The problem with leather-making is not just the undeniable harm it’s causing to animals, but the harm it’s causing to us and the ecosystem.
We all know leather as a strong, durable, high quality material that lasts for decades or even generations if we take good care of it. But have you ever thought about what it takes to turn the cow hide into that leather jacket that we know you’re not going to wear for 30 years, even if you have the best intentions?
Although leather making has a 7000-year old tradition, in its current form, it is an unsustainable practice that plays a big role in turning the fashion industry into a polluting mess with little to no transparency. We are here to change this.
“The most polluting part of leather processing - without a doubt - is tanning.“
Leather is chemically treated animal skin. The most commonly used animal hides are coming from cattle, pig, buffalo, sheep and goat, but leather can be made from snake, seal, ostrich or alligator skin as well.
The skin is processed in three steps: preparation, tanning, and crusting (finishing is an optional fourth step). During the first step, the hide is being prepared for tanning by soaking it, removing the hairs and some of the proteins that are not essential for the final product.
Tanning stabilizes the collagen and keratin proteins in the skin, makes leather flexible, and prevents it from drying out. During this process, the hide is immersed in a tanning liquid that slowly seeps through the whole thickness of the leather.
In the final phase, the material gets thinned, colored, dried and softened with chemical and mechanical methods. After this, the leather might get a surface coating, oiling, polishing or embossing and then it’s good to go to the manufacturers.
Although most people consider leather a co-product or by-product of the meat industry (according to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization 99% of leather comes from animals raised for meat and/or dairy production), when we talk about the environmental impact of leather, we cannot ignore the effects that excessive rearing of livestock has on our planet. These effects are a mix of deforestation, land and water overuse, and gas emissions that all add to global warming.
One can argue that turning leftover skin into leather is saving waste, but the truth is that the leather and meat industries are co-dependent, since selling hides creates hefty profit for farmers. And sadly, this philosophy won’t justify the ostrich and alligator farms kept for leather production.
The Higg Materials Sustainability Index* considers bovine leather to have “the biggest cradle to gate environmental impact” compared to materials like silk, cotton, or even plastic-based synthetic leather and polyester.
Leather achieved this ranking because its production process causes eutrophication (the water becomes excessively rich in nutrients which leads to the growth of plant life that suffocates the animals underwater), emits greenhouse gases, and wastes and contaminates water resources.
According to a case study published in Energy Procedia, the carbon footprint of bovine leather ranges between 65 to 150 kg CO2 per square meter. Considering that there’s more than 2 billion square meters of leather produced each year, that is a devastatingly huge economic footprint.
Nonetheless, the most polluting part of leather processing - without a doubt - is tanning. The most commonly used industrial tanning method is based on chromium, a heavy metal that in large amounts can be dangerous to both humans and the environment. Vegetable tanning which uses tree bark is less harmful, although it results in a leather that can shrink and discolor in water.
The most shocking environmental effects are coming from irresponsible and often illegal waste dumping especially in developing countries like India, the world’s third biggest leather manufacturer and exporter. The harmful and sometimes even carcinogenic chemicals used for tanning and conservation end up in local waterways through the extreme amount of wastewater that tanneries release back into nature to cut the costs of waste management. One square meter hide produces 16 500 liters of wastewater full of chromium, sulfates and pathogens. It affects tannery workers’ health and endangers local communities by contaminating their water sources.
Many tanners argue that these outdated traditions are painting a worse picture of the leather industry than reality is. In Europe and in the United States the use of dangerous chemicals is heavily regulated thanks to a more sustainable mindset. However, in developing countries, traditional tanning is very much present and there are no regulations to protect the people and the environment.
"One square meter hide produces 16 500 liters of wastewater"
The production’s higher environmental standards are reflected on the price of the leather as well. While a piece produced in a developing country costs around 8-12 USD, leather coming from modern, economically friendlier tanneries can cost more than 35 USD a piece. Although sustainably-made materials are available at a higher cost, they also carry higher values.
Leather is praised for being a natural material as opposed to plastic alternatives, but the chemical treatments during production affect the end-of-life of the material as well. They make the leather resistant to chemical, thermal, and microbiological degradation and significantly slow down its biodegradation process.
The list of problems with traditional leather production is long, and although there are efforts to move it into a more sustainable direction, leather production - on the current scale - will never be sustainable.
It’s time to take a Leap into a fresh start and begin to use truly sustainable plant-based alternatives.