Can leather ever really by sustainable?

October 04, 2016

Can leather ever really by sustainable?

In short: not really. But leather remains favourite of some of even the most staunch sustainability experts, so why? And how can we buy leather a whole lot better?

Leather is a very interesting topic in the ethical and sustainability world.

First, let's be honest - there is no denying that leather, at the heart of it, is not a sustainable fabric. From the intensive land use and emissions from farming, to the phenomenal use of chemicals during processing, to its disposal, it is a long way from organic hemp! Even if you could show that leather is sourced solely from animals intended primarily for use for meat. It also isn't vegan, so for the sake of this article, we're going to focus on sustainability and the wider ethical impact - on humans and ecosystems. I completely understand if you are vegan, then you might just want to read the bit on pineapple leather and leave the rest!

So what is the appeal of leather?

However, many of even the most staunch sustainability or ethical experts still buy (and covet) their beautiful leather shoes, belts, jackets, watches even or wallets and bags. 

So why? And if we are going to buy leather, how can we buy it more consciously and at least a little more sustainably and ethically? 

Importantly, leather is a fabric that truly persists the test of time. When made properly and cared for the right way, leather goods can last a lifetime, if not several. High quality and longevity are key attributes that anyone looking for sustainability seeks.

And let's not deny that leather has romantic qualities - the history, feel, craftsmanship - and beauty that people covet and like. To be fair, it is only the minority of producers who can truly claim 'traditional craftsmanship' but it can still be found in many big and small producers.

Leather alternatives

There are alternatives to animal leathers. These include cork, pineapple leaf waste (with the brilliant name Pinatex), PVC, PU, recycled PET plastics. Fish is another non-vegan alternative to traditional cow or sheep hide, and we discuss this further toward the end of the article.

Unfortunately, for most of the man-made alternatives, when you assess the environmental impact of these substitutes across their lifecycle, they start to hold concerns too.

Such as the potential toxicity of petroleum derived products, phthalates present in PVC, the lack of longevity, need for replacement and ultimate disposal of many of these items. The broader environmental and wildlife impacts of sourcing and manufacturing these inputs. I have been unable to find a scientific life-cycle study comparison of the two to better quantify it, but it is clear that it isn't as black and white as we might initially think. Pinatex (made from waste pineapple leaves) is a new and beautiful fabric, although more wrinkled than traditional leather, and I believe it has phenomenal potential. However, at this stage, there isn't enough transparency into what the business calls its "industrial processing" to understand what happens and what the impacts are in full. I can't wait to find out however as I adore the idea!

My preferred substitute is organic cotton canvas or even a hemp based product, but this hardly substitutes for a hard wearing leather.

In my experience, I admit after having not used leather bags for four years, I am getting a little sick of seeing non-leather bags wear through and the potential waste involved in that (despite ongoing repairs). Yet I love the fact that my (leather) purse has seen over 10 years of wear and tear yet shows no signs of giving in any time soon. 

No matter how ethically or sustainably something is made, if I constantly need to replace it due to poor quality, it kind of misses the point.

Unfortunately, there isn't really a clear winner in the alternative solutions, particularly when you assess not just the direct impact on wildlife, people, the environment - but the full scope of indirect impacts too. 

So the truth is, if we buy leather, we need to find a better way to do it.

With more care for the environment, the people who make it (and what their and our food chains are being subject to from waste products). We need to more closely assess our leather goods and find a way to better manage, and deal with some of the ethical or sustainable issues along the way. 

What are the sustainability issues with leather?

The issues with leather can occur throughout the process. The main areas of the lifecycle include: 

  • Farming sustainability (such as emissions, land use, water use, feed stock supply, deforestation even)
  • Processing (cleaning and preparation, pre-tanning, tanning, finishing). A raft of hazardous chemicals are used throughout. This is a serious one for human and environmental impacts
  • Waste and end of life disposal. The waste from leather production is a massive issue, in particular, managing chemical waste and minimising the impact on waterways and the broader environment. This is both at production level and end of life.

Can we focus on the second stage: the processing and chemicals used and in particular, chrome vs vegetable tanning?

Most of the focus lies on the second point, the chemicals required in processing the leather through all stages. 

In fact, almost 250 hazardous chemicals are listed by the National Institute of Health as participants in different leather production processes. Including sulfuric acid, formaldeyde or ammonia. Some, like AZO dyes, formaldehyde or chrome VI can be avoided, others are intrinsic parts of the leather process that can't. 

The most public debate stems around whether a product is vegetable or chrome tanned.

Simply put, one of the many chemicals used in production of leather are either chrome or vegetable tannins.

Chromium tanning involves use of mineral chromium (which when oxidised can turn into hazardous chemical) while vegetable tanning involves the use of traditional plant based tannins (like mimosa, as one example). In addition to the other chemicals used in both processes, in pre-tanning, tanning and final dyeing and processing.

Most leather producers use chromium based tanning (up to 95% of the world's leather is produced this way), some use a combination, and a very small few use solely vegetable based and there is also a third process, aldehyde tanning, with limited applications. 

When assessed over a full life cycle analysis research showed that "when comparing chromium, vegetable and aldehyde based tannages, there is no clear environmentally preferred tanning system" (1).

