In this guide, we provide an overview of how eco friendly, sustainable and animal friendly conventional leather might be.
Summary – Is Conventional Leather Eco Friendly, Sustainable & Animal Friendly?
Conventional leather is likely not among the most eco friendly, sustainable or animal friendly textile materials.
Having said that, there are instances where the production and use of leather can be reasonably ethical or sustainable across some aspects of production.
Regarding conventional leather:
Unless it’s recycled or faux leather, all leather comes from an animal source
Different animals’ skin/hides can be used for leather
Cows/cattle are the most common animal used to make leather products
In most cases, cows are raised for primarily for beef (meat product) and milk (dairy product), and leather is a co product alongside or behind these products (leather might make up less than 10% of the value of the cow for example)
With conventional leather, there is a shared environmental impact from agriculture with the beef and dairy industries (the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides, other chemicals for animal feed, greenhouse gases from animal gas and manure, and so on), and also from the leather tanning and finishing processes.
Leather tanneries can be one the biggest polluters in the world – especially in regions where waste and waste water is dumped without capturing chemicals used or treating the waste water (and where environmental protection laws are either non existent or poorly enforced). Leather tanning, dying and finishing can also use a lot of heavy and/or harmful chemicals, which may lead to human health issues through exposure. Farms and tanneries both also make heavy use of resources such as land, water, and so on
The agricultural livestock process, as well as transporting and slaughtering animals, carries potential animal welfare issues
Some animals are raised only to produce leather, such as some calves and lambs, and in the case of exotic leathers – pythons, crocodiles, and other reptiles. It might be argued that for non essential leather, there is a lack of animal welfare in these instances
There’s also instances of poaching of animals primarily for leather products, and in countries such as China, several sources indicate that cats and dogs are killed for their skin
Some animals suffer slow painful deaths, and some animals are even skinned alive if it’s believed by the supplier that keeping the animal alive makes the skin more supple
But, there’s also these things to consider which perhaps lessen the negative reputation that (at least some types of) leather receive:
Leather in some instances is a practical, durable and sometimes essential material
As long as beef and milk are in demand, whether leather demand increases or decrease won’t matter much as agriculture and it’s impacts would still exist in many instances – especially if the demand for beef increases in the future with a growing population. However, leather demand decreasing does mean less leather tanning, dying, finishing, and so on – so there is some environmental conservation here, as well as less humans that work at tanneries potentially being exposed to harmful chemicals
If farmers are raising cattle for beef and milk anyway, leather (which would be thrown away and become waste if not used – which is contributing to the inefficient use of resources) gives them an additional income, helps create additional jobs/employment, as well as creating more leather for essential uses and products
Some animal skin is sold to luxury leather companies by local indigenous communities – the income from this skin is used for wild life and habitat conservation, to invest in local communities and provide a livelihood for people living in these communities, and to prevent people from having to go work in other potentially harmful or unsafe fields of work in the area. It may also prevent further environmental degradation in order to create an income, such as having to clear forested areas for logging or other farming applications
Some animal skin such as deer skin comes from deer in areas where there are deer overpopulation problems, or where deer are causing ecological problems (such as land degradation) for land and private property owners
Families from some cultures or religions hand raise cows for many other things other than leather – and in poorer regions, leather from family raised cows produces an additional secondary income for them to help provide for their livelihood
Some companies only produce their leather from tanneries that work with animal skin by-products only, or that have a water recycling system to prevent pollution and use vegetable dyes instead of harmful chemical dyes
Some companies in the future may only produce their leather from responsibly raised cows, and from farms that place an emphasis on sustainable farming practices
So, what we can see with leather is that different types of leather can have different sets of eco friendly, sustainability and animal friendly pros and cons.
Some leathers, although coming from an animal source, have arguably an overall positive impact on society (especially local communities), and the environment.
Those who do not believe in the use of animal by-products under any circumstances though might choose to not use leather.
Which Animals Are Used To Make Leather?
Mainly cows, but other animals are used too.
- … many animals can be used to make leather such as cows, pigs, goats, kangaroos and sheep, exotic animals such as alligators and crocodiles, snakes and ostriches, and even dogs and cats in some countries
- Today, most leather is made of cattle hides, which constitute about 65% of all leather produced.
- Other animals that are used include sheep, about 13%, goats, about 11%, and pigs, about 10%.
– peta.org.au, and wikipedia.org
Are Cows Raised Just For Leather?
In many cases, cows are raised primarily for beef and milk (and other dairy products), and leather makes up a much smaller total value of the cow compared to these two primary products.
