With consumers increasingly focused on sustainable living, few issues are as divisive as leather. While proponents see it as a durable and long-lasting by-product of the beef industry, others see it as an environmental disaster.
Both sides have some truth to them, but the leather industry affects the environment in a number of serious ways.
How Leather Impacts the Environment
In part driven by marketing, many consumers see leather as a natural and long-lasting material that may even be biodegradable. And it’s true that leather is durable. Some types of leather may last for over a hundred years. But at what cost to the environment?
Industry claims make it easy to believe that animal leather is sustainable and has few environmental impacts. That’s simply not accurate. Animal leather has hidden costs to the environment and wildlife, as well as social and human implications.
Animal leather impacts the environment across its entire supply chain, from production to distribution, including deforestation and habitat loss, greenhouse gas emissions, and widespread water pollution.
The real leather industry could change its practices to be more sustainable, but at the end of the day there’s one resource necessary to real leather that no amount of rebranding could change: cows.
Up to 80% of deforestation in the Amazon is linked to cattle ranching for beef and animal leather products. As cattles graze, they eat all the way down to the dirt, depleting the soil of nutrients and preventing the forest from recovering.
Another culprit in deforestation is growing feed crops such as soybeans. At least 10% of a cow’s diet is soy, and 80% of all soy produced worldwide goes toward feeding farm animals.
In total, 77% of worldwide agricultural land goes to animals raised for slaughter.
All this animal agriculture and deforestation leads to habitat loss and biodiversity destruction. The Amazon rainforest is “home to 427 mammal species, 1,300 bird species, 378 species of reptiles, and more than 400 species of amphibians.” A large percentage of flora and fauna biodiversity live in the Amazon. And they are all in danger of becoming endangered or extinct.
Brazil is the world’s largest beef exporter and the third largest bovine skin exporter. The cattle industry in Brazil requires 10,000 square meters of space to produce just nine leather jackets. The Amazon isn’t the only place habitat destruction is taking place, though. In Australia, “54% of land degradation is due to animal agriculture,” having risen to “globally significant levels” in the last few years, with the worst of it in Queensland.
As more and more worldwide forests are removed and the soil beneath them depleted, preventing recovery of the ecosystem, it will be harder and harder for the earth to sustain all the extra greenhouse gases emitted by humanity’s activities.
Greenhouse gas emissions
Cattle CO2 emissions are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the leather industry’s effect on carbon emissions. Trees need to be cut down and cleared, requiring heavy machinery and equipment, which is produced, shipped, fueled, and maintained, all releasing greenhouse gases in the process. Farmland, as well, requires maintenance with heavy machinery (and often dangerous chemicals). All of this activity releases carbon into the atmosphere.
Global livestock production—of which leather forms a small part—produces 18% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas every year. That’s seen mainly in nitrous oxide and methane. Enteric fermentation in the industry accounts for approximately 4.4% of global emissions.
Should corporations eliminate animal-inefficient agriculture and protect forests instead, humanity could reduce its carbon emission budget significantly, a win for environmental activists worldwide, and stave off the devastating effects of climate change.
Reducing reliance on the whole animal agriculture industry is vital to meeting emissions reductions targets. It’s the most sustainable choice.
These dangerous chemicals can pose a hazard to human health, and they often seep out from facilities and affect plant life and water. Microplastics—tiny pieces of plastic that harm ecosystems and humanity alike—are released into the ecosystem during this process.
Chemical runoff from industrial facilities, including those where leather is produced, is enough to deplete oxygen levels in water and create “dead zones” in rivers and oceans, especially among plant life, which in turn affects aquatic life.
The extent of this is massive. One square meter of leather hide makes 16,500 liters of wastewater. The chemicals in this include chromium, a toxic metal that can pollute the air and surface water and is known to harm the environment and pose a serious risk to human health. At high levels, chromium can even cause lung cancer or kidney and liver damage. Up to 90% of leather tanning uses this toxic chemical. Other dangerous chemicals involved in the tanning process include formaldehyde and arsenic!
The energy required for the tanning process results in pollution as well. Electric power plants produce a number of dangerous chemicals, including “sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, manganese, vanadium and nickel.” The burning of fossil fuels, as well, has long been known for its polluting effects on the environment.
Products Made of Leather
Animal leather has been used to make fabric materials for over 7,000 years. Anthropologists have discovered that as far back as 5,000 BCE the ancient Egyptians were using leather for sandals, clothes, gloves, buckets, bottles, shrouds for burying the dead and for military equipment.”
These days, the most common leather products appear in the fashion industry, including leather boots, handbags, and jackets. (Not to mention pants—who could forget the iconic scene from Friends of Ross Gellar’s shrunken leather pants?) Leather is also a popular material in automobile upholstery, furniture, and sports equipment.
Reducing Leather’s Impact on the Environment
Despite its long history and many uses, humanity has developed new technologies and materials that mean we can reduce the use of leather and, by extension, its harmful impact on the environment. In fact, there are several eco-friendly changes consumers can make.
Giving up leather
Perhaps the most obvious way of eliminating leather’s harmful effects is to stop wearing leather or otherwise using it at all. The leather industry can’t harm the planet if there isn’t an industry in the first place.
This approach may have economic implications, though, particularly for tannery workers and other industry employees. If corporations switch to a more sustainable fabric, however, they could employ those same workers to manufacture sustainable alternatives.
Switching to sustainable alternatives
The fashion industry has begun producing more leather alternatives as demand for sustainable leather has grown. These synthetic alternatives are made from various materials and leather substitutes, which have a lower environmental impact.
