According to a preliminary Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of U.S. cowhide production, leather’s environmental impact is significantly lower than previously stated by the Higg Index.

The independent study was conducted by Greg Thoma, Director of Agricultural Modeling and Lifecycle Assessment for the AgNext program at Colorado State University, and funded by the Leather and Hide Council of America (L&HCA) on behalf of the leather industry. It found that, depending on the category of impact calculated, the contribution of cowhide production to leather’s environmental footprint was overstated by up to 8,000 times by the Higg Index. Higg Index tools are commonly used by brands and manufacturers to evaluate the environmental impact of materials and help them make “more sustainable choices.”

The data used by the Higg Index is not available, but its calculations on greenhouse gas emissions, eutrophication, water scarcity, and fossil use were all found to overestimate the environmental impact of hides.

Speaking at Economist Impact’s 9th annual Sustainability Week summit in London (4-6 March 2024), Kevin Latner, Vice President, Sustainability, Leather & Hide Council of America, said, “We were pleased to see that processing of hides, a natural waste material, delivers a low carbon footprint. The new data shows that leather can be a renewable, sustainable material and suggests that it is better for the environment than oil-derived synthetics. 

“The data also shows the challenges and opportunities ahead for the textile industry in pursuit of our shared environmental goals for the planet. The industry needs to publish credible and transparent data to inform discussions, understand supply chain issues, and enable businesses and consumers to make informed purchase decisions with standard metrics. All materials need to follow best practice in environmental impact assessment. We need to do better.”

The life cycle assessment also sheds light on the impact of animal husbandry practices on the overall footprint of leather production. It found that grass-fed cattle tend to have a slightly higher carbon footprint than feed-finished cattle because they take longer to reach slaughter weight. On the other hand, feed-finished cattle tend to have a slightly higher carbon footprint than dairy cattle due to the environmental impacts allocated to the milk produced by the dairy cows.

The final LCA report will be available in April 2024 and subject to expert panel review.