The Leather and Hide Council of America (LHCA) is on a mission to reframe the sustainability discourse around leather, with a strategy that leans on data and education.
In a presentation at Lineapelle New York, the organization’s vice president Kevin Latner spoke about the impact the “ESG agenda” has had on the industry. “Well-organized campaigns challenge the sustainability of leather, championing cheap fossil-fuel alternatives,” he said. “Government and consumer policies lead away from natural products and production processes that benefit the environment, causing real harm. We have a responsibility to correct these wrongs.”
One source of these misconceptions, according to Latner, is the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, which gives synthetics like polyester a superior sustainability score to leather, making materials like polyester appear to be a more environmentally friendly choice. Per Latner, this has convinced brands to switch to synthetics in service of their “sustainability story.” But lately, companies including H&M have been warned by watchdogs against using the MSI data to tout the eco-friendliness of products.
The leather industry has not been alone in criticizing the MSI’s scoring methods. Other natural fiber organizations—including those representing silk and wool—have challenged the index’s cradle-to-gate focus since it does not account for post-purchase impact, including recyclability and biodegradability.
Latner noted durability is another factor that must be considered in measuring environmental impact. “Shoes that last a million footsteps are different than shoes that last 5 million footsteps,” he said. “A couch that last 10 years is different than a couch that lasts 45 years. A jacket that lasted a season is different than a jacket…that might last a lifetime.”
The leather industry is linked to the beef and dairy industries within agriculture, and the supply chain starts with feed like soybeans and corn. “It’s no secret that leather is associated with a significant contribution to greenhouse gases. The criticism is really based on association with upstream cattle emissions,” Latner said. “We’ve proven through scientific research that hides are a byproduct, but this is not enough to decouple hides from the animal emissions.”
To get a clearer sense of leather’s actual environmental impact and identify areas for improvement, LHCA is undertaking “cradle to grave” life cycle assessments. In the short-term, it has tapped Greg Thoma, director of agricultural modeling and life cycle assessment at Colorado State University, to create a life cycle assessment from cattle through to leather production. The results will be shared in a report that will also include an assessment that “assumes that hides are actually a waste product.”
Currently, 60 percent of the hides from the meat industry become fashion goods, according to LHCA, and the remaining 40 percent wind up in landfills as waste.
In addition to the life cycle assessment, the leather organization aims to eventually compile data about everything from feed through to post-purchase use of leather goods. This would paint a picture of the entire leather supply chain, as opposed to LCAs that typically study a single sector.
As part of its effort to position leather as a sustainable choice, LHCA has a consumer-facing “Real Leather. Stay Different.” campaign. Last fall, the association debuted a documentary series, titled “Rewind,” that delves into leather’s impact on the environment, including topics like land management.
“We need to modernize our messaging and make sure that we get that out to consumers, because in here it’s an echo chamber. We all know what a great product leather is,” Latner said, speaking to the audience of leather industry professionals at the show. “We need to engage, inform, educate and activate the consumer so they’re communicating with their friends.”
LHCA has also held a Student Design Competition both internationally and regionally in markets including mainland China and the United Kingdom, educating current art and design students and recent graduates on leather and inviting them to create fashion, accessories, footwear or home furnishings with the material. Judges in recent editions included executives from Mulberry and Hugo Boss.
“We’ve been overwhelmed by the incredible talent,” Latner said. “And the competition resonates with a consumer audience that loves the reality show feel of the program.”