Farming And Leather In A Changing World

In Article12 Minutes

Month: May 2020

Farming, particularly animal husbandry, and leather have a long history and connection with one another. Though no farmer works with his or her animals with the purpose of producing skins and hides, they are the source of virtually all leather we use.

In that sense, leather manufacturers are dependent on farmers, who in turn partly derive income from hides too. A bovine hide used to represent a value of around 10% of the animal, which is a significant part of once income. The market is changing though and this hurts farmers most. To understand why, we have to look at the historical relation between the two industries.

Respect the whole animal

Since the Neolithic age and the early days of animal domestication, man and cattle have lived side-by-side. From the start, this has seen an optimization of conditions, selective breeding and specialization. With little to waste and out of respect, using the whole animal has always been a given. In our current times, this thought is one felt strongly again. We take from nature, so when we do we shouldn’t be wasteful or greedy, and using what we can is a sign of respect.

The agricultural and industrial revolution have in the last two centuries accelerated developments and changed the way we farm and herd livestock. As subsistence farming shifted to intensive animal farming, the role of the animal in farmer’s lives also changed. Where previously, the whole animal would be used to sustain, clothe and provide resources for the family, the industrial era demanded more specialized production due to increased urbanization and a larger population.

Farming and leather

Leather production has historically always been a part of animal farming. Only in major cities, a specialist industry could be found in ancient times (the leather quarter would be the smelly part of town due to the use of urine and excrement in the treatment of the hide). In the last two centuries, though, leather production has become a separate industry with a much higher efficiency thanks to the use of chemistry. Farmers are no longer directly involved with leather production as the animal hide is merely a small part of the animals’ value, which is acquired through the slaughterhouses.

Fun fact: the former ‘smelly part’ of London town near the Thames river, where leather was made, is today one of the prime locations for businesses and property in the city.

Yet farmers still rely on the income that is derived from the whole animal, which means that market shifts in the food and by-product supply chains (including leather) affect their bottom line. The scale of most animal farms has vastly increased to meet growing market demand. Through the years, competitive technologies, prices, and government involvement has lowered profit margins at the start of the supply chain, while demand keeps growing. Meat consumption has in fact significantly grown over the last century (by up to 40% compared to the 1960s). The agricultural sector is rarely the one really reaping the benefits from this growth and a more competitive market has a detrimental effect on parts of the industry.

A bovine hide used to represent a value of around 10% of the animal, it's now in the region of 1% - 2%

Under pressure from supply chain shifts

There are many factors that affect today’s farmers. Their profession has turned into one that is full of uncertainty and risk. No surprise that few young people start the profession. In Europe, according to Eurostat (2019), one-third of farmers managing family farms (90% of the 10 million farms in Europe are considered family farms) is over 65 years of age. A major share of the European farms are now in Eastern Europe, many of them no longer run by families, but contracted workers.

What are the challenges that have created this precarious situation?

  • Fierce competition – Meat prices have been kept low by subsidizing and exporting from cheaper countries. This means someone is paying the price and it’s usually farmers, who can’t compete with cheaper production countries, where environmental and animal welfare standards are lower and thus less costly.
  • Risk – The market is extremely volatile and outbreaks of animal diseases have an extremely high impact on specialized farms.
  • Environmental standards – Farmers face rigorous standards that demand high investments. Though there is subsidizing, these put enormous pressure on farmers.
  • Dependency on by-product* values – Though specialization has ensured farmers to be dependent on a primary product, part of their income is based on the by-products (10% is a common estimation). Yet drop in demand for by-products affects the animal value in the long run.

All these things affect the entire supply chain but hit the farmers’ hardest (Hocquette et al, 2018). The costs of innovation often land on the farms, while the loss in revenue is hard to compensate. There is yet more on the horizon.

Replacing natural products

According to an EU-report, these challenges are far from over as demand in dairy, beef, and veal are expected to drop further in the next decade (2017). People are eager to use products that are not animal-based. Dairy alternatives are taking significant market share, while meat consumption is growing. Where farmers would in the past receive value from the whole animal, this is rapidly being reduced to merely the meat (which is only about 50-60% of the animal). This means every product that is replaced by alternatives creates a cut in income in an already challenging business.

Another challenge is the rise of cellular farming, which creates agricultural products from cellular structures in controlled environments. What most people don’t realize these cells to create cellular cultures are, in fact, sourced from animals. Already, artificially grown products like eggs, dairy, gelatin, and meat are available to consumers. Lab-grown materials that emulate the qualities of leather and silk are already in advanced stages, yet have not achieved the standards to enter the market. This form of production sidesteps the traditional process of animal rearing, further reducing the by-product value from animals. Ironically, this happens through a process that can hardly be called natural and removes us even further from where we started.

The future of animal farming

Traditional animal farming, regardless of its intention, is facing challenging days. As income drops and regulations intensify, mega stables become the only viable form of animal rearing as a business. That would be a bleak future for animal husbandry, but there are positive signals too. Feeding innovations can enhance profits and animal welfare, reports FAO (2013). Animal farming also has a large role in regenerating the soil (Sadowski, 2019), contributing to a positive environmental shift and reduction of the carbon footprint. Yet, traditional animal farming is at a crossroads and it takes a wider discussion on the nature of what we consume and in which way, to determine its future. Recent findings show that answers to a more sustainable industry may not be found in laboratories but on the farmers’ fields.

