The incredible durability and repairability of leather results in a lifespan measured in decades. When properly sourced, it can also be humane and have a low environmental impact.
What is leather and where exactly does it come from?
Leather is made from various “hides,” or animal skins, which once cleaned undergoes a tanning process that essentially mummifies the skin into a usable form that resists rotting. Once tanned, the leather is dried, lubricated, and dyed before being shaped into the desired form.
Generally, hide is retrieved as a by-product of the meat industry, primarily from cattle in China, Brazil and Italy.
What are leather’s benefits?
Leather is one of the most durable and repairable materials available, resulting in a product with an unparalleled lifespan when properly cared for. In contrast to most other materials, the fact that hides for leather are primarily sourced as a by-product of the meat industry means that additional land and resources are not required for its cultivation.
What are leather’s impacts on the environment, animals, and human health?
In terms of consumer health, research surrounding the long-term effects of exposure to finished leather remain inconclusive. Nevertheless, it is often harmful to the people making it. Most contemporary tanners are made from chromium salts, which are a combination of chromium (a mineral) and other highly toxic chemicals. It, along with other hazardous compounds, makes tanner especially difficult to recycle or reuse, and poses a significant problem in terms of waste collection and proper disposal in many parts of the world where leather is produced.
Furthermore, the leather industry relies on factory farming – decoupling the impacts of each industry from one another is therefore impossible. Industrial farming is particularly controversial from an animal rights perspective, for example, where animals often live in deplorable conditions. Their environmental and health impacts are also substantial, whereby runoff poses a direct threat to water and soil health through antibiotic exposure, acidification and other processes. Furthermore, global livestock sector is a major contributor to global warming, with the industry accounting for an estimated 14 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.
How can these impacts be reduced?
Given the amount of waste generated, managing pollutants is a challenge – though not an insurmountable one. Leather supply chains based in Europe and the US employ strict environmental regulations to ensure little to no toxic waste is emitted. Chrome-free and vegetable-based tanners are available, and leather can also be sourced from ecological and regenerative farms.
Small-scale livestock farming also plays an integral role to sustainable food systems by grazing on otherwise marginal land, and responsible livestock husbandry would involve using all of the animals’ parts.
For those who are ethically opposed to using animal products in the first place, avoiding leather is only natural. For others, it is arguably more ethical that all parts of the animal be put to use as long as animals are raised for the meat. For those still sitting on the fence, however, the key takeaway is that it largely depends on where hide is sourced and how it is then treated to become leather. Though not widely in use, standards are being developed to help guide brands and consumers to traceable and humanely produced leather.
Leather Working Group
The Leather Working Group (LWG) is a multi-stakeholder group which has developed assessment protocols, like the LWG Environmental Audit Protocol. Their commitment to environmental stewardship endeavors to create sustainable and traceable best practice for all involved.
Responsible Leather Round Table
The Textile Exchange’s Responsible Leather Round Table (RLRT) is a tool to drive forward the development of the global Responsible Leather Assessment (RLA). Aimed towards becoming the future gold standard of the industry, the RLA will assess environmental and social impact, as well as animal welfare, for more ethical leather.
Illustration: Kiki Fjell