Exploring deforestation risk in automotive leather

Insight / 14 Dec 2020

The future of global car manufacturing and that of the disappearing forests of Latin America might seem like unrelated themes, but one thing binds them firmly together: the debate about leather

Some materials withstand more stress than others from car users sitting and shifting around in them. This makes them less likely to suffer damage, look worn out, and be sent to landfill and replaced. Bovine leather often fares better than synthetic (petroleum-based) materials in this respect, but both face criticism over other environmental issues related to their production and biodegradability.

This is a major sustainability issue. Across the globe, over 60 million passenger cars and light commercial vehicles are produced every year. Despite a downturn in car manufacturing and sales due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a recovery is expected within a few years. Before the pandemic, leather was already increasingly in demand as car makers looked to provide buyers with more options and greater luxury – a word with which leather is often seen to be synonymous. Also, with the rise in ride-sharing dramatically increasing the amount of time cars spend on the road, more attention was being paid to reducing the wear and tear of car seats.

Leather car interior

Besides durability and appearance, car-buyers and riders also have evolving expectations of comfort, smell, temperature, and hygiene (particularly since the start of the pandemic), as well as digital interactivity with the surfaces around them. These considerations extend beyond the seats to the rest of the car interior – the instrument panels and steering wheel (if there is one), the armrests, and the floor, walls and ceiling. Among other developments, automotive experts say that interior materials need to become softer and more furniture-like, particularly as autonomous driving takes off and cars become like ‘mobile living rooms’. These trends are likely to have been accelerated this year, with travellers spending less time on public transport and more time in private cars.

For designers pondering which materials best meet these demands, the blue sky of possibilities is periodically clouded by the latest episode in an ongoing debate about whether the production of leather contributes to deforestation in Latin America.

In September this year, Earthsight, an environmental organisation, published a detailed report describing how European car brands such as BMW and Jaguar Land Rover could, through their Italian automotive leather supplier Pasubio, be using leather from illegally cleared areas of Paraguay’s Gran Chaco forest. There, cattle ranching is linked to high rates of deforestation, including in the homelands of indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation.

A thoughtful response from Leather UK, an industry body, condemned the abuses described in the report. It also included the usual defence of the leather industry: that leather is only a by-product of the meat industry (the real culprit) and, hence, does not contribute to deforestation. Indeed, the argument often continues, using leather is better than not using it, because the alternatives – landfilling cattle hides and using petroleum-based materials – are far worse. ‘Leather is a solution, not a problem.’

There is a lot at stake. About a fifth of all bovine leather produced globally is estimated to go into cars. That includes more than 40% of all leather produced in Brazil, and large volumes from other Latin American countries. Cattle ranching is the number one direct driver of deforestation across the region, including in biomes such as the Amazon rainforest, the Cerrado savannah, and the Chaco forest. This has implications for biodiversity, the climate, and human rights. If leather is contributing to deforestation, it is important to understand how, and how much, so this can be weighed up against other important environmental, animal welfare and social considerations. If not, it is equally important to be sure, so that well-informed decisions can be made about materials.

Also at stake are the reputation and future of the millennia-old leather industry, now a major source of revenue, employment (often involving difficult working conditions – sometimes forced and child labour), and also pride for many nations. In Italy, more than 17 thousand people work in the tanning industry, with whole districts dedicated to specialities such as automotive or shoe leather. Brazil’s tanneries employ more than 50 thousand people; India’s more than a million. That’s before considering the countless more involved in crafting final products and, of course, their bosses.

Car leather craftmanship

Given the involvement and investment of so many, and the scale of the environmental issues in question, it is no wonder the industry responds seriously and passionately to criticism. And now, like the car industry and many others, the tanning and leather manufacturing sectors are reeling from the impacts of Covid-19. The need to reflect more deeply upon our modes of industrial production and consumption is greater than ever, but for many of those in crisis mode, environmental sustainability feels like an irrelevant distraction in the current fight for survival.

Nevertheless, Gustavo González-Quijano, the head of COTANCE, the main leather industry body for the EU, expressed a refreshingly balanced view in November, stating that it was ‘wrong to play one material against another’ and promoting honesty in how the sustainability credentials of all products are represented.

Indeed, the polarised debate about forests and leather features misunderstanding, some misinformation, and also a great deal of mystery thanks to the tricky economics of cattle and hide production as well as the complexity and opacity of leather supply chains. Clarity and consensus are badly needed.

To support this, through a series of articles, we will be taking a round-the-world trip to piece together the global picture of automotive leather and forest risk in Latin America. We will explore the global trade flows, and the roles, policies and actions of companies in the middle of the supply chain, from whom the world’s car manufacturers source their leather materials and components. Then we’ll take a look at what happens at the start of the supply chain, where money first changes hands in return for cattle parts, and discuss the link between leather and deforestation.

Subscribe here to receive the first instalment in early 2021.

You can now read the second article in this series, ‘Making the world’s car seats: Czechia, leather, and deforestation risk‘.

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