Today I’d like to discuss the topic on how sustainable leather really is. It’s a strong and durable material, but there are quite some downsides to it. So how could we tackle this problem? et’s dive into it, shall we?
What is (conventional) leather and what’s wrong with it?
Well, you may have guessed it correctly, but leather is a product made from animal skins, that are cleaned of hair, treated to preserve it and then finished with a specific colour, embossing or feel. Leather is often used for bags and shoes, but also for wallets and couches.
Even though leather is a strong and durable material, there’s also quite a lot wrong about leather.
So to get leather, one needs to kill an animal. That’s a debate on itself, whether it’s ethical to do so. To do this only for leather is rather unethical to me, so at least most leather comes from the animal agriculture, where it’s a by-product in the food production chain. However, some animals are also only held for their skin and live a rather unpleasant life. This mostly happens in the production of luxury brands.
Secondly, the people who work with leather in the production chain, often have miserable jobs and very little security. They have to work long days, in dirty factories with rather dangerous machinery. This is a well-known phenomenon in fashion production countries such as Bangladesh. Tannery workers in developing countries include children as young as 10 in some countries. Working in these toxic environments can lead to for example: irritation to the mouth, airways and eyes; skin reactions; digestive problems, kidney or liver damage; long-term cancer and reproductive problems
Yet, when you watch the documentary “Luxury: Behind the mirror of high-end fashion” from DW Documentary you’ll see that even workers in Europe, Italy, have very little rights too. They too have to work in unsafe environments.
Our planet isn’t very happy about the production of leather products either.
“As currently practised, leather production is linked to some serious sustainability issues, not least as a by-product of the meat industry.” (CO) Because of the huge amounts of animals we eat/use every year, we produce immense gas emissions. And we’ve all heard from the deforestation, water and land overuse linked to the animal agriculture. So even though leather is a “by-product” is cannot be unlinked to this climate impact from the animal agriculture.
Then when having a look at the production process of leather, tanning is the most toxic phase in leather processing. 90% of the production of leather uses chromium tanning. This is, for example, to stop them from decomposing. The chromium tanning produces so many toxic chemicals that governments in Europe and the US forced closure of these kind of tanneries. However, this led to a shift in the production chain to developing countries, where there are no regulations on these toxic and dangerous practices. The harsh chemicals used in the production process often flow directly into the rivers, polluting fresh drinking water and therefore endangering all life around it – animals and humans.
And when you think ‘at least this all led to beautiful leather’, I have to add another side note. During the whole process of the production of leather, a lot of things can go wrong. For example, scars on the animal hides, differences in tanning or colour, or even designers changing their mind about the colour. Half of all produced leather is regarded and ends up unused. Which was a total waste of animals, humans, and nature.
Altogether we can definitely state leather is not so sustainable…
So, what’s the solution?
Well, firstly it would be great if we’d consume less. So, less meat and dairy, less shoes, less everything. This will reduce a lot of carbon emissions and toxic chemicals. Secondly it would be better to buy leather from certified, ethical and small brands that try to make a change in the industry. For example, buying a leather product from monsak or other small sustainable fashion brands.
Very interesting. I would love to learn more about how this compares to the production of leather alternatives.
Your article brought out a good point on the wastage of leather materials that are unused during various stages of production. I agree with Laura’s comment above and would love to hear from you about how leather compares to vegan alternatives.