Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Durable, malleable and attractive – Leather is arguably among the most globally prevalent materials, both historically and today. But it’s credentials in terms of ethics and sustainability are not quite so straight forward. Suston provides a primer on the subject.
Egyptian artefacts dating back to 5000 B.C. feature leather in everything from sandals to military equipment to shrouds for burying the dead. Fast forward to today, and leather remains a staple material in the footwear, apparel and upholstery industries, with total exports in 2017 exceeding US$157 billion.
Where does leather come from?
Leather is made from various “hides”, or animal skins, which undergo a “tanning” process that essentially mummifies the skin into a usable form. Generally, hide is retrieved as a by-product of animal farming for food. Cows supply the bulk of hide, while other animals like sheep, goat and crocodiles are used to meet other custom demands.
Once the hide is cleaned of meat, fat and hair, it may then be pickled or bleached and finally, tanned. Tanning processes differ according to region and demand. Traditionally, tanners were made from vegetables that contain tannins, the substance that makes your mouth pucker when you take a sip of red wine. Essentially a binding agent, they also keep leather from turning into a pile of rotting flesh. Once tanned, the leather is dried, lubricated, and dyed before being shaped into the desired form.
Leather and health
In terms of consumer health, research surrounding the long-term effects of exposure to finished leather remain inconclusive. Nevertheless, even if leather isn’t directly harmful for the consumer, it often is to the people making it.
Most contemporary tanners are made from chromium salts, which are a combination of chromium (a mineral) and other chemicals. Though chromium is a naturally occurring element, toxic forms of it can be produced through industrial activities like leather-making. Exposure to chromium fumes has been clearly linked with reproductive and respiratory problems as well as cancer. Its presence along with other hazardous compounds make tanner especially difficult to recycle or reuse, and poses a significant problem in terms of waste collection.
Most leather is made in countries with limited environmental protection standards. As a result, unusable tanner is often dumped into waterways and soil instead of being properly disposed. Tannery workers are especially vulnerable. In India, home to the highest concentration of tanneries, the city of Kanpur treats up to 40 million liters of tannery wastewater per day. It’s estimated that only 20 percent of this actually gets clean.
Leather, environment and animal welfare
Some may argue that leather is a responsible way to use material that would otherwise go to waste. Unfortunately, it’s not quite so clear-cut. Most leather is sourced from factory farms, where not only is the skin included in the valuation of their products, it’s often the most profitable part. Anything that can’t be sold (as much as 70 percent of the hide) then gets discarded as solid waste.
The fact is that the leather industry relies on factory farming, whose business model depends on the leather industry – decoupling the effects of each industry from one another is therefore impossible. Industrial farming is particularly disturbing from an animal rights perspective. In them, most animals live in crammed conditions with no natural light. In order to prevent injury from close contact, they may have their teeth, horns and tails removed. Many are given growth hormones to maximize yield.
Things get even more complicated when measuring factory farming’s larger effects on the environment. Animal runoff poses a direct threat to water and soil health through antibiotic exposure, acidification and other processes. Furthermore, the global livestock industry accounts for an estimated 14 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Much of this is methane, a gas 23 times more potent than CO2 at warming the planet.
Given the sheer amount of waste generated, managing pollutants is certainly a challenge – though not an insurmountable one. Footwear brands like ECCO and Handwag have their leather supply chains based in Europe, where strict environmental regulations ensure little to no toxic waste enters the environment. Similar facilities can also be found in Asia, which can release water that is even cleaner than that which came in.
Aku uses chrome-free “DANI Sustainable Leather,” and vegetable-based tanners are available. Furthermore, leather can also be sourced from ecological farms – a sector that has been growing fast due to higher demand from consumers.
Can leather be sustainable?
Leather remains one of the most durable and repairable materials available, with many footwear brands such as Kavat offering customers repair services for their products. And contrary to synthetic alternatives, leather’s appearance improves with age. These traits can result in a product with an exceptionally long useful lifespan, if properly cared for. Thus, any adverse impacts associated with its production can be spread across many years, thereby resulting in a more sustainable product.
Experts have argued that small-scale livestock farming plays an integral role to sustainable food systems: Cows, for example, eat feed that is not suitable for humans, and graze on otherwise marginal land. In turn, these animals can sustain entire communities. An ethical practice would involve using all of their parts, hide included.
For those who are ethically opposed to using animal products, avoiding leather is only natural. But should those concerned with sustainability shift to faux leather? Not necessarily. The industry may be benchmarked against its worse practices, but that doesn’t mean all leather is bad. It largely depends on where hide is sourced and how it is then treated to become leather.
Help is on its way
The Leather Working Group and the Textile Exchange are both developing protocols and standards for responsible leather production, which can facilitate brand’s looking for more sustainable and ethical leather. But today, sustainable leather alternatives are largely exceptions to the norm, and conscious brands need to both research and make conscious choices in their supply chain. In the end, such choices will be reflected in the price tag. But given the adverse impacts common to the industry, maybe both brands and consumers will find that it’s a price worth paying?