Why Ban Leather?

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The decision by Helsinki Fashion Week to ban leather makes no sense in terms of sustainability or environment. 

As a by-product of the meat industry leather comes top for sustainability

Speaking at the NW Material Show in Portland, Oregon in 2018 the senior director of materials at footwear group Deckers Brands, John Graebin, said the leather industry offers a much more powerful story of environmental stewardship than praise-worthy attempts to recycle plastic recovered from the ocean into limited-edition athletic shoe collections.

He asked the audience to assume meat and dairy companies had for centuries simply burned or buried animal hides and skins in the ground because they had no use for them and that an environmentally minded start-up discovered that you could use the same material to make shoes. Shoe companies would queue up to buy the material and the start-up would receive rewards galore for inventing leather, a material loaded with circular economy credentials. 

With these comments in mind it is a sad reflection on the way we trade in false facts and propaganda to persuade sensible organisations to abandon their own principles. The decision by Helsinki Fashion Week to ban leather does not follow any scientific logic.

Making such a decision on environmental and sustainability grounds makes no sense. They point to 'leather farming' as an originating source whereas the basis of Graebin’s arguments highlight the fact that leather comes as a by-product of the meat and dairy industry. Leather from cattle, sheep, goats and pigs make up 98 or 99% of all leather produced annually and none of these animals are killed for leather. It was this very fact that made the EU’s Environmental Footprint Steering Committee officially approve the Leather Product Environmental Footprint Category Rules (Leather PEFCR) in 2018. The close to zero-allocation to hides and skins, as a by-product of animals slaughtered for meat production, is fully acknowledged in the CEN Standard EN 16887 Leather – Environmental footprint – Product Category Rules (PCR) – Carbon footprints. This acknowledges that hides and skins are non determining products and should not carry an environmental load related to livestock husbandry. This means that leather cannot be disregarded on environmental grounds. In fact it brings it to the fore as a renewable and sustainable material. As Gustavo Gonzalez-Quijano, Secretary General, Cotance (the European Tanners Association) stated the EU decision gives all users of leather, including fashion, “a robust, credible and transparent Life Cycle Analysis methodology”. 

Given this by-product position the leather industry has always had to adapt to new materials. Quite apart from new chemical and technological discoveries providing new competition, tanners are not able to increase supply of leather to meet the growing needs of the global growth in human population. There are no sectors in which leather does not compete with alternate materials and the producers of leather have no issue with this. 

What the Helsinki Fashion Week should recognise is that the main competitors for leather are based on fossil fuels. None of the “new” materials are yet in commercial production. It is totally premature to promote such items until we have seen volume production, understood the pricing and commercial viability and examined the environmental implications of the production. Some developments, like the Modern Meadow Zoa, are based on very complex chemistry that is currently still a production secret.  Hopefully these materials will come to replace the multitude of plastic competitors for leather, but in the main they will work alongside leather rather than as a direct competitor. 

The increasing importance of the Circular Economy should also be high in the minds of the organisers of Helsinki Fashion Week. The first loop, and certainly the most significant one, in Circular Economy thinking, is longevity of use and repair. In this regard, leather far outstrips all its competitors whether they are fossil fuel based or more natural. Increasingly items using leather are being designed to improve the length of use by placing items that do break, like zips, where they are more accessible for replacement and using more appropriate stitching with better threads. 

The leather industry has always been willing and able to adapt to competitive materials, and to use the natural versatility of hides and skins to keep leather advancing to fit a fast evolving world. Any objective and honest analysis of the current material landscape will place leather near the top on the  sustainability listings. 

Rather than turning its back on a material that lives in the history, and the present, of Scandinavian culture of harmony with nature, in footwear, gloves, garment, leather-goods and automobile upholstery, the Helsinki Fashion Week should be demanding well sourced leather from traceable sources, responsibly produced. This is the modern route to sustainability. 

 

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