Sustainability is a key term for many industries, including leather production. It relates to the economic, social, and environmental aspects of a sector.

Companies will often talk about profit, people, and the planet because viability requires consideration of all three. ‘Sustainable development’ was defined in 1987 as the following by the Brundtland report (which most people still use today):

Sustainable development is a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. (Brundtland, 1987, page 37)

Leather is a sustainable material for several reasons:

  1. Leather is very durable, reducing the need for new products;
  2. The resourcing of leather is endless (i.e. it is renewable). New cattle are raised continuously and at the end of life, leather is degradable;
  3. Leather is a by-product of the meat industry; therefore, leather reduces waste, which is what would happen to the hides if they weren’t used for leather.

Leather as a material can be defined as sustainable, as it does not affect the next-generation in meeting its needs (during best practices). Yet, as an industry, we must always ask: Can we do more?

Sustainability means regeneration

The idea of sustainability is that we create a net-zero impact, but that is not enough if we have a planet to restore, and an economy to rethink. Authority on corporate social responsibility, John Elkington described regeneration as the next step with a triple bottom line, where the goal of sustainability is to regenerate economies, societies, and our biosphere (Stafford, 2018). Regenerative farming is a big part of meeting this sustainability goal. Building soil health is central to regenerative farming and has many positive effects on farming systems and landscapes.

Regenerative farming is about strengthening the soil, building diversity, and increasing carbon sequestration to improve fertility. Regenerative farming does not chase the short-term benefits of cost-effectiveness and maximizing profit. Animals, and thus cattle herding, play a central role in restoring soil diversity, and carbon sequestration within the soils. While diverse crop growth improves soil health, animals contribute by fertilizing the soil as part of a natural cycle: cows manage the vegetation by eating it, and nutrients return to the soil through excretion of cow faces. Carefully managed pasturelands can also support wide biodiversity of other animals, insects, plant species and even bacteria and fungi. This natural cycle creates a healthy ecosystem, restoring soil fertility while achieving carbon storage in the soil through the increased life forms living on and in the soil. Lifecycle Assessments of regenerative farms have already shown that regenerative farms can be carbon sinks, while also yielding plenty of crops and food (Sadowski, 2019).

Sustainable development is a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Pulse Effects on Environment and Supply Chain

The Savory Institute, one of the leading initiators in regenerative agriculture in the United States, believes sustainability means staying the same, which is a continuous effort (high costs and energy). The Savory Institute takes a wholistic approach to agricultural management, where they look at the whole picture. Regeneration is done using pulses (such as seasonal variations) and feedback systems (such as rehabilitation that has knock-on impacts through the entire ecosystem), and results in a cascading effect. An example of feedback is the reintroduction of predators for population control or redirecting grazing herds to prevent loss of vegetation and exhaustion in vulnerable areas like river valleys. The cascading effect can be, for example, improvement in river flow and aquatic habitat, resulting from re-vegetation of a valley. A cascading effect also takes place throughout the supply chain, affecting leather and the industries that use the material. Although soil degradation, ecosystem harm, and loss of biodiversity are massive threats to global food security, they set something in motion that reconnects the supply chain with a common goal. The food industry has been the prime focus of regenerative farming, but the agriculture industry stands at the root of supply chains. The agriculture industry is connected to fashion-, interior-, and automotive (for example, leather, wool, cotton, silk) material production, as well as the rendering of waste materials.

A lower impact

End-markets want to know that their products are made with the best intentions for planet earth. Leading brands in the fashion industry have made big commitments to a regenerative future and many brands have recognized the importance of working with the bottom of the supply chain to reduce their environmental impact. In this effort, the start and end of supply chains meet and work together. Leather as a material fits right in there, and due to the farming methods for cattle herding, it sets a new standard for animal welfare. Although part of the economy is still hung-up about ethical materials (non-animal, e.g. plastics), regenerative farming is opening a new way forward. Brands such as Timberland, Kering and Patagonia have fully embraced the idea of regenerative farming. Patagonia has even set up a food company to promote regenerative agriculture products. A certification framework, to set standards for regenerative products, has been proposed, however, the standards must be met by the entire supply chain before brands become Regenerative Organic Certified.

The biggest challenge for regenerative agriculture is its diversity. Agriculture has followed a variety of set standards around the world. For example, intensive livestock farming in lower-income countries tends to have lower environmental and animal welfare standards. However, regenerative farming is no set process, but a collection of practices, highly dependent on the land. A farmer in California, therefore, cannot follow the same practices as one in Finland. The standards for regenerative agriculture will, therefore, be more difficult to set and implementation will be a long-term process. But with end-markets willing to lead the charge, the future seems to be regenerative.

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