It’s time to get controversial: it’s time to discuss sustainable leather. Is it a thing? Could it be? In this post (that’s taken me four months to write), I’ll hopefully tell you just that.
This is the first in a two-part investigation that I’m doing into leather and vegan leather. Both textiles are employed en masse in the fashion industry. Both are traditionally bad for animals, people, and planet. And both leave me feeling unsure if I want to wear them or not. If you also feel unsure, read on and let me know what you think… And I’ll be sure to update you when my vegan leather post comes out too!
Why Is Leather Unsustainable?
Leather is a strong, flexible material that has been used in the production of shoes, bags, belts, and other fashion garments for thousands of years. It is often noted as an unsustainable textile due to it being made from animal hides, which require a huge amount of planetary resources to rear, as well as the unavoidable slaughter of millions of animals, and heavy use of chemicals in its production.
Leather is predominantly made from cattle (cow) hides, but skins from sheep, goats, horses, buffalo, pigs, and hogs can also be used. Another ethical issue is exotic leather, which can be made from the skins of animals such as alligators, elephant, fish, lizards, ostrich, seals, snakes, stingrays, and more. For the sake of this piece, I will be looking into cattle-derived leather only.
How Is Leather Made?
Leather is made in three steps: preparation, tanning, and crusting. Across this process are multiple areas that can have a negative impact:
- Preparation can involve multiple techniques, with some less harmful (e.g. soaking) than others (e.g. bleaching).
- Tanning is similar, with chrome tanning being the most popular despite its cancer-causing abilities, and vegetable tanning being a cleaner alternative, although it usually produces less flexible leather.
- Crusting is the third step, involving many processes to thin, re-tan, and lubricate the leather. The leather will then be coated, often in an oil-derived synthetic material (i.e. plastic) to guarantee its longevity. This coating, and potential chrome treatment, can cause leather to take 50 years or more to biodegrade.
Even in these simplified explanations, you can see how leather can be considered unsustainable in numerous ways.
Isn’t Leather Is A By-Product Of The Meat Industry?
On an incredibly glossy website for the Leather and Hide Council of America, they state:
“The number of cattle reared for meat and dairy production would remain the same even if people stopped buying leather.”
In their wildly greenwashed report published in early 2021, they argue that the sale of cattle hides is “helping ranchers target zero waste” and that by avoiding buying leather “alternative materials, not only from the petrochemical industry but also from new crops and new materials” would be used. Incredibly, it would be an “environmental problem” to stop buying leather.
This taps into the common argument that leather is a by-product of the meat industry. Instead of cow hides going to waste, they are instead upcycled into bags, shoes, and belts. If correct, it could be argued that leather production contributes to a circular economy.
This tallies with an archived International Council of Tanners site from 2017, where they stated:
“Leather is a by-product – the main sources of raw material for the leather industry world-wide are cattle, sheep and goats, which are reared specifically for the production of meat, wool and dairy products. Typically, the value of cattle hides, sheep and goat skins represents in the region of 5-15% of the market value of an animal.”
But here lies the truth: leather is a co-product of the meat industry. No good businessperson throws away 5-15% of their output, do they? For the most part, cattle hides are sold alongside the rest of the animal, rather than as an afterthought or a waste product. And in certain cases, cows are reared specifically for their hide. By buying first-hand leather, you are absolutely contributing to the demand for cattle farming. Just like if you buy a steak.
Now, if you believe that animals should not be reared for human consumption, leather will never be sustainable. It’s a common argument made by vegan and animal rights organisations, and I agree with it to a degree. However, at this time there are over 1 billion cows on the planet. Cattle rearing dates as far back as 3,000 B.C. It is unlikely that meat, dairy, leather, and fertiliser production will suddenly cease. And the leather industry is worth $128.61 billion… Even if all of the leather industry woke up tomorrow with intentions of implementing a degrowth strategy, cows and their produce would continue for many years to come.
What Is The Environmental Impact Of Leather?
In preparing this post, a hazy, adrenalin-fuelled memory from my school days drifted into my consciousness. I remember debating the carbon impact of cars and how methane emissions from cows were a more significant contributor to climate change than exhaust fumes. It was meant to be a light, funny tidbit; perhaps cow burps are responsible for the hole in the ozone layer! In reality, it was an indicator that humanity’s widespread cattle rearing practices had gotten out of control.
What Is The Carbon Footprint Of Leather?
The carbon footprint of cow leather ranges from 65 to 150 kg of CO2 equivalent per square meter of production. To put that into perspective, according to Collective Fashion Justice, it takes 66kg of CO2 to produce a pair of cow skin leather boots. That’s high. Compare that to the rest of a simple outfit: the estimated carbon footprint of a plain white t-shirt is 15kg of CO2 across its lifetime. A pair of jeans, 33.4kg of CO2.
On the flip-side, luxury goods conglomerate Kering estimates the impact of vegan leather production can be up to a third lower than real leather. How that impact truly looks, I’ll explore in my next post.
What Is The Water Footprint Of Leather?
