Can Leather Be Made to Be Environmentally Friendly?

Is leather sustainable? Leather has been getting a bad rap, particularly among millennials. Many end users are concerned about its impact on the environment and are avoiding leather in favor of fabrics, natural fibers, and synthetics. In this article, we take a dive into some facts and figures so you can decide for yourself whether is a product to embrace or pass over.

The Harmful Effects of Leather Production

Let’s face it. Leather is a huge industry. It is used for clothing, accessories, furniture, tools, and sports equipment. Most leather comes from cows, but also from buffalo, sheep, and goats. 

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s estimates, approximately 1.4 billion animal hides were used in global leather production in 2020. That’s the equivalent of one animal for every 5 humans on the planet. 

Although leather is considered a by-product of the meat and dairy industries, raising animals for food requires large amounts of food, water, and fossil fuels, as well as pastureland, which must be cleared of trees. 

The water pollution caused by factory farm animals’ excrement is a threat to our waterways. The animals’ emissions are harmful as well, producing vast amounts of methane and nitrous oxide to be released into the air. 

Read more about some surprising solutions to leather production issues in “Advances in Leather Technology.”   

Leather production itself requires vast quantities of water, energy, and potentially dangerous chemicals including mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, and various oils, dyes, and finishes. 

Tannery effluent contains pollutants such as sulfides, acids, salt, and lime sludge. The people who work in or live close to tanneries have a higher rate of cancer than the national average, possibly linked to the toxic chemicals released into the environment due to leather production.

Is There a Way to Produce Leather That is Not Harmful to the Environment?

According to Leather Naturally, the answer is “yes.” A not-for-profit association, it focuses on education that promotes the use of globally manufactured sustainable leather. 

Many cattle farmers and tanneries all over the world are working on solutions that would minimize the negative effects of factory farms and leather production, from feeding cows a diet that reduces methane production, to purifying and reusing water used in the tanning process, as well as sourcing sustainable tanning agents that would reduce the use of chromium sulfate, the noxious chemical used to tan the most leather hides worldwide.

Leather Is a Renewable Resource

Many argue that leather is a by-product of food production. Unlike the fur industry, in most cases, animals are not slaughtered for their hides to make leather. In addition, unlike natural resources which can be depleted, the production of cows is virtually unlimited. 

Finally, if their hides weren’t converted into leather, they would be disposed of in landfills, resulting in a negative environmental impact.  

Can Leather be Made to Be Environmentally Friendly?

Again, the answer is “yes.” 

The Leather Working Group, a multi-stakeholder initiative that includes brands, suppliers, manufacturers, NGOs, and end-users, promotes sustainable business practices by the leather industry and uses an audit protocol that assesses the performance capabilities and environmental compliance of tanneries around the world.

Sustainability and the Use of Chemicals

Local, state, and federal governments regulate and restrict the use of chemicals to protect both people and the environment, offering a great degree of protection to the environment. For example, in Italy, tanneries are required to close during the month of August and the Christmas holidays. There are also various voluntary industrial initiatives that are committed to eliminating harmful chemicals from the supply chain. According to the U.S. Sustainability Alliance, in recent years much progress has been made in addressing the environmental issues associated with leather tanning. The Alliance, a group of farmers, fishermen, and foresters that is committed to the management of the country’s resources, sustainability practices and conservation programs, points to the following factors as evidence of the ongoing search for solutions:

  • The leather tanning industry adheres to a comprehensive system of federal regulations regarding clean water and air, waste disposal, and contaminated land                     clean-up; 
  • The leather industry as a whole has adopted a strategy of “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Tanners use renewable energy sources in addition to non-toxic dyes and tanning chemicals;
  • On a global scale, water used for leather production has declined by 37% in the past 25 years;
  • In the U.S., research is underway to find new methods for curing hides without the use of salt, thereby reducing the environmental impact of leather processing.

Is Leather Biodegradable?

Leather has been recycled into leather fiberboard for almost 100 years. Currently, research and development are underway to expand the applications for leather recycling.

Leather will biodegrade in a landfill in approximately 10 to 50 years, as opposed to vinyl, which can take more than 500 years to break down. Leather is also extraordinarily durable and can be repaired and repurposed, making it less likely to end up in landfills.

Are There Alternatives to Leather That Are a Better Choice?

Unfortunately, most alternatives to leather are made from oil, a non-renewable resource.  Here is how they stack up against leather:

Faux Leather  

Faux leather is a general term for man-made materials that mimic leather. 

Other names include pleather and PU (polyurethane). PU doesn’t meet the same standards of genuine leather when considering its impact on the environment in terms of sustainability, recyclability, and end-of-life disposal. It is not as durable as real leather and cannot be recycled, and therefore more likely to end up in a landfill.

To learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of faux leather, take a look at our “Genuine Leather versus Faux Leather – Which is Right for Your Project?

Vegan Leather

This term usually refers to a leather substitute that is made from a vegetable base, such as mushrooms, apple skins, pineapples, and grapes. However, they all require certain treatments and coatings which are often made with PVC or PU.

Bottom Line: Is There Such a Thing as Ethical Leather?

End users and the manufacturers alike point to certain types of leather that they feel more comfortable about. 

Choices include vintage and upcycled leather, wild-caught leather such as deer hides, and reptile skins, which don’t put a strain on resources the way that cattle farming does. The manufacturer of lizard skin is also a source of income for indigenous people around the world.

Whether to use real or man-made leather on new custom-made furniture or to reupholster one of your favorite pieces, the choice is yours, based on aesthetics, your convictions, and your budget. At Kovi Fabrics, we are attentive to the wide range of our client’s preferences – that’s why we offer both!

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