"Leather manufacture takes a waste from another industry and transforms it into a durable, versatile and sustainable product"

"Leather manufacture takes a waste from another industry and transforms it into a durable, versatile and sustainable product"

Leather industry trade groups from around the world are calling for the suspension of the Higg Materials Sustainability Index (Higg MSI) score for leather to enable a review of the underlying methodologies and data.

The latest version of the Higg MSI was launched in August to help brands, retailers and manufacturers compare material lifecycle assessment data and make more sustainable design and material choices.

But the trade associations say "the use of inappropriate methodologies and out of date, unrepresentative, inaccurate and incomplete data, means that leather has been burdened with a disproportionately high Higg Index score. 

"This has led to a negative perception of leather which does not reflect its sustainable, circular nature."

They add that on the basis of current Higg score, "manufacturers are deselecting leather in favour of fossil fuel-derived, unsustainable synthetic products. 

"As such, we believe that the reputation and viability of leather and leather manufacturers is being unfairly damaged by an assessment that does not reflect the true nature of leather or indeed, the alternatives." 

Groups appealing for the review include the International Council of Tanners (ICT), the Australian Hides, Skins and Leather Exporters Association (ASHLEA), the Centro das Indústrias de Curtumes do Brasil (Brazilian Tanners Association – CICB), the Confederation of National Associations of Tanners and Dressers of the European Community (COTANCE), the International Council of Hides, Skins and Leather Traders Association (ICHSLTA), the International Union of Leather Technologists and Chemists Societies (IULTCS), L'Unione Nazionale Industria Conciaria (Italian Tanners Association – UNIC), the Leather and Hide Council of America (LHCA), Leather Naturally and Leather UK.

Among their concerns are that the Higg Index score for leather is based on datasets from before 2013 that are not representative of the current status of the leather supply chain. "This is particularly relevant to the impact of livestock rearing and the use of economic allocation to determine the environmental burden carried by hides and skins."

The data also refers to Brazilian and US herds only, and "do not reflect the varying impacts of the different farming methods used in the rest of the world."

The lifespan of cattle is assumed to be five years, yet the lifespan of a typical beef animal is usually between 12 and 36 months, meaning "the apparent impact under the Higg Index will be significantly larger than the real impact."

They also say: the score does not differentiate on the type of leather produced – such as splitting hides into grain leather and suedes; the methodology for the assessment of the impact of chemistry places a significant burden on leather and all other natural fibres; the assessment for climate impact does not take account of advances in climate studies; and the assessment is cradle-to-factory gate only and does not recognise the critical use and end-of-life phases of a product. 

"We understand that the new Higg Index Product Module will eventually include assessment of the environmental impacts of a product, from factory gate to end of life. However, until this Module is available, the score only tells half of the product story, which can be very misleading for users and consumers. As such, the score should be suspended until this Product Module is complete and supporting data is updated." 

More troubling, the groups say, is the lack of transparency on the basis for score and the lack of engagement with the wider leather industry to ensure that the data used is accurate. 

"A viable and transparent alternative would be for the Higg Index score to be derived using the EU Product Environmental Footprint Category Rules (PEFCR) for Leather [which] have been developed and adopted by a credible and independent inter-governmental organisation, the European Commission, in consultation with the industry and using current and reliable datasets."

The groups' concerns come amid falling demand for leather in which "we are now seeing vast amounts of renewable raw hides and skins simply being thrown away." It is estimated that as much as 16% (or 5.5 million) of the cattle hides produced in the US were disposed of to landfill in 2019; while in Brazil, a similar number have been diverted to lower value destinations, such as collagen and gelatine. 

"Regrettably, the flawed Higg Index score for leather is one of those factors that has brought us to this point. It is hard to imagine that those companies using the Higg Index would want to be associated with the unnecessary waste of a sustainable, renewable and recyclable raw material.

"Sustainability in products is an admirable and necessary ambition but it can only be achieved by informed and balanced consideration of the whole story of those products. At this time, it is clear that leather is not being given that consideration."