Carbon is only one part of leather’s environmental impact. The water used to produce leather is high too. For a single cow, it takes more than 100,000 litres of water to take it from farm animal to fashion fabric. Scale this up, and you can see how the leather industry easily uses 400 billion litres of water per year. And to think, we balk at the fact that a single t-shirt takes 2,700 litres of water to produce.
It’s also unclear whether this water can be recovered or recycled. Unlike closed-loop water systems coming into practice in cotton and denim garment manufacturing, the toxic tanning process that leather goes through means a lot of this water will be waste – some of it treated, some not.
One innovation I have come across as a partial answer to this is ECCO’s DriTan technology. Launched in 2018, ECCO has created a leather tanning system that requires no water at all. That being said, it’s estimated to save 20 litres of water per hide, which I estimate as 0.002% of a single hide’s water footprint…
What Is The Global Impact Of Leather?
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, over 70% of leather production takes place in developing countries (Latin America, Africa, and Asia). This same cattle industry is the single largest driver of deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and of tropical forests globally.
You can see from the above graph that deforestation for the sake of cattle rearing is particularly rampant in the Amazon. Over the last decade (2011-2020), 16.5 million acres of forests were lost in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest biome, according to the Brazilian Government.
This has a global environmental impact: deforestation caused by cattle ranching in the Amazon rainforest accounts for almost 2% of global CO2 emissions annually. That’s the same amount as all CO2 emissions from airplane flights globally. It could also result in a total loss of rainforest: desertification.
Is It Possible To Avoid Leather That Causes Deforestation?
In short, it’s close to impossible to recognise and avoid leather products that have contributed to deforestation. The largest contributor to the Amazon’s deforestation is the largest beef and leather company in Brazil, JBS. They have multiple links to more than 50 fashion brands, including Adidas, Coach, Dr. Martens, Converse, Fendi, Gap, H&M, LVMH, Marks & Spencer, New Balance, Nike, Prada, River Island, UGG, and Zara.
If this angers you, I recommend channeling that energy into supporting Slow Factory’s #SupplyChange campaign. Many of these brands are very likely breaking their own anti-deforestation policies – so we need deeds, not words.
You may also recall the announcement at COP26 that world leaders will end world deforestation. Within this they also announced at least £1.25bn funding for indigenous peoples and local communities to protect forests. Fine, but where are the reparations? This is another area that needs to be addressed.
Who Makes Our Leather?
I mentioned earlier how cattle reared for leather production predominantly takes place in developing countries. Just like fast fashion‘s supply chain, a greater percentage of that leather is sold on to developed countries in North America, Europe, and Oceania. It therefore stands to reason that the social issues in fast fashion supply chains are also reflected within the global leather industry.
Leather Workers Are Subject To Unsafe Practices
The sad fact is that the majority of fashion garment workers experience unliveable wages, stolen wages, little workplace protections, and modern slavery. For leather workers, there’s the added occupational risk of working with leather. The process of taking raw hide and turning it into leather is a highly laborious and toxic one. “Leather tanning … [is] among the most polluting activities harming health and causing early deaths” according to The Guardian. It involves the use of a wide range of chemicals, many being carcinogens or suspected carcinogens.
The dirtiest form of leather tanning is chrome tanning. The risk involved with chrome tanning is so high that in the US, the EPA considers all wastes containing chromium to be hazardous. In a study by Indian Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine, they found that tannery workers were likely to be at risk of death due to their work: “the high morbidity among the tannery workers may be due to elevated levels of urinary and blood chromium levels resulting from increased air levels of chromium at the work place.”
And there’s wider environmental issues involved too. In cities such as Kanpur, India, the self-proclaimed ‘Leather City of the World’, local government had to seal almost 50 tanneries in 2009 due to dangerous pollution levels in the river Ganges. It’s no wonder – in 2003, one tannery’s disposal unit was reportedly dumping 22 tonnes (22,000kg) of chromium-laden solid waste on the banks of the Ganges each day.
Despite this, chrome tanning is still the most popular form of leather tanning.
What’s clear is that the occupational risks experienced in leather tanning are worse than general conditions experienced by garment workers. And just as fashion is exploitative of people in the Global South, the dirtiest parts of leather production – the cattle rearing and leather tanning – also predominantly take place in developing countries, which have less strict environmental laws and worker protections.
5 Examples Of More Sustainable Leather Collections
So, I ask once again: is it possible to have sustainable leather? From my research, I believe that sustainable leather can only really be labelled as such if it completely avoids the existing leather supply chains and industry. Just like the fast fashion business model can never be sustainable, I don’t believe traditional leather production can ever be either. To that end, here’s a few examples of brands I’ve seen working on creating wholly new supply chains and approaches to leather that could potentially be considered sustainable…
Mulberry: The Lowest Carbon Collection
Late last year, Mulberry launched The Lowest Carbon Collection, comprising four limited-edition crossbody satchels styled on their classic Amberley Satchel. For this collection, they demonstrated how they are embodying their Made To Last Manifesto, working across a hyper-local, hyper-transparent supply chain from field to final stitch. Two particularly notable stops along that chain: their sustainable tannery Muirhead, in Scotland, where they convert end-of-life leather into fuel for their thermal energy plant; and their carbon-neutral factories in Somerset, England.
