Allocating The Carbon Footprint Of Leather Production
The environmental benefits of reducing animal product consumption have long been known, with veg*ns enjoying much lower carbon footprints than meat eaters. Leather production has a particularly large environmental impact, as both raising cows and the process of turning raw hides into finished leather have significant carbon footprints.
An increasing number of governments have proposed placing carbon taxes on products based on their environmental impact, allowing market forces to encourage the replacement of high-carbon products with more sustainable ones. Carbon taxes on food, for example, often increase the price of animal products because of their large environmental footprint.
Even after these carbon taxes have been approved, however, regulators face a host of questions to set tax values for individual products. This report, published by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization in 2017, reviews some of these questions in the context of carbon taxes placed on leather.
Producing leather is carbon-intensive, but the exact environmental cost varies based on many factors. The cost of transporting raw hides from slaughterhouses to tanneries depends on the distance and mode of transportation. The cost of electrical energy – which makes up as much as two-thirds of leather production’s overall impact – depends primarily on the locality: France, for instance, derives most of its electricity from nuclear power, making French tanneries much greener than tanneries in countries that rely primarily on fossil fuels. The specific methods used to heat water, treat wastewater, and dispose of solid waste also contribute to the carbon cost. Each of these factors must be carefully measured to compute the carbon footprint – and thus the carbon tax – for leather produced by a specific tannery.
A more challenging question is how the environmental cost of raising cows should be allocated between leather and other animal products such as milk and meat. This question has large implications for the final carbon cost: if animal husbandry was fully charged to leather’s carbon footprint, it would make up about 85% of the total environmental cost. If, on the other hand, the hides were instead considered waste products of raising cows, the environmental impact of animal husbandry would be fully allocated to “main products” like milk and meat. And if the hides were considered a “by-product” or “co-product,” the leather, milk, and meat industries would share the carbon footprint of animal husbandry.
These decisions are typically made by national or international standards organizations. This report reviews one of the first standards of this type, the European Standard EN 16887:2017. The standard codifies questions such as the unit that should be used for calculating the carbon footprint, and the production chemicals that must be included in the carbon footprint or declared to consumers.
Most importantly, the standard defines the “system boundary” – the set of processes included in leather’s carbon footprint – to “start at the slaughterhouse floor and end at the tannery exit gate.” This means that leather’s computed carbon footprint includes only steps that are involved in turning raw hides into finished leather. The environmental costs of animal husbandry are therefore considered “upstream” and would be borne by other companies. Similarly, the environmental costs of emissions, waste management, and transportation of the finished product are considered “downstream processes” and would not be included in leather’s carbon tax.
As the climate crisis looms increasingly large and countries implement stricter environmental policies, animal advocates should be mindful of the dual environmental and ethical benefits of reducing our reliance on animal products. This report provides insight into a category of legal questions that may have an impact on animal welfare.