few months. The industry is very clearly not hiding from the issue and has been making strong moves towards improving every aspect of production for years. So why can the people at the top not acknowledge these efforts? And why do some of the biggest brands in the world continue to abandon leather for objectively environmentally unfriendly materials such as those derived from plastics?

In a recent column, Mike Redwood said: “We have long said that leather is one of the best materials for the planet, but our main public facing actions have been complaining of mistreatment. This moment carries the opportunity, and the necessity, to define and explain positively where we are, what we have done and where we are going in terms of getting to net-zero.”

Perhaps this is the answer – greater coordination through positive marketing efforts to show the key players in the world the efforts that leather is making not just to become more sustainable but to make significant change throughout the supply chain from livestock to fashion.

Ahead of COP26, the International Council of Tanners, Leather and Hide Council of America and Leather Naturally and several other industry groups joined forces to prepare a manifesto directed from the leather industry to world leaders at the summit, signed by 34 leather organisations from around the globe at the time and designed to show the benefits of leather as a natural material, sustainable and circular, and as an important and superior alternative to fossil fuel-based materials.

It's hard to gauge what effect this actually had on the outcomes of the event, but if we are going to change the perception of leather and crawl out from under misplaced accusations and pressure, then the leather industry has to build on this momentum and keep hammering the nail.

Tom Hogarth, Deputy Editor

tom@edifydigitalmedia.com