I was kindly gifted the Soft Small Amberley Satchel in Black Hawthorn Heavy Grain, and it’s genuinely a work of art. The leather is buttery soft, with a deep grain that is so lovely to the touch. As someone opposed to first-hand leather purchases, I had been in two-minds about accepting this gift. It was for this guide that I accepted it, and even now, I still feel a little conflicted. The backstory is brilliant, but does it outweigh buying a pre-loved Mulberry bag?
Within Mulberry’s own Manifesto, they address just that: “there are probably enough bags in the world already to be exchanged and resold for generations to come”. I appreciate their honesty, and how alongside crafting new styles with circularity in mind, they are already repairing and renewing 10,000 bags annually. This multi-pronged approach is needed, and I just hope they can soon adopt the same supply chain for all of their styles.
Anya Hindmarch: Return To Nature
Also late last year, I attended a very special launch event for Anya Hindmarch’s Return To Nature collection. Despite this gorgeous collection’s autumnal shades and very wearable styles, I was more interested in something else: the brand’s claims of creating the world’s first 100% biodegradable leather.
Anya Hindmarch presented the collection alongside model and environmental activist, Arizona Muse. During their discussion, Hindmarch walked us through their experiments to achieve truly biodegradable leather – moving away from chrome tanning, vegetable tanning, and towards an innovation called Zeolite tanning. I’m unsure of the science here, but could I understand Hindmarch’s explanation about leather coating: almost all leathers are coated in a thin plastic film, to prevent it from rotting if it gets wet. This collection moves away from that, instead being coated with ‘Activated Silk’, and requires wearers to apply a natural wax periodically to prevent early biodegrading. The result? Real leather handbags that have been independently audited as 100% biodegradable, taking just 2 years to do so. And not only that, they are designed without hardware or lining, so are truly 100% biodegradable. They even support plant growth when breaking down. If you look closely at the picture, you can see a bag beginning that process… Rot has never looked so good.
The only question I have: could this concept really become the norm?
Deadwood: Zero Waste Leather Goods
When it comes to applying true zero waste principles to leather, the best example has to be Deadwood. Their leather jackets and garments are made from rescued dead-stock skins, repurposed vintage clothing and upcycled post-production waste. They do this by designing in an increased number of cut-lines in each garment, which enables them to use leather that would have otherwise gone to waste.
As a new electric scooterist, I dream of the day I can add a Deadwood leather jacket* to my biking gear. Leather is one of the best textiles for riding, combining safety and style. I’d love to see Deadwood produce biker gear, because so much of it has to be leather, and yet there’s no real sustainable brands making it.
Grady + Robinson: A Regenerative Leather Supply Chain
Next up, the brilliant Alice V. Robinson and Sara Grady. After meeting on the Rethink Fashion course, hosted by RSA & Ellen MacArthur Foundation, I’ve been following Alice and Sara’s work closely. When it comes to leather production, they are working under the guise of Grady + Robinson, to create a hyper-local supply chain, with a focus on complete traceability and compassion.
In short: they know the cows whose hides will one day become beautiful, unique leather pieces. They know the regenerative farmers, the cattle herders, the tanneries, and even the butchers who work with each animal. And they hope to extend that to designers working with leather, in an effort to provide a real personal connection and deep appreciation of where our leather comes from.
Naru Studios: Rentable, Regenerative Leather Accessories
And finally, a last-minute addition to this list is Naru Studios. Launching May 2022, this start-up luxury fashion brand is touting their select line of leather bags as regenerative leather. In practice, this means they are “made from a mix of regenerative and organic vegetable tanned leathers that are free from plastic and polyurethane where hides are sourced either from regenerative and organic farms in Germany, or from Scandinavia which is well known for its high standards of ethical farming.” It’s a good start, but I wouldn’t call it truly regenerative just yet.
Naru Studios does get a bonus point for offering a fashion rental service for their bags though, promoting circularity both in terms of product and service.
So, Is There Such A Thing As Sustainable Leather?
To conclude this post, I have to plainly state: leather will always be a high impact material due to it being an animal-derived textile. While there are a number of brands and entrepreneurs creating more sustainable leather products and supply chains, I don’t believe the leather industry will ever truly be sustainable. And by avoiding first-hand leather, you are reducing the demand for cattle farming and the meat industry. By avoiding most mainstream leather, you are also reducing the demand for deforestation, worker exploitation, and toxic pollution chiefly occurring in the Global South. You’ll also avoid creating plastic-coated fashion waste that will take more than 50 years to biodegrade once sent to landfill.
Speaking of leather waste: leather recycling is still in its infancy, and it’s a murky field. It’s hard to understand how leather can be recycled into new items, without seeing larger pieces get smaller and smaller and less valuable, which is circular but still degenerative. Cotton and denim recycling is far more promising than leather recycling may ever be.
My best advice after writing this piece is that if you are going to a choose leather, go for high quality leather, sourced second-hand, in an item that you can see yourself wearing, caring, and repairing for years. A traditional leather jacket, a handbag, a pair of boots may be worthwhile. And as always: please buy less.