Further stating, "the reality is that the common tannages such as chrome, vegetable and aldehyde all have environmental impacts in different areas of their life cycle." More important to the environmental impact is to have control over the full supply chain, to ensure management of "waste liquids, solids, energy, water consumption, chemicals and other key factors can yield the most significant reduction in environmental impact." (2)

In the instance of chrome use, the Leather Working Group specifically speaks on the use of trivalent chromium (or Cr III) in tanning which it cites as being considered safe for leather tanning, having limited evidence of toxicity and not being classed as a Carcinogenic, Mutagenic or Toxic for Reproduction. In this chromium III form.

This is where the importance of chemical management comes in. In its oxidised form, the extremely hazardous compound chromium VI is formed and this can occur even in soils. Issues lie in both its toxicity and persistence in the environment. 

Vegetable tanning can also have significant impacts on the environment, through depletion of oxygen in waste water that similarly isn't handled correctly, impacting waterways and food chains, as well as impacts from hazardous pesticides, land use and other concerns.  

So, it seems that neither method really rises above another and can both have different impacts (as an example, chrome salts in its oxidised form of chrome VI if not disposed of properly and vegetable tans in their depletion of oxygen in water bodies when released in waste water). 

But the primary reason being that the two methods aren't as clear cut as we might first thing, is that at the end of day, the full spectrum of leather production, regardless of the tanning method, has a huge number of hazardous chemicals and potential pollution issues as well as water use, energy use, land use, animal rights, human rights and other issues. Changing one small step of the process doesn't fix this. A third option, aldehyde tanning, suitable for some softer leather applications, has been assessed to create higher effluent and energy use, so also doesn't solve the problems.  

It is such a persistent debate, I decided to look at in detail (see the section on tanning below) or I do also encourage you to read Kate Black's book "Magnifeco: Your Head-to-Toe Guide to Ethical Fashion and Non-toxic Beauty" for another rounded discussions on this debate.  

It should also be noted, that many brands use both chrome and vegetable tanning during processing. So if you do want to stick with vegetable tanning then please ensure you are paying for 100% vegetable tanning as some brands to word their claims somewhat loosely and you could find yourself purchasing vegetable tanned leather, that has also been chrome tanned too.

How can we then buy leather, better?

The main thing is buying leather to last. But here are some ways we can improve our choices. 

1) Buy second hand. It goes without saying that the most obvious way to have less of an impact is to buy second hand leather products. This may not keep all issues of toxic chemicals at bay, but, you aren't using up new resources and you potentially are keeping one more thing out of landfill. 

2) Buy quality. Buy less. The fact that leather can last for a lifetime, or more, when made and cared for properly, is the most important part of buying a more sustainable leather. So, it is so important to find products that are truly made well, right down to the stitching, lining, zippers or other aspects and most certainly, in the quality of the finish, colour, quality of hide used. Also looking for aspects like a good quality hide and aniline leather, to ensure the colour lasts too. 

3) Seek out brands with strict animal welfare and sustainable farming. Where possible, choose leathers that are byproducts of the farming industry, farmed organically and sustainably and with strict care for the animal's wellbeing while alive.

The best way to do this is to buy from brands that disclose the source of their leather and offer full transparency over their supply chain. Unfortunately, most producers aren't often able to guarantee that all leather comes as a byproduct from the food industry. You can, however, look out for the origin of leathers as one way of having greater certainty (in particular, looking to avoid newly deforested areas for cattle production and potentially choosing form countries that are strict on their animal welfare policies.)

4) Choose leather from more sustainably farmed types of animals. This is one yet to have truly caught on worldwide, so your choices may be limited, but you can seek out leather from more sustainably farmed animals like fish. This can evoke strong reactions in people, not so much due to ethics, but more due to the smell. Personally I have never tried it, but apparently fish leather can be incredibly durable and does well in water. It can be used for clothing, shoes, wallets and lots of other applications. So, if you are interested in seeking out a durable leather, then you can look at sustainably farmed fish as potentially one option. 

5) Seek out brands with strict waste management and environmental standards. This is probably the single biggest impact you can have on sustainability of leather, alongside simply buying less of it. All leather requires large amounts of  hazardous chemicals, regardless of its tanning processes. So it is integral that waste (in the form of sludge, effluents, dust and offcuts) are all disposed of under strict regulations, auditing and control. This is absolutely vital for the health of workers and the wider environment. Groups such as the Leather Working Group work with businesses to audit and improve their waste management. 

Do look out for brands that are audited by the Leather Working Group, are ISO14001 (Environmental management system) compliant and BSCI certified.

6) Don't buy products that use toxic dyes and other chemicals that can be avoided. Look for brands that do not use AZO dyes, disperse dyes, or chrome VI. The EU has strict regulations on the import and creation of products using these chemicals. Please also ensure that if you want to only buy vegetable tanning that it is 100% vegetable tanned (many producers use both techniques so simply saying it is 'vegetable tanned' may not be telling you the full story).

7) Buy from ethically made brands. The human rights issues, like so many other parts of the textiles industry, need to be looked into, so please do buy from brands that transparently provide information on human rights and ethics, right back to the raw materials. As a basic certification, you can look out for businesses that are SA 8000 compliant and Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI )certified. 

8) Look after it. Leather products can last an incredibly long time, but only if we properly look after them.