The leather industry has little to no regulation, harmful chemicals, human and animal abuse, waste, and a huge environmental impact. However not all leather is created equal. By-product leather from fruits has created a whole new cottage industry. Vegan leather gets more and more eco-friendly by the year. More and more brands are incorporating recycled leather into their products. I’ve found lots to be hopeful about in the leather industry. All products that are manufactured have an environmental cost. Here I’ve ranked each type of leather by it’s impact and answer a lot of the questions about leather as they come up.
First up is natural waste leather made from innovative materials like fruit. This is my most sustainable leather because fruit by-product leather takes material that would be wasted and makes it into a usable good. The reason Natural Waste Leather is my most sustainable leather is it tackles the problem of food waste. Each year, we waste 1.3 billion tonnes of food. The impact of this waste effects all parts of the world.
The study “Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources” found that, “food that is produced but not eaten guzzles up a volume of water equivalent to the annual flow of Russia’s Volga River and is responsible for adding 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases to the planet’s atmosphere.”
What about the meat industry, isn’t regular leather a by-product of the meat industry?
The short answer is no. There is a lot of discussion about this because you can find products that source from by-product meat industry leather. But my answer is no. Leather is just another part of the meat industry and actually helps support the fluctuating meat market. Leather value accounts for approximately 10% an animal’s total market value. This makes the leather the most valuable part of the animal, pound for pound.
Recycled Vegan Materials/ Reclaimed/ Re-purposed Leather
Whether it’s recycled polyurethane leather, recycled water bottles, or reclaimed leather up-cycling is always a better option than just throwing something away. Recycled vegan materials are often plastics that have been re-purposed into fabric. Re-purposed or reclaimed leather comes from refers to leather material that is up-cycled from old leather goods. Material like this is not sourced directly from tanneries or other leather manufacturers.
Alternative Materials (Paper, & Cork)
A great alternative to leather itself is tree material like paper and cork. These are both biodegradable materials that are durable like leather but don’t do as much environmental damage and are animal friendly. Cork is the more sustainable because it can be harvested without cutting down a tree.
Fish leather is a by-product of the fish industry. This means that fish are killed for their meat, not for their skins and the skins would have just been thrown away anyway. Fish leather that has been sourced from non-endangered fish and tanned with non-toxic dyes is definitely a great environmentally friendly option. I consider fish leather more sustainable than PU leather because as of now it is by-product and the whole industry is still developing so the producers and suppliers are still small scale and traceable.
The most common vegan leather you can find today is polyurethane (PU) based. Polyurethane-based synthetic leather is made by painting polyurethane in it’s liquid form onto a fabric or material like plastic. The polyurethane has to have a chemical solvent to become a liquid and that can be really toxic. The regulations around PU for the environment and the workers really vary from country to country so it’s best to go with something produced in the E.U. or U.S. because they have better environmental regulations and worker safety protocols.
Recycled leather comes from off-cuts, trimmings and shavings collected at tanneries that would normally just be sent to a landfill. They are then bound together with resin and glue to a fabric layer. Then the product is finished with a polyurethane base.
Vegetable tanned leather tanned with non-toxic vegetable dyes
Vegetable-tanning is the non-toxic way to tan leather. It’s an artisanal process that uses tannin acids from plants to turn the animal skin into leather. It’s more eco-friendly than regular leather because of it’s non-toxic nature and the ability to bio-degrade after use.
Animal Leather with Chrome Tanning
Leather making generally happens in two steps. Both are super harmful to the environment. On the agriculture side of production, leather shares all the environmental damage attributed to the meat industry. This damage starts with the clearing of forests for grazing and growing feed. EWG estimates that growing livestock feed in the U.S. alone requires 167 million pounds of pesticides and 17 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer for 149 million acres of cropland. The fertilizer releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300x more potent than carbon dioxide.
These crops go to feed the cattle while the output of methane—another potent greenhouse gas—from cattle is estimated to generate some 20 percent of overall U.S. methane emissions. The negative effects of methane on the atmosphere are 23x higher than carbon dioxide. There are 1.5 billion cattle on the planet today and according to the UN, animal agriculture is responsible for a staggering 18% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Animal agriculture also negatively effects the worlds water. According to the Centres for Disease Control, food and water contaminated with livestock manure has led to 76 million Americans becoming infected with associated illnesses.
On the tanning side of leather production, health problems start at the raw hide which is a breeding ground for anthrax. Toxic chromium is the main tanning agent. It’s a toxic pollutant that is often dumped directly into waterways and directly affects 1.8 million people (Scientific American.) Pure Earth estimates 16 million people are at risk for exposure to chromium, which is a carcinogen. Chromium’s burden of disease is 3 million years lost due to ill-health, disability or early death. After these issues there is the waste from the untreated hide. All the solid waste—the hair, fat, meat, sinew, is thrown into the trash.