by Tamara Scully

As a dairy or beef producer, do you ever wonder about products, other than beef or milk, that are derived from your cattle? Is leather on your radar?

Beyond meat production, the cattle carcass is often an afterthought for many farmers. But it doesn’t have to be. Just like fiber, the cow’s hide is a necessary piece of the consumer supply chain for footwear, jackets, belts, wallets and upholstery for home and auto. But unlike wool, the animal can’t simply be shorn of its hide. Instead, it is one of many byproducts of slaughter.

“It is a true byproduct. There is not a rancher or farmer in the U.S., or probably in the world, that is making a decision about producing more or less animals based on the value of the hide alone. They do it based on the value of the meat,” Stephen Sothmann, president of the Leather and Hide Council of America, said in a recent presentation for the Textile Exchange.

When beef inventory is low, hides are more valuable. High cattle numbers, combined with the increasing use of manmade plastics and other synthetic materials, plus some recent tariffs on hides and leather goods, have caused the market for leather to all but disappear.

“As a tenet of sustainability, we have a duty not to be wasteful. We must be using every part of the animal that we produce, especially the hide,” Sothmann said. “We are now in a situation where we are not doing that. We are now being wasteful. A lot of our market share in leather has been taken away by plastics and synthetics. That has led to a really terrible situation where we are now wasting hides.”

In 2019, 33 million head of cattle were produced for food in the U.S. – yet 5.5 million of those hides didn’t make it into the leather supply chain, according to data Sothmann presented. Some went into warehouses, where they can remain viable for up to one year, but the vast majority went directly to landfills, particularly from small meat plants. It costs money to landfill a hide, “so this is a massive waste in our industry,” he said. “We do have an ethical duty in society to be using this material.”

Although the market for leather – particularly hides from older cows, branded cows or those with other imperfections which make the hide unsuitable – has declined significantly in recent years, a new market for eco-friendly leather is developing. With the awakening awareness on the part of consumers that these items begin with an animal raised on a farm, the demand for products which don’t come with a high ecological price tag is increasing.


The Savory Institute launched its Land to Market initiative to help farmers (as well as consumers, retail brands and environmental organizations) promote regenerative farming practices throughout the supply chain. By assessing the soil, ecosystem and biodiversity at the farm level, they’re able to connect agricultural practices to consumer end-products. Clothing, shoes and other items made from fiber or hide can be traced back to measurable, sustainable farming practices.

Pablo Borrelli is the program director for the Savory Institute’s Environmental Outcome Verification (EOV) Program. The program isn’t about sustainable farming – that simply keeps the land in its current state. Instead, it’s about improving and enhancing the environment via ag practices with measurable outcomes, also known as regenerative farming.

Both short- and long-term assessments are key to the program. Each year, participating farms are assessed for increases in indicators which point to enhanced soil health and ecosystem diversity. These indicators include the abundance of living organisms, plants and tree canopies; covered soil; plant litter decomposition; diversity of species; and the degree of water or soil erosion.

While the goal is to improve upon the farm’s baseline each year via the implementation of regenerative ag practices, the long-term assessment (conducted every five years) demonstrates ongoing improvements and positive benefits which are best viewed over time and not readily influenced by quick changes in management practices.

Lifecycle analysis, which includes carbon sequestration, has shown that regenerative practices on farms such as White Oak Pastures in Georgia, one of the Land to Market’s regenerative farmers, can be a net negative. Conventional beef, pork, chicken and even Impossible Burgers cannot claim to sequester more carbon than they release into the atmosphere, Borrelli said, and only regenerative ag practices are able to do so.

“Regenerative livestock production means that you are taking out carbon for each unit of product that you sell,” he said. “That’s the big difference, and that’s the big opportunity.”

While the Land to Market program has partners, including Applegate Natural and Organic Meats, EPIC Provisions and Zuke’s Natural Dog Treats (who are making the most of the meat as well as byproducts such as tallow), it has expanded to include companies using fiber or hides. Timberland launched a line of boots developed using leather from farmers in the EOV program in October.

The Savory Institute has “hubs” across the U.S. and globally which serve the farmers in their regions. Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed, the Savory Hub in Minnesota, is supplying Timberland with hides from their regenerative farmers.

“There are sourcing solutions that can help your brands to purchase raw materials that bring not only a story, but an accounting of doing good to the land,” Borrelli said. “And that is something that means a win-win situation for all the planet and all the value chain.”

Sustainable Leather

Raw material production is the beginning of the supply chain for leather. The manner in which the livestock are raised has a huge impact on the overall environmental impact of the total supply chain.

The Textile Exchange, founded in 2002, is a global nonprofit which represents brands, retailers and suppliers and works to source materials from eco-friendly suppliers, with the goal of “positively impacting the climate through accelerating the use of preferred fibers across the global textile industry.” The organization uses industry benchmarks in order to reach their goal of a 45% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from the global textile industry by 2030.

They’ve launched the Responsible Leather initiative, featuring educational materials on leather production from farm to end product. The process of tanning can involve chrome, vegetables or synthetic chemicals, and leather processing does consume water. Responsible production of leather, including audits of waste materials and natural resource consumption, as well as the on-farm factors in leather’s lifeline, are all part of the organization’s Leather Impact Accelerator. The aim of the accelerator is the adaptation of best practices throughout the leather supply chain. Traceability is built into the program. Ultimately, consumer brands will be able to trace their leather all the way back to the farm.

Anne Gillespie, of the Textile Exchange, said the Leather Impact Accelerator “gives brands a way to send clear messages down their supply chain about their expectations on everything from the way the cattle are farmed through to the way their leather is produced.”

With initiatives such as those from the Savory Institute and the Textile Exchange, tracing leather back to its farm origins can become another way to “brand” your farm’s products, adding value to your animals’ hides.