The truth about leather

According to figures released by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the global meat processing industry creates 300 million cow hides every year, an unwanted by-product on a massive scale.

Scottish Leather Group are committed to ensuring that the beef industry’s unwanted animal hides are rescued, re-used, re-processed and upcycled into high quality luxury leather, avoiding the otherwise huge environmental impact of those hides being left to rot in landfill.

Decomposition can begin after only four hours, so the team have to work efficiently to save these valuable by-products. Scottish Leather Group alone saves up to 100 tonnes of cow hide from going to landfill every day. That’s equivalent to the weight of well over 2,300 double-decker buses per year. We really don’t believe in waste.

Like other manufacturing industries, leather tanning can only thrive long term by embracing comprehensive sustainability practices. It is essential that the meat processing and leather tanning industries work closely together to ensure as many hides as possible are turned into high performance leather and go on to be used in the aviation, automotive, rail and mass transit sectors.

Upcycling animal hides by tanning them is one of the most ancient forms of sustainable manufacturing known to man and Scottish Leather Group has held this sustainable ethos at the heart of its business now for almost two centuries.

But while all industries have developed and modernised, those which rely on mother nature for their raw materials often find themselves unfairly held to public misconceptions, half-truths and what a certain US President might call ‘fake news’. Leather tanning is no exception.

One common misconception is that animals are slaughtered specifically for their hides and that the number of animals slaughtered depends on how many orders sit in a tannery’s sales book. This is definitely not the case. The quantity of hides available is strictly dictated by the beef industry, as we are buying a by-product from them. In turn, their demand is driven by meat-eating consumers.

The more meat required to satisfy consumer appetites, the more hides become available to tanneries like ours. There are seasonal influences on hide availability, when families are traditionally eating more meat: Christmas, Easter and during the Summer BBQ season.

Interestingly, during the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown animal hide availability increased as the amount of meat products – beefburgers, sausages and mince – being bought by concerned consumers grew considerably.

One of our own tannery by-products, collagen, is used by food manufacturers so Scottish Leather Group was recognised as an essential business. By instigating strict social distancing measures we have been able to continue operating during the lockdown.

Another common misconception is that beef cattle are reared in less than salubrious conditions. I’m not naive enough to suggest that every cattle farmer lets his herd live in the lap of luxury, but at the Scottish Leather Group we go above and beyond to ensure that the farmers and abattoirs who make up our supply chain adhere to the strictest regulatory and ethical guidelines for animal welfare.

98.6% of our raw hides are sourced locally within the UK and Ireland, from grass-fed farms who comply with the Five Freedoms Principles, developed by the UK’s Animal Welfare Committee to ensure animals live as natural and as comfortable an existence as possible.

We have comprehensive auditing in place to ensure that every link in our supply chain holds firm to our high ethical standards. Not only does it mean a better life for the cow, but ultimately higher quality leather for our customers.

In the social media age, misconceptions about industries such as ours will always find a platform and an audience. As a global leader in leather tanning Scottish Leather Group must have a clear voice. We have to share the many long term sustainable benefits we bring not just to our supply chain, but to that of our customers – and their customers in turn.

To support that we are long standing members of Leather UK (formerly UK Leather Foundation), One 4 Leather and Leather Naturally, who enable Scottish Leather Group to talk publicly about the realities behind what we do. We are pleased to add our own sustainability initiative to that list: Sustainable by Nature is our commitment to put our impact on the environment, society and economy at the forefront of our decision making.

Countering misconceptions around leather is not our only challenge. Today we are also encountering synthetic and plastic materials, competitors that are petrochemical-based and are often marketed as 'vegan leather'. It is incumbent on us to share our ethical approach to sourcing our raw materials and to extol the benefits of real leather, which remains a safer, more durable and more versatile material than the synthetic alternatives now coming to market.

We are proud to provide a very important service to the UK’s beef industry, which brings clear business and environmental benefits to all parties. Over 180 years we have perfected our methods for turning their waste by-product into the most sustainable and responsibly produced high quality leather in the world. In turn, our fine Scottish leather supports global businesses like Emirates, British Airways, Ryanair, Philips, Princess Yachts, Irish Rail, Scania, Aston Martin, Jaguar Land Rover, Volvo, Rolls Royce and many others.

Nicholas Muirhead

Nicholas Muirhead
Managing Director, Muirhead