While vegan leather made from synthetic materials may be one of the better recommendations, and recycled leather is an additional. This approach removes the need for animal agriculture, the use of dangerous chemicals in leather processing, and climate change-related effects, but there still may be energy usage involved in many of these manufacturing processes. (To truly eliminate your contribution to fashion’s carbon footprint, shop thrift stores.)
With vegan alternatives, there are fewer serious health risks associated with the production process and a lower environmental impact.
An eco-friendly way of processing leather
Leather manufacturing, particularly tanning, could take a more sustainable approach. In fact, a team of scientists in India have developed a more eco-friendly process for tanning leather.
While a relatively new solution, ionic liquids are used to treat the animal hide, requiring fewer toxic chemicals. Fewer toxic chemicals means a more eco-friendly leather tanning process.
Other changes could lead to a more sustainable leather industry. In fact, the Leather Manufacturer Audit Protocol focuses on encouraging the leather industry to meet sustainability standards. These best practices focus on reducing water and energy use, aiming for zero waste, better managing chemicals, and more. While this doesn’t affect the impact the meat industry has on the environment, it’s a step forward.
These are just the beginning of sustainable innovations around the leather industry, and until industry experts figure out a way to raise cattle sustainably as well, it’s hardly enough.
Regulations Limiting Leather’s Impact on the Environment
There are a few regulations in place around the world to curb the effects of the leather industry. Many animal welfare laws, for example, have been introduced worldwide to ensure animals are treated as humanely as possible.
Additionally, climate change-focused regulations aim to control the meat industry and leather production at large.
The European Union has passed multiple laws focused on leather production and related industries, helping to limit cancer risks among tannery workers often associated with leather production. These EU regulations also limit emissions and improve the treatment of animals.
Starting in 1985, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began regulating tanneries, enacting standards for chemicals in wastewater, particularly sulfides and chromium. Tanneries would need to obtain National Discharge Elimination System permits if they were disposing of waste directly into local water systems. In 1990, the US Clean Air Act further regulated factories and their emissions.
Sustainable and Ethical Leather: Is It Possible?
If you’re concerned about the impact leather goods have on the environment, I recommend switching to a vegan leather. The term refers to leather produced from synthetic alternatives, and there are usually fewer dangerous chemicals used in production.
The production of these alternatives often emits fewer greenhouse gas emissions thanks to different techniques, such as vegetable tanning. Could these be a sustainable and ethical alternative?
It certainly appears to be the case, with more and more brands using sustainable vegan leather alternatives instead of animal products:
- Stella McCartney
- Bottega Veneta
- Tommy Hilfiger
- Hugo Boss
- Saint Laurent
Products these brands are making out of vegan leather include accessories and clothing such as leather handbags, boots, jackets, and more. Car brands and other companies that use animal leather are also introducing sustainable leather alternatives.
What is sustainable leather?
Sustainability is defined as a process that meets the needs of today without compromising the needs of tomorrow. Sustainable leather accomplishes this by following sustainable best practices in multiple ways.
Sustainable leather emits fewer emissions, resulting in less global warming and less water pollution. No animals are used in their production at all, so no deforestation results, and cruelty concerns aren’t an issue either. The materials used in vegan leather—keep reading for examples—don’t have nearly the same impact on the environment, so they’re considered the more environmentally conscious choice.
Sustainable leather alternatives
Choosing sustainable leather alternatives—those not made from animals—is an effective way of reducing leather’s impact on the environment. Some materials are more environmentally friendly than others and don’t come with the baggage associated with raising and slaughtering animals.
Also known as vegan leather, ethical brands are marketing vegan alternatives with the following materials and fabrics.
Made from pineapple leaf fibers, the material is also known as pineapple leather and is typically farmed by local communities and doesn’t feature the same environmental impact as real leather. This approach improves sustainability and supports local communities.
Cork has exploded in popularity for various uses, although the fashion industry has increasingly seen it as a sustainable alternative to real leather. Made from the bark of oak trees, this can be sustainably and renewably harvested.
A durable and long-lasting option, this mixes wax with canvas fibers to make it durable and waterproof. It is one of the more sustainable alternatives to leather.
While rubber takes time to break down, reusing recycled rubber to make leather can prove an effective alternative to real leather. It’s a long-lasting option that provides a lot of durability.
While a rare option, leaf leather is one of the more cruelty-free choices. Made by applying a polymer to specific leaves, it’s easily sourced and doesn’t need any toxic treatments.
Made from a type of fungus, Muskin naturally doesn’t need the use of animals to create the leather. Instead, the fungus can be grown to demand, with relatively few greenhouse gases emitted by its production.
Mango leather, as the name implies, uses fruit instead of animals to make leather. Though it may not be the most durable option, it has no negative impact on local waterways, the environment, or wildlife.
Apple leather looks similar to the one made from cattle and other animals, although it has a more paper-like feel. Made out of discarded cores and skin, it can be sustainably harvested from waste on apple farms.
Sustainable fashion brands use waste from the coconut industry to create leather products. As these are made from natural materials, they unfortunately break down easily.
If you must wear or use leather goods, focusing on a vegan alternative to animal leather is essential. Vegan leather comprises any alternative that doesn’t exploit or harm animals. They’re more environmentally friendly and sustainable, thanks largely to fewer greenhouse gas emissions and less deforestation.
Compared to animal leather, vegan leather reduces impact on the environment by a third.
The Environmental Impacts of Leather: Wrapping Up
Leather is a durable, long-lasting option, so consumers buy the material in droves. From leather jackets and leather boots to bags and even automobile upholstery, animal leather is found in almost every household. But it doesn’t have to be animal leather.
The harm leather causes on the environment is unquestionable and ever growing. If you’re concerned about leather’s far-reaching impact, switch to a vegan leather alternative—or boycott leather entirely— to protect the planet.