- Most leather comes from cows primarily raised for the beef and milk … and leather [coming from skin/hides] is a co product of these products [and the beef/dairy industries]
- Leather comes from anywhere there are cows used in agriculture … [and leather makes up about] 6% to 8% of an American cow’s total cow’s value [or about] 5% of the overall value of the cow [in some parts of India]
- [Leather is a] byproduct of the [livestock] industry
- The leather industry will never keep the meat industry going [and, this is especially true in places where there is poverty and the rest of the cow can be utilized]
- There is always an industry for meat [so, the hide/skin will be wasted if it’s not put to use for leather]
- Of the leather from cows, the majority is taken from those who are slaughtered for their meat or from dairy cows no longer producing enough milk to remain profitable.
- The most “luxurious” (i.e. soft and thin) material, however, is supplied by new-born veal calves and sometimes even unborn calves taken prematurely from their mother’s wombs.
- … leather accounts for approximately 10% of the animal’s total value, making it the most valuable part, pound for pound
Are Other Animals Used Just For Leather?
Some animals are – with a few examples being some calves and lamb, animals used for exotic leathers, some local or indigenous community animals, and some overpopulated or pest species animals in some areas.
But, in some instances, animals can provide significant benefits for local communities, and there are also sustainability benefits …
- … calf and lamb leather [might be two examples of types of leather where the animals are raised and slaughtered primarily for their potential to help make luxury leather]
- [some animals used for exotic leather are python, crocodile, and other reptiles]
- [some exotic leather comes from animal hides/skin that are sold to luxury leather companies by local indigenous communities, and this source of income has many benefits for the local environment and local population of people]
- [some deer skin/hide comes from deer that are hunted in areas where they are either overpopulated, or they are causing ecological damage to property]
- In China, India and several other developing countries wild animals are poached (often illegally) [just] for their skins. These include (but are not limited to) alligators, elephants, lizards, ostriches, snakes, and zebras.
- Furthermore, in China – the world’s leading exporter of leather – an estimated two million cats and dogs are killed [either for the meat, or] for their skins, which can’t be detected by consumers due to either a complete lack of labeling or deliberate mislabeling
- [one fashion brand uses] Kudu skins produced from government-regulated culling, locally-sourced rabbit and springbok in Kenya and South Africa, and vegetable dyes.
- The culling and hunting of Kudu is the result of a mandate issued by the South African government to control the overpopulation of the Greater Kudu.
- As well as their hides, the meat and horns of the Greater Kudu are sold at local markets, which benefits indigenous communities and reduces waste.
- This ultimately means that to some extent, Kudu leather can be classed as a sustainable animal by-product which has little impact on the environment, or indeed the conservation of the species
Animal Cruelty Issues Related To Leather Production
Animal cruelty issues can stem from animals even being used in the first place – seeing as there are alternatives to conventional leather.
But, specific issues span across the farm stage (where there can sometimes be invasive or painful farm practices, and cramped spacing for farm animals), live transport or export, and slaughtering.
- [in some countries, animals are skinned alive for their skin as there is a belief it keeps the skin supple]
- [The cattle agricultural industry might have animal welfare issues such as crowded feedlots, painful livestock procedures, live export, and questionable slaughter methods]
- Most leather comes from developing countries such as India and China, where laws don’t protect animals killed for their skins.
- Buying leather directly contributes to factory farms and abattoirs because skin is the most economically important by-product of the meat industry.
- Animals are known to suffer both in farms, and on their way being transported to abbatoirs
- The labelling of leather can make it hard to know where it came from, and how it was made
– peta.org.au, and wikipedia.org
Environmental Impact & Problems Related To Leather Production
The environmental impact of leather production is three fold:
- Livestock/agriculture stage – all of the associated environmental problems of farming live stock. There’s the chemicals (like synthetic nitrogen based fertilizers, and pesticides and herbicides) used to grow animal feed crops, and also the waste, manure, and greenhouse gases from the livestock themselves. There’s also resource usage in the form of land, water, and so on
- Leather production stage – involves stripping, tanning, dying, and finishing the leather. Heavy chemicals can be used, and there’s the issue of dumping waste water that contains these chemicals into the environment without treating it, or capturing the chemicals
- Waste stage – leather at some point has to be thrown away, and if it isn’t recycled, it is not a naturally highly biodegradable material. It might take up to 40 years to decompose
Some tanneries though may focus on water recycling of waste water, and use naturally derived chemicals where possible for tanning and dying + finishing.
