WHY PUMA IS WRONG ABOUT LEATHER
Recently Puma has been saying that it would like to stop using leather and give preference to plastics.. 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 considered as, environmentally, a very bad greenhouse gas.
This raises a number of questions. Is the data correct and 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. When we do eat meat and drink milk, we end up with hides, and these hides may be used either to make leather and other things or simply thrown away. However way we view it though, hides are a bi-product that has to be dealt with.
Over time, it has become clear that producing leather is one of the best ways to deal with this bi-product from the meat and milk industries. Through history tanners have had their own environmental issues related to tanning (e,g, 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 a durable, technically clever natural material with multiple end uses and outstanding characteristics for the use of society.
Examined this way, the hide or skin should be classed as carbon neutral when entering the tannery, 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? Normal science would accept hides as being a non-determining product in this process and put a zero charge on the hides until they depart the abattoir. Thankfully this is what is currently under discussion in the wiser circles of carbon footprint standards.
Over and above this, 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 day’s grazing. Hence, we currently have a new government project in the UK to use lasers to measure how much methane 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 that 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 from scientists studying species-rich grassland in Australia in 2009 that healthy soil bacteria can absorb far more methane from the air than cows emit. Indeed, the 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 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 that serves society and the planet exceptionally well and should be celebrated as such. Given a correct carbon calculation leather matches the carbon footprint of plastics but has the one big advantage that it is derived from a renewable resource rather than a fossil fuel.