Is Leather Bad for the Environment? The Unsustainable Truth
From cool leather jackets to dress shoes, leather has long been a staple of the fashion industry, with the earliest uses dating back as far as 400,000 years ago.
Leather goods have maintained their popularity up to this day, and in many ways, the complex process behind modern leather production still resembles the one that our ancestors used to follow.
Some would argue, however, that this process is well-overdue a change.
The rising demand for leather products has given way to serious environmental concerns, as the unrelenting scale of modern leather production has been proven to affect our lands, waterways, marine life and people and animals.
So, how is leather bad for the environment, exactly, and how is the industry improving?
How is leather made?
The raw material for leather is derived from animal hides, most commonly cattle hides.
After sourcing the skins, the material goes through four key processes before becoming viable: Cleaning, tanning, retanning, and finishing.
The cleaning stage involves degreasing the hides and getting rid of any hair or flesh, while the tanning process revolves around stabilising the skins to make them more durable.
The tanning stage requires chemical treating, using agents like vegetable tannin, animal tannin, and chromium sulphate.
Tannins are astringent chemical compounds that bind collagen, a key protein found in all animals and humans, to prevent hides from disintegrating.
3. & 4. Retanning and finishing
Finally, both the retanning and finishing processes involve dyeing and coating the fabric with chemical agents such as acrylic resins and beeswax to make it softer and more resistant to weather and wear.
Isn’t leather just a by-product of the meat industry?
Leather production is, in many ways, tied to the meat and dairy industry. It shares much of the industry’s worst environmental impacts, given that it comes from the same animals that are used for their meat.
However, there’s a strong case against the common belief that animal leather is simply a by-product of the livestock industry, as figures show that the demand for leather products is even greater than the demand for meat: from 1984 to 2004, global production of raw cattle hides grew 24% compared to only 19% growth of cattle meat!
In addition, selling animal skins is highly profitable for farmers, and in some cases, meat is the by-product from the skin sale and not the other way around.
How is leather bad for the environment?
1. Chemical use
Unsurprisingly, the number of chemicals involved in the tanning, retanning, and finishing stages of leather manufacturing are some of the biggest culprits when it comes to the material’s carbon footprint.
Chromium, in particular, is considered one of the most dangerous toxic chemicals in the leather industry, as it is a suspected carcinogen contributing to a long list of health issues in tannery workers.
Needless to say, the environment fares even worse when these dangerous chemicals are involved in mass-scale production — but there’s more to the impact of leather on our planet than chrome pollution alone.
So, what’s the environmental impact of the leather industry today, aside from chemical use?
2. Carbon emissions and global warming
The water and energy-intensive process behind the production of leather is another key reason why traditional leather is bad for the environment.
According to a self-reported study by the Leather Panel, the industry is responsible for 17.0kg of CO2e emissions per square meter of leather produced. This makes cow leather one of the top contributors to global warming and climate change in the fashion industry.
This estimate includes tanning and finishing as well as transportation-related emissions but fails to include the impact of cattle ranching’s water and land use, and the impact of methane emissions released from cows.
Another estimate in the study accounts for farm emissions instead, bringing the total CO2e emissions from the entire leather production process to a whopping 110.0kg per square meter of leather produced.
This includes methane emissions and logistics, but still doesn’t consider the impact of deforestation and water use for cattle rearing. The Real Carbon Footprint of Leather by one4leather.com explains the difficulty in getting the full picture of CO2e emissions from leather.
3. Deforestation leading to carbon emissions and loss of biodiversity
A whopping 80% of deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest alone is attributed to cattle ranching, which in turn, is also responsible for as much as 3.4% of all annual carbon emissions, due to the lack of sufficient carbon capture from trees.
Greenhouse gas emissions aside, deforestation is also one of the main drivers behind biodiversity loss and the rising number of endangered species we see today.
4. Land overuse causing soil degradation
Closely tied to the deforestation issue, cattle ranching is also responsible for land overuse, caused by both overgrazing and the intensive production of soybeans needed to feed cattle.
Land overuse is one of the main causes of soil degradation, which causes the soil’s essential minerals to deplete and make the land unsuitable for crop farming.
5. Water pollution
Leather is also responsible for much of the pollution of our waterways, due to the presence of polluting chemicals like chromium and nitrogen being released as wastewater.
85% of the chromium used in leather tanning enters the waste streams, resulting in chromium levels as high as 2656–5420 mg/L in countries with a high concentration of tanneries like Bangladesh.
6. Marine eutrophication leading to biodiversity loss and “dead zones”
The waste runoff from tanneries is also responsible for marine eutrophication, an overgrowth of plant life in surrounding water systems due to the abundance of external nutrients.
Marine eutrophication has severe consequences on marine life: The overgrowth of aquatic plants depletes the water’s oxygen levels, leading to biodiversity loss and hypoxic zones void of any animal life, also known as “dead zones.”
Is leather recyclable?
What these figures show is that the entire production process behind cow leather, from cattle farming to finishing, comes with severe environmental consequences.
And when it comes to the finished product, there’s still little in the way of sustainability.
In theory, leather is recyclable, as scraps from pre-loved leather products can be reused by tanneries to create new items.
In practice, however, very few recycling facilities are open to accepting old leather, as the recycling process is incredibly challenging and expensive.
