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New leather environmental footprint rules

Considering how accurate claims can be made for this important shoemaking material.

by John Hubbard

Image © Picsfive |

Organisations which claim positive environmental credentials for their products have faced a number of challenges. Claims vaguely described such as ‘green’ or ‘environmentally friendly’ are mistrusted by sceptical environmental campaign groups. The European Ecolabel scheme outlines criteria for the best performing products in any one category, but this scheme has been considered by some stakeholders as overly complex and expensive, with a significant cost involved in registering each product. If any organisation chooses only to label a small part of its range to save money, questions may be raised about the performance of the other parts of the collection.

The European Union undertook a project to find a system of credible environmental claims across a range of product groups. It also kept open the possibility of applying a similar methodology to organisations as well as products. This has resulted in a series of rules being developed for product environmental footprints.

From beginning to end

The rules that have been developed are based on ‘lifecycle analysis’ (LCA), which considers all the phases a product will pass through. These include the sourcing of raw materials, manufacturing, shipping, retail, use and its end of life. The impacts of some phases will be small and others will be large, however they will be different for every product in every supply chain. Products that have a long life and low impact during use can probably have their higher impacts during the manufacture or shipping phases offset slightly.

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The bulk of an animal’s carbon footprint created when it goes to slaughter is associated with meat production

The focus is on the aspects that can be measured. At the end of the process, the product will have a score value based on a combination of its aspects, or a range of scores for a number of different aspects. However, because this is based on measurable/scorable metrics, it is possible to compare products directly. As all products could achieve a score, this removes the issue where a label is only applicable to a small number of products and there is incentive to improve the score. With sufficient maturity, the scheme could eventually allow comparison of unlike products, to allow relative purchasing decisions to take account of environmental impacts.

Rules for different animals

The product category rules (PCR) that have been agreed for leather combine three models, each accounting for a different stage of production. These only take account of the three main animals associated with leather production: cattle, sheep and goats.

For cattle, 88 per cent of the upstream carbon footprint is associated with milk production – when the animal goes to slaughter, the bulk of the carbon footprint is assigned to meat. Only 0.42 per cent of the total carbon footprint of the animal’s rearing and slaughter) is assigned to leather.

Only 0.42 per cent of a cow’s total carbon footprint is assigned to leather

For sheep and goats, milk takes 73.85 per cent of the carbon footprint, and wool and hair fibres account for another 23.64 per cent. Therefore, only 2.51 per cent goes forward to slaughter, of which meat takes a bigger share of the residual burden, leaving leather to take only 0.04 per cent of the animal’s carbon footprint.

Having agreed these rules at the EU level allows supporters of the leather industry to respond to campaigners who had associated a much larger proportion of the animal rearing to leather production.

Most of the carbon footprint at the tanning stage is the result of leather production, with a small amount being deducted for hair and wool.

Having rules for a sector is the first step in making environmental claims for a product. However, the actual way in which product environmental footprints can be used to provide information to consumers and other businesses in the supply chain is the next stage of the European project. Any developments will be reported in future issues of SATRA Bulletin.

How can we help?

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Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 12 of the September 2018 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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