WASHINGTON — Zero-waste pledges and concepts like upcycling, while seemingly novel, long predate their widespread adoption. In fact, our ancestors demonstrated most clearly their commitment to the environment and the preservation of our planet by following these practices even before they were in vogue. This is perhaps best exemplified in their conversion of hides and skins – byproducts of meat and dairy production – to beautiful, durable, and sustainable leather products. Now, a new infographic from the Leather and Hide Council of America (LHCA) shines a light on the environmental costs of using imitation products and synthetics, mostly made from plastics and other non-renewable sources, as opposed to real leather in finished consumer goods.
“The fast versus slow fashion debate has reached a critical inflection point, as consumers, brands and retailers increasingly take stock of their purchasing decisions, and the broader societal impact of those choices,” said LHCA President Stephen Sothmann. “In the race to develop a greener supply chain and reduce waste, the fastest way to ensure defeat is to doubt leather’s durability and sustainability, which have been proven over millennia.”
Processing hides from livestock into leather is one of the oldest forms of recycling. The U.S. leather industry purchases hides, which are natural by-products of meat and dairy consumption that would otherwise go to waste, and transforms them into long-lasting real leather products that grace runways, adorn buildings and homes and enhance automobile interiors – to name a few uses. However, the ever-accelerating substitution of real leather for synthetics and plant-based materials risks disrupting this critical recycling process and causing irreparable environmental damage.
In 2020, for example, U.S. Department of Agriculture data indicate the U.S. processed approximately 33 million head of cattle for food. U.S. export data and industry estimations suggest that approximately 28.2 million of the 33 million available U.S. cattle hides were used in domestic and global leather production.
This means nearly 4.8 million hides, or 14.5 percent of total U.S. hide production, were either destroyed or discarded in landfills. This figure is slightly less than the 17 percent of hides that failed to enter the U.S. leather supply chain in 2019, though adjustments in export trade data at the end of December 2020, along with improving prices for lower-value hides, largely accounted for the marginal reduction observed in unused hides.
Despite this slight statistical improvement compared to 2019, the fact remains that a significant share of a natural, sustainable byproduct is being wasted, which serves only to prolong fast fashion’s survival. Those 4.8 million discarded or destroyed hides could have instead been used to produce leather for approximately 86.4 million pairs of shoes, 96 million footballs or 1.6 million sofas, for instance. This perennial problem will persist, and worsen, as long as current trends continue unabated to replace real leather with plant or plastic-based alternative materials.
“Converting hides from animals processed for food into real leather is not only the right thing to do for the environment, but it also yields some of the most creative, visually-stunning, stylish products that would cease to exist if they were simply thrown away,” Sothmann added. “Without the leather industry, nearly two billion pounds of unused cattle hides would be diverted to landfills, placing tremendous pressure on the environment that would be further compounded by the shift to imitations produced from plant-based, plastic or other non-renewable sources.”
Not only do products that use real leather last longer, thereby reducing consumer waste, but they are also naturally biodegradable, and may decompose in less than 50 years. Synthetics derived from petrochemicals, however, could take as many as 500 years to break down – a strain too burdensome for the planet as the pace of climate change hastens.
Formed by the 2020 merger of the United States Hide, Skin and Leather Association (USHSLA) and Leather Industries of America (LIA), the Leather and Hide Council of America (LHCA) is a full-service industry trade association representing the entire U.S. leather supply chain, including meatpackers, hides and skins processors, traders, leather tanners, finished leather goods producers, footwear companies, chemical suppliers, machinery producers, trade media and market reporters, freight forwarders, transportation service providers, financial institutions and more. The association provides its members with government, public relations, and international trade assistance and support. LHCA is a cooperator organization under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s foreign market development programs, assisting U.S. firms develop new markets for U.S. agricultural exports. LHCA is at the forefront of the industry’s needs, providing members with education and technical information to compete in today’s global marketplace.
–Leather and Hide Council of America
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