Converting food industry by-products into a sustainable choice

Converting food industry by-products into a sustainable choice

In recent years, leather has been making a comeback. Not just in fashion, but in many applications as a luxurious choice with natural benefits. Leather remains a popular car interior option, but it’s also a material under intense scrutiny. Critical consumers and negative campaigning from animal rights activists are the flip side of the renewed love for leather. Though not always justified, there is one good reason for this critical view: transparency. 

The leather industry, particularly the segment responsible for automotive leather, has been avidly working to clean up their act and establish quality levels on par with, or even above today’s standards. Yet, in the face of global demand for access to knowledge and insight into product origins, more transparency is required, particularly regarding the origin of leather and its place in the meat production supply chain as a by-product. 

The whole animal
The global herd of animals for food production runs into billions. Not a surprising fact, since meat consumption is growing and has doubled in the last 50 years, even in the light of food and health trends. Leather has an obvious connection to the meat industry as it uses one of the leftovers. It’s not the only product. In fact, estimates are that 95% or more of the animal is used effectively. The hide is one of those leftovers, which is converted to leather.

Does this mean that leather production is simply using a by-product? As is often pointed out, the relationship is not that simple, but 100% of animals used for automotive leather are slaughtered primarily for meat consumption. That means dependency on the meat industry is a one-way street, particularly now more consumers eat meat, but avoid animal by-products. The result is a disproportionate amount of leftovers, which aren’t converted. In fact, when it concerns the leather industry, slaughterhouses are considering the economical benefits (lower costs) of simply turning hides to landfill. That would be a waste, as we know it’s possible to use almost the entire animal. 

Creating value from a by-product

To put it all into perspective, it’s good to have a sense of what numbers we are talking about, because when an animal is slaughtered, only a part is used as food. Only 40% or 50 % of a cow, for example, would be meat. The other 60% or 50% are leftovers. Automotive leather is made almost exclusively from bovine hides, but that’s just a small part of those leftovers. The hide makes up less than 10% of the total weight. An average bovine hide would weigh 30 kilograms (dry). A total of 240 million hides are produced every year, which would be a total weight of 7,6 billion kilograms of potential waste material. That’s a pile the size of 750x the Eifel Tower. And that’s just one leftover.

Other by-products converted from meat industry leftovers range from life-saving medicine, cosmetics and confectionary to stationary, glues and even musical instruments. Some animal parts are converted to elements of car tires, asphalt on our roads or drywall in our homes. This is done by industries that create value from these leftovers. By turning them into useful by-products, they are an essential part of our food supply chain. The same goes for car leather; it is after all a much sought-after product. 

The real cost of automotive leather

Hides go, if not tanned into leather, to landfilling or incineration. But then why is leather so costly to put on your car seat? Like most of the by-products from animals, the actual converting is not an easy task. Leather production is a complex process with many steps, complex technical aspects and chemical treatment. And while that in itself is costly, consumers also desire products to be made responsibly and sustainably. That has made the leather industry spare no costs in innovating with more sustainable and responsible processes, which involves a lot of research and development. It’s all part of the ongoing trajectory to make automotive leather more durable and environmentally friendly. The same applies to many other by-products.

A sustainable choice

To achieve an even higher standard in responsibility, the leather industry has joined forces with its adjacent businesses (including the meat industry) to improve the whole supply chain. This includes animal life, production transparency and traceability, in accord with European legislation. Yet, the industry is setting its goals even higher with self-imposed standards and initiatives. 

One key aspect is public awareness and disclosure of the nature and origin of the material as a natural part of how we live. Transparency about meat consumption and its inevitable leftovers such as animal hides helps to highlight the importance of converting these to useful by-products such as leather. Not only does it help us understand its origins better, but also the responsibility that comes with it. That’s the consumer prerogative, as their product knowledge and opinion helps in aligning ethical and environmental industry standards with market and consumer expectations and demand. 

That’s why opening the doors and showing what really happens in our food and supply chain is so vital. As a by-product of our consumption, leather is simply the sustainable choice for car interiors.

Insights and numbers cited in this article are derived from the following resources: