This article appeared in the Observer (part of the Guardian group) in March 2016 and on behalf of LeatherNaturally! I sent the reply below:
While it is admirable to hold strong views regarding the climate and the use of animals for meat and other things, to support these with a narrative built of inaccurate and incomplete data is an abuse of your columns.
The leather industry in the 21st century is a modern well managed and generally closely regulated business. It has always accepted that there are areas such as Bangladesh and Kanpur where smaller units appear able to slip below the view of the authorities and behave in ways which would be unacceptable in any industry. This is a tiny, diminishing, minority of the 24 billion square feet of leather produced globally each year. To use these to extrapolate a total argument against the entire leather sector, and especially against many exceptionally good tanneries in the emerging markets and elsewhere, is quite inappropriate.
I know no tanners who consider what is happening in Bangladesh and Kanpur to be appropriate and all are keenly supportive of the mix of relocation, closure or effective regulation which is ongoing in these locations and a few other similarly dysfunctional places. However to assume that because Bangladesh has a problem that other places like Ethiopia, Vietnam and Brazil all fall into the same category is totally wrong. All three have a mix of indigenous and joint venture plants that are amongst the most modern, most efficient and most environmentally friendly. Leather making does of course treat hides and skins with chemicals just as almost every other industry does but to carelessly introduce undefined terms like “toxic”. This term has been introduced by those who dislike leather and who choose to capitalise on a fear of Chromium VI whereas those tanneries that use chromium only use Chromium III which is a dietary supplement.
A visit to any of the tanneries in the UK would be helpful here, in particular Scottish Leather in Bridge of Weir or Pittards of Yeovil. In addition to their excellent UK facilities which proudly highlight the foolishness of so much in the article they both are involved in plants overseas – in China and in Ethiopia respectively – both of which defy any comparison with the views set out in the article.
The concept that leather can and does directly lead to the slaughter of hundreds of million of animals is also a comprehensive misrepresentation of the facts. Tanners support the concept of animal husbandry and note that well managed livestock on long term grassland is highly important for carbon sequestration. The fact that 99% of the leather made in the world comes from animals bred and raised for meat, dairy or as draught animals, where the value of the hide or skin does not have the scale to influence the decision, means that the leather supply is no longer able to keep up with population growth and leather is thus entirely unsuited for fast fashion.
Indeed one of the major advantages of leather is the fact that it offers outstanding longevity, one of the most important elements in sustainability. With leather articles it is rare for the leather to wear out, it is the threads, buckles and zips that decide the length of life. This is not the case with the fossil fuel based plastic substitutes mentioned in the article, and unlike plastic most leather items can be repaired.
A fair assessment of the role of leather would be more likely to praise it for providing the manufacturing jobs bringing millions out of poverty and offering a long lasting material that is one of the most sustainable on the planet.
Visiting Professor in Leather
University of Northampton
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