This means that, unless you’re lucky enough to have a specialized leather recycling facility near you, recycling won’t be accessible to the average consumer.
Is leather biodegradable?
It goes without saying that leather is made from animal materials, which when left raw and untreated, are entirely biodegradable. However, how the animal skin is treated to become leather affects whether it is compostable.
The production process and extensive chemicals used in leather production affect the speed at which it could biodegrade (it could take up to fifty years).
In addition, used in 90% of leather production, chrome tanning pollutes the environment and the chemicals used can leach back into the atmosphere if left to naturally biodegrade. These can cause health problems such as respiratory issues and birth defects.
Vegetable-tanned leather is non toxic and biodegradable, and more and more sustainable producers are turning back to it (historically this was the only way to tan leather!). However vegetable tanning takes much longer and so still only represents a tiny proportion of the leather market.
For more on biodegradable fabrics, see our article Styles that don’t last forever: which fabrics are biodegradable?
Is leather ethical?
Unfortunately, as well as the environmental concerns, there are also serious human rights and workers’ rights concerns surrounding modern leather production.
In Bangladesh, one of the world’s leading leather manufacturers, tannery workers have reported suffering from a variety of skin conditions and breathing problems, caused by the chemicals involved in tanning and pre-finishing raw hides.
India, China, and Pakistan, other leading countries in leather manufacturing, have also been shown to operate tanneries with hazardous working conditions and even child labour.
Then, there’s the animal welfare issue: leather is inextricably linked to animal suffering. Hides are sometimes collected while cows are still conscious. PeTA have also documented how animals (sometimes pregnant) destined for the leather industry are shipped around the world in cramped, waterless and cruel conditions, with cows even being craned off ships.
It makes you think twice about that soft leather handbag or beautiful leather boots. For more on animal cruelty in the fashion industry see How to stop animal cruelty in the fashion industry: 10 things you can do starting now.
Is vegan leather worse for the environment than real leather?
But what about alternative leather?
In recent years, faux leather or “vegan” leather has been taking over the fashion world, marketed as a more ethical alternative to real leather.
So, if leather is bad for the environment, how do the most popular alternatives to leather compare?
Pleather vs real leather
High street shops will often carry plenty of faux leather alternatives, free from animal by-products and considerably cheaper than the real deal, but that doesn’t mean that buying faux makes for a truly sustainable choice!
Synthetic leather, or “pleather”, is made of petroleum-based plastics, most commonly PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and PU (polyurethane).
These plastics are made from fossil fuels, they are neither biodegradable nor recyclable, and they are the biggest culprit behind our growing problem of microplastic pollution — Polyurethane leather will take upwards of 500 years to degrade!
On the other hand, animal leather is an environmentally harmful material when it comes to cattle ranching emissions, deforestation and the toxic runoff from tanning.
This means that while plastic-based leather is bad for the environment, real leather is equally taxing for our planet, minus the microplastics issue!
Plant-based leather vs real leather
But not all vegan leather is created equal.
While calling synthetic leather “vegan leather” is much of a greenwashing marketing ploy, there are plenty of genuinely sustainable leather alternatives that use plants, instead of skins, to create biodegradable and sustainable materials.
Think leather-like products made from pineapple leaves, bamboo, mushrooms, cactus, and cork, all made from cost-effective and renewable sources, and in most cases, recyclable and compostable too!
We’ve written all about plant-based and vegan leather alternatives, so go take a look to find the perfect sustainable alternative for you! And for some of the best vegan shoe alternatives see our article The best vegan shoe brands to give you a conscious free spring in your step. For the handbag of your dreams we have 20 sustainable bag brands in the UK to fall in love with.
Can leather go green?
Even though the sourcing and tanning process behind real leather is bad for the environment, there are plenty of ways to reform it.
The EU and US have already restricted the use of chromium VI in leather products. While this doesn’t stop tanneries from working with the chemical abroad (China is still the world’s biggest producer of leather followed by Brazil, Russia and India), it could change the industry for the better if more countries follow suit.
Ethical manufacturers and vegetable tanning
More and more ethical manufacturers are phasing out chromium tanning in favour of vegetable-tanned leather, using the natural tannins from organic materials like tree bark, leaves, roots, and even tamarind seeds.
But getting rid of a chemical that’s harmful to human health and to aquatic life is just the first step.
The Leather Working Group
The LWG promotes sustainable leather practices among manufacturers. It audits and certifies suppliers and encourages traceability in leather supply chains and the reduction of deforestation.
Leather manufacturer Green Hides creates chrome-free leather in Italian tanneries that recycle and purify their wastewater.
B-Corp certified brand Nisolo uses carbon offsetting methods and chrome-free hides for their leather shoes. The Leather Sustainability initiative provides worldwide consultations for brands and manufacturers to reduce the material’s carbon footprint. And sustainable fashion brands everywhere are taking up the mantle to reduce the impact caused by unsustainable leather practices.
A better future
And when we look to the future, the picture looks even brighter: Lab-grown leather, made of collagen and free from any animal products and chemicals, might soon become an accessible solution. And more and more people are turning to vegan and alternatives as a sustainable and ethical lifestyle choice.
We can’t wait to see what the future has in store for eco-friendly leather!