What’s up with… leather?

In the What’s Up With That series we dig deep into common fashion industry concepts. This time we look at leather. Emma delved into this topic and explains us why regular leather production is harmful, but she also sheds a light on some more sustainable alternatives.

Did you know that of all apparel materials, cow leather has the greatest impact on the environment? I used to think of it as a ‘simple’ ethical matter: either you are okay with killing animals to eat and wear them, or you are against it. Apart from that, leather seemed a natural and therefore sustainable material to me. Well, the production process of leather turns out to be far from natural. And when it comes to human rights, it’s just a sleazy business. How is leather produced? Does eco-friendly leather exist? And is vegan leather a sustainable alternative? Spoiler alert: it’s all complicated…

From cow to shoe

Roughly, the production process of leather consists of 3 phases (check the link for more details):

  1. Livestock and slaughter of the animals, resulting in raw materials (the hides)
  2. Converting the raw materials into leather. The hides are prepared (e.g. by removing hairs and excess flesh), tanned (treated with chemicals to make the material more durable), crusted (the hide is thinned, retanned and lubricated) and finished with colours and coatings.
  3. Creating the final product, such as a pair of shoes

Unsurprisingly, in every phase we can identify some serious sustainability and human rights issues. Let’s point out just a few of them.

Deforestation, loss of biodiversity and global warming

As I mentioned earlier, of all apparel materials, cow leather has the greatest impact on the environment. This can be partly contributed to the animals that provide the hides. For example, in the livestock phase the agricultural land needed to produce animal feed, leads to deforestation and loss of biodiversity. And the methane gases that cows produce when digesting food heavily contributes to climate change. The leather footwear industry alone already produces so much greenhouse gasses that it is equal to:

  • 1,9 coal-fired power plants burning for 1 year
  • 985.799 homes’ annual supply of electricity
  • 1,5 million passenger cars’ annual emissions

Just a by-product?

Since no animals are reared primarily for leather production (or are they…?), we could argue that leather is actually a very sustainable product. Why waste all those hides if these animals are slaughtered for their meat anyway? The impact of the livestock phase should at least be shared with that of the meat industry. We can all breathe a sigh of relief and flaunt our leather handbags! Right?

Polluting chemicals

Unfortunately, the story is a bit more complex than that. The process of tanning, necessary to produce a durable material that can be used in a garment or shoe, usually involves chemicals and heavy metals such as chromium. When wastewater is not disposed of correctly (and usually it’s not), these substances end up polluting natural water sources. Affecting people’s health and the natural habitat of many animal species. Some of the health problems that workers are dealing with: irritating eyes and lungs, skin problems and various types of cancer. And these are just a few examples.

Is this allowed?!

In many countries in Europe and in the US and Canada, this is not allowed. The rules on using and disposing of these chemicals have become a lot stricter throughout the years. Great news, except that many companies have simply shifted their production process to countries with less strict legislation such as India and China. Apart from being able to continue to pollute the environment and messing up workers’ health, they export the entire problem to the producing countries. Pressuring tanneries to produce the cheapest leather, workers get poorly paid, do not have proper outfits and are exposed to serious hazards in the workplace.

Organic or eco-friendly leather

More and more fashion labels use ‘organic leather’. How organic is that really? Well, the tanning process can be done with vegetable tanning instead of chemicals. But since this is much more time consuming than chrome tanning, this process requires more energy and more water. Also, it is unclear whether organic refers to the treatment of animals in the livestock phase or the substances used in the tanning process. And there is no label that guarantees the eco-friendliness of organic leather. This does not mean that organic leather is a fraud, though. But in order to rely upon leather to be really organic, brands should be transparent about the way their leather is produced. From cow to shoe.

Vegan alternatives

So why use real leather if fake is just as good? The fake leather market seems to be growing, and designers as Stella McCartney also discover alternative materials. Sounds great! But is it? There is some good news here: in terms of water scarcity, global warming and a difficult process called eutrophication*, synthetic leather is indeed the better choice. It has only a third of the environmental impact of real leather. But to call synthetic leather eco-friendly is a bit of an overstatement.

* Growth of certain plant species mainly in the water, caused by fertilizer runoff from the land, which leads to loss of oxygen in the water and therefore loss of biodiversity.

Fossil fuels and microplastics

Often fake leather is made of plastic materials such as polyurethane (pu) and polyvinylchloride (pvc). Manufactured from fossil fuels and requires the use of chemicals in the production process as well. These materials are not biodegradable, but do produce toxic microparticles that pollute the oceans and enter the food chain at all levels. And again, we are not even looking at working conditions for the people preparing the fabrics and making the products yet.

Real cow-less leather

This all seems quite hopeless. But in the future, we may be able to wear our beloved leather without requiring a single cow. Modern Meadow uses genetic engineering to produce a protein identical to cattle collagen. This is the protein that makes skin strong and elastic and therefore suitable for fashion. It’s going to take some time, though, before we can all enjoy this stuff.

Pineapple shoes

I think we can conclude that the production process of leather is way less sustainable than any other material. And that the fake stuff not always eco-friendly either. A third possibility is the use of entirely different materials, such as Piñatex (made from pineapple leaves, true story!). Promising developments, although the market for such materials is still rather small.

Conclusion: transparency is key

Sustainable and fair shopping does not go hand in hand with buying leather products, so it seems. But I must confess I find it very difficult to abandon it altogether. It’s just not like any other material. It’s strong and flexible, it becomes even prettier when aging, it’s comfortable on your feet… So, if you really have your mind set on a leather product, what to do? As I mentioned earlier, transparency is key. Let’s look at some inspiring examples of products made of leather, fake leather and other materials:

  • O My Bag only works with certified slaughterhouses and cowhides from local farms. They use a minimum of chemicals in the tanning process, none of which are harmful. Plus, they are committed to fair working conditions and list extensive profiles of all supplying factories on their website.
  • Matt & Nat makes vegan leather bags and shoes. The brand uses 21 recycled plastic bottles for every bag and experiment with alternative sources such as recycled cork, nylon, rubber and cardboard. Striving to minimize their use of toxic faux-leather materials, they aim to continuously improve the sustainability of their materials.
  • Veja is an example when it comes to transparency in how they make their sneakers and what improvements should still be made in this process. They sell many (but not only) vegan shoes, use natural rubber from trees and work with fair trade certified suppliers. And they don’t advertise, but spend way more money on fabrication than their competitors while maintaining a similar price tag to consumers. Gotta love that.