Whether you own leather clothing, or you are looking to buy…
You should know where that leather might come from and how it is made + what impact these stages each have.
In this guide, we give an overview of how eco friendly, sustainable and animal friendly leather is.
Summary – Is Leather Eco Friendly, Sustainable & Animal Friendly?
In short, for traditional leather (and more so in developing countries than developed countries) – no, no, and no.
Leather is known as being one of the most polluting and damaging products and industries (the leather tanning process especially) in the world (although the production process causes far more negative impact in poorer countries than in developing countries where treatment of waste and environmental protection laws can be far better and safer).
Also, leather comes from animal hides and skin – which presents animal rights and cruelty issues.
The whole lifecycle of leather production must be considered – from the farm/agriculture (animal agriculture itself present a whole range of greenhouse gas and resource usage issues), to production and tanning, to finishing (you can’t just look at leather production and tanning).
Animal Cruelty Issues Related To Leather Production
- Can be made from cows, pigs, goats, kangaroos and sheep; exotic animals such as alligators and ostriches; and even dogs and cats
- 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%.
- 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 know 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
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
Carbon Footprint Of Leather, & Energy Use
- 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, are a huge hazard, and can be dumped into the environment (causing contamination, and harming wildlife) untreated.
- 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.
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, & Toxic Pollution As A Whole
- [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.
Steps In The Leather Production Process
Read more about the leather production process at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leather_production_processes