*Co-products & By-products
There is often confusion about the meaning of by-product and co-product. A by-product occurs as a side effect of production, where a co-product is purposely produced. A clear example is dairy and meat, which are co-products. The question if leather is a co-product or by-product depends on an interpretation of the definitions. Opponents see leather as a co-product. Once upon a time, hides definitely made up a healthy portion of the income. Today, however, the value of hides is marginal lower and in some parts of the world not particularly profitable. Though the answer to the question of leather depends on location, point of view and from where in the supply chain you look at it, the profit is marginal and would not constitute a co-product in most cases.

  • Eurostat, (2019) Agriculture statistics – family farming in Europe. Retrieved from: Eurostat. [Accessed on 23 April 2020]
  • European Commission (2017) EU Agricultural Outlook For the Agricultural Markets and Income 2017-2030. Retrieved from: European Commission [Accessed on 23 April 2020]
  • FAO. (2013) Enhancing animal welfare and farmer income through strategic animal feeding − Some case studies. Retrieved from: FAO. [Accessed on 23 April 2020]
  • Hocquette, J, Ellies-Oury, M., Lherm, M., Pineau, C. Deblitz, C, Farmer, L., (2018) Current situation and future prospect for beef production in Europe – A review. Asian Australasian Journal of Animal Sciences. Retrieved from: NCBI. [Accessed on 23 April 2020]
  • Sadowski, S. (7 June 2019) How regenerative land and livestock management practices can sequester carbon. Retrieved from: Greenbiz. [Accessed on 23 April 2020]
  • Sothmann, S. (5 May 2020) U.S. Cattle Hide Value Declines Significantly in Wake of COVID-19.  United States Hide, Skin & Leather Association. Retrieved from: USHSLA. [Accessed on 8 May 2020]

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    Sourcing Leather More Sustainably - Tips For Companies

    In Article2 Minutes

    Month: May 2020

    As a material, leather has been with us for millennia and for good reason. It’s durable and protects and uses leftovers of the animal. In that sense, things are not much different today than they were thousands of years ago, when our ancestors hunted and gathered their food in a primordial world.

    In modern times, however, leather has become a product and an industry. Like most, it’s been subjected to the same processes that guide the ways we live our lives in the modern age. Certainly, the ‘using the whole animal’ concept is not always present in current-day reality. Yet, we are also turning a page, writes BusinessGreen, when it comes to sustainability in leather production. The leather industry is connected to food production and mostly uses cowhides, which are turned into leather through highly specialized tanning processes. Like many processing industries, it’s got little to do with the impact that inadvertently is ascribed to it. Topics like deforestation, pollution and bad practices are, however, often unjustly associated with leather more than with other industries.

    The Textile Exchange monitors and promotes better practices in the sector that are already leading leather producers to a better place.

    By uniting in industry-wide initiatives, like the Textile Exchange, a fashion-oriented sustainability organization, it can make a difference. Together, this is exactly what’s happening. The Textile Exchange monitors and promotes better practices in the sector that are already leading leather producers to a better place.  Many of the members of the Leather Working Group, already have achieved exceptional standards.

    Next steps forward lie in waste-reduction, metal-free tanning processes and elevating the industry as a whole to a level of circularity. Supply-chain wide cooperation is opening up new potential.

    Read the full article about leather sourcing.

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      How Veganism Is Changing The Car Industry

      In Article3 Minutes

      Month: May 2020

      Will the arrival of a new vegan steak bake change the car industry? Autocar analyses the growing demand for ‘vegan-labeled’ products and how it affects the car industry. The growing interest is driven by animal welfare and environmental concerns and it doesn’t stick to food only, it spreads to all kinds of products such as leather upholstery. Leather remains popular as a luxury material for car interiors, but with the development of vegan alternatives the market is in turmoil, and some OEMs are removing leather entirely.

      Lewis Hamilton, six-time Formula 1 champion, asked his employer Mercedes-Benz to stop using leather and turn to alternatives. These alternatives aren’t new; Toyota has been using Softex, Ferrari offers Mycro Prestige as a vegan option and Mercedes offers Artico, these are all synthetics. Tesla has phased out leather interiors entirely, due to pressure from PETA. The car industry has been slower in capitalizing on the demand for vegan products. This is ironic according to Yvonne Taylor of PETA. She states that many of the biggest companies have been using vegan leather for its high quality and durability for years. Yet, this is not entirely true. In various tests, leather outperforms these materials in durability and resistance. And a material that lasts longer will in the end have the smaller footprint.

      Tesla has phased out leather interiors entirely, due to pressure from PETA.

      The leather director of Leather UK, Dr. Kerry believes in leather as a strong and necessary product for the future. “The reality is that more than 90% of the world’s population eat meat, and that consumption is rising. While this is the case, more than seven million tons of hides and skins will be produced every year, which will need to be dealt with. The most efficient and elegant solution to that problem is the production of leather. Leather is unarguably a byproduct of the meat industry.” These vegan alternatives to leather all use new synthetic chemicals in their production, making this process unfriendly to the environment. Sustainably sourced leather, which is tanned with responsible chemicals, isn’t harmful for the environment in any way, making this product more sustainable than leather alternatives.

      Read the entire article about the veganism trend and changing car industry.

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        Real Leather Is All About The Grain

        There are many products that are labeled as leather these days. Not all of those truly contain any leather, and that is a concerning development. After all, leather is an ancient craft product, made from a natural by-product of our food system. Where can you really see the difference? Well, with leather it is all about the grain.