Leather related environmental problems are mainly caused by:
- The carbon footprint of cattle rearing
- Use of chemicals in the tanning process (e.g., chromium, formic acid, mercury and solvents)
- Air pollution due to the leather transformation process (hydrogen sulfide during dehairing and ammonia during deliming, solvent vapors)
- With leather, pollution is caused by the toxic chemicals that are used in tanning to artificially preserve the animal skins
- There is also environmental degradation with factory farming and animal farming of different types
– peta.org.au, and wikipedia.org
- [Some leather tanneries use only byproduct materials from livestock agriculture and] have a water recycling system to prevent pollution and use vegetable dyes instead of harmful chemical dyes
Energy Use, & Carbon Footprint Of Leather
- Among the different industries [in the economy], tanning of hides and skins is not an energy and carbon intensive sector
- [overall, all industries and manufacturing as a whole only contribute for 19% of total GHG emissions].
- … [but] more than 99% of the world leather production is coming from the processing of raw hides and skins deriving from animals which have been raised mainly for milk and/or meat production [mainly bovine].
- In the US, 9% of Greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture in total
Not only is there CO2 emissions from raising livestock, but cattle are responsible for a large amount of methane emissions too, and methane is 23 times more potent than C02.
Water Footprint Of Leather
- One ton of hide or skin generally produces 20 to 80 m3 of waste water.
- With solid wastes representing up to 70% of the wet weight of the original hides, the tanning process represents a considerable strain on water treatment installations.
This does not take into consideration the amount of water used to raise livestock.
Chemicals & Pollution Involved In Leather Production
Chemicals used during the leather production process, specifically tanning, can be a human health hazard for tannery workers, and can also be dumped into the environment untreated (causing contamination, and harming wildlife).
- Tanning is the process of production of leather from raw animal hides and skins.
- It involves the use of a variety of chemicals to remove flesh, oil glands, and hair from the raw hides.
- A significant volume of waste is generated in the process.
- Irresponsible industrial practices often lead to the contamination of the environment with harmful chemicals like chromium, alum, tannins, etc., that are used in tanning.
- All these chemicals are highly detrimental to human health and some are even cancerous in nature.
- More than 100 such toxic tanning sites have been identified by Pure Earth.
- These sites endanger the lives of 1.5 million people living in or around such sites.
- Tanning is especially polluting in countries where environmental regulations are lax, such as in India, the world’s third-largest producer and exporter of leather.
- Chromium is a problem chemical in leather production waste
- In less developed countries or countries with poor environmental laws, it usually costs more to treat production waste than to dump it and receive a penalty fee for irresponsible behavior
- To give an example of an efficient pollution prevention system, chromium loads per produced tonne are generally abated from 8 kg to 1.5 kg.
- VOC emissions are typically reduced from 30 kg/t to 2 kg/t in a properly managed facility.
- In leather production wastewater, there can be chromium levels of 100–400 mg/l, sulfide levels of 200–800 mg/l, high levels of fat and other solid wastes, and notable pathogen contamination.
- Producers often add pesticides to protect hides during transport.
- If a tannery is properly managed, the waste will be handled in a way that avoids pollution.
- Most first-world countries have strict environmental regulations to ensure that these chemicals are handled properly, rather than being discharged.
- Unfortunately, some developing nations do not.
- … once the hide or skin has been harvested from the slaughtered animal, there is a three-stage process it must undergo to become leather.
- The remaining flesh is scrapped away and the hairs removed, after which the skin is treated (tanned) to ensure it doesn’t decompose.
- The skin is then thinned, re-tanned, lubricated, and, if required, dyed.
- This process uses several chemicals and toxins including ammonia; cyanide-based dyes, formaldehyde; and lead. Some of these products are carcinogenic, and all are environmental pollutants, which end up released into the air, ground, and water supply.
- Of course, these processes are especially polluting in countries where environmental regulations aren’t enforced.
Human Health & Worker Issues Related To Leather Production
- Leather tanneries use toxic chemicals that pose severe health risks to workers and surrounding communities, usually in regions like Bangladesh, India, and China where government protections are scarce, and end up in local waterways.
Biodegradability Of Leather
- Leather biodegrades slowly—taking 25 to 40 years to decompose
Leather Tanneries As One Of The Most Toxic & Polluting Industries In The World
- [in assessing] the most dangerous sources of toxic pollution in the developing world … Leather tanneries came in at number four on the list, behind battery recycling, lead smelting and mining and ore processing.
- According to the Blacksmith Institute, some 100 sites around the world have been, or are being, polluted by tanneries, potentially endangering more than 1.8 million people.
Animal Leather vs Synthetic Leather: Environmental Impact
- One source indicates that synthetic leather has a lower environmental impact per kg of material produced than cow leather, when considering chemistry, resource depletion, eutrophication, global warming, and water scarcity (globalfashionagenda.com)
Real Leather vs Faux Leather: Comparison