Sheepskins go from luxury to landfill as prices plummet and synthetics take over

Sheepskins go from luxury to landfill as prices plummet and synthetics take over

Sheep farmer Jason Gordon once received more than $30 apiece for his skins.

Key points:

  • Several Australian abattoirs are charging producers a fee for sending sheepskins to landfill 
  • A Victorian sheep grazier is tanning his own lambskins to turn them into blankets
  • Sheepskin prices have dropped dramatically in the past year, affected by the depressed wool market and sheep oversupply

These days, he is lucky if he’s not charged a fee to send the once-valuable skins to landfill.

Other times, they might fetch him just a couple of dollars each. 

“It’s just one of those things that creeps into your bottom line and takes away from how much you make,” Mr Gordon, from Kaniva in western Victoria, said.

“We’re wasting such a great resource that can be used for so many things.”

Sheepskin car seat covers and floor rugs were once the height of luxury, but as synthetic materials dominate, animal skins like Mr Gordon’s are being sent to landfill.

In the past few decades Australian manufacturing of these meat industry by-products has shrunk from hundreds of tanneries to just several across the country.

But with some processors charging farmers a fee to dispose of the skins instead of buying them, industry representatives are concerned about a premium product going to waste.

Mr Gordon says sheepskins and lambskins can be used for comfort, especially for people with medical issues.(ABC Rural: Karen Hunt)

Frustrated by seeing his own sheepskins go to waste, Mr Gordon has been retrieving some from processors to have them tanned and turned into blankets himself.

“Those natural lambskins, they are the most beautifully soft skins you would ever touch,” he said.

“I’ve got a cousin with motor neuron disease and she’s always got a skin in her wheelchair and she’s stopped getting sores from sitting in the chair.”

Mr Gordon has been retrieving his lambskins from processors to have them turned into blankets.(ABC Rural: Karen Hunt)

Mr Gordon said he hoped industry body Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) could launch a marketing campaign to promote the benefits of animal skins.

“I don’t understand how you can consider yourself an environmentalist when you’re digging up fossil fuels to make fake leather and skins are being buried in landfill,” he said.

A spokesperson for MLA said while the organisation monitored the price of sheepskins, there were no plans to create a marketing campaign.

The price of lamb and sheep skins has dropped dramatically in the past year.(Supplied: MLA)

Waste not, want not

Australian Hide Skin and Leather Exporters Association vice president Luke Kivlighon said rising operating costs for tanneries, and changing consumer trends, had contributed to the downturn.

“About 20 to 30 years ago it was a fashionable item to have a sheepskin jacket,” he said.

“Unfortunately, synthetics came onto the market and people think they’re wonderful, but don’t realise how much energy goes into producing that.”

Sheepskin has long been a premium Australian product, used in garments from fashion to the frontline.(Supplied: Country Women’s Association)

Mr Kivlighon said while a depressed wool market was exacerbating the situation, his company had been saving thousands of skins a week from landfill.

Sheep and lamb markets have also been struggling due to high supply, after a period of restocking.

“My company has an agreement with a company in China, who unfortunately is taking them for nothing, but at least they’re not going into a hole,” he said.

“The tanning industry left this country many years ago, and so ugg boots and car seats have been coming back from China for a long time now.”

Mr Kivlighon says animal hide and skin products are now predominantly manufactured overseas. (ABC News: John Gunn)

Small percentage ‘unmarketable’

In August Thomas Foods International joined other meat processors in charging livestock producers a dumping fee for their sheepskins and lambskins.

Paul Leonard, national livestock manager of the South Australian-based company, said the disposal fee only affected about 10 to 15 per cent of skins the business processed. 

“Previously some of the skin companies would take those from us at cost,” he said.

“But it got to the point where they wouldn’t do that because they didn’t want to store those unmarketable skins in their warehouses.”

Mr Leonard says sheepskins are unmarketable at the moment.(ABC Riverland: Sophie Holder)

However, Mr Leonard said the disposal fee was a temporary measure.

“As soon as that skin market hopefully does turn, those cost imposts will be lifted,” he said.

Carbon-conscious consumption 

Endeavour Wool market analyst Josh Lamb said the supply of sheepskin far outstripped demand.

“A lot of sheepskins go to China and they actually have big factories that shear the wool off them, but of course the demand is not there for the wool either,” he said.

Mr Lamb says it will take a while for the sheepskin market to improve. (Supplied: Olivia Garnett)

But Mr Lamb said the sheepskin market could stand to benefit from growing concerns about the environment.

“It ticks all those boxes as a natural product, grown in a sustainable way,” he said.

“China is increasingly talking more and more about carbon footprints and chasing carbon through the wool supply chain, which Europe has been doing for a long time.”

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