The Environmental Impact of Leather

Leather is a sustainable choice – it is natural and makes use of byproducts from the meat industry…right?

Not necessarily. Leather is often described as a byproduct of the meat industry. Yet buying leather makes the killing of animals more economically viable, since animal’s hide (skin) represents approximately 10% of the value of the cow. It also cannot be ignored that making use of animal hides which were killed for meat means that their hides are not wasted. Currently around 290 million cows are killed to stock us with bags, wallets and jackets every year. This figure is set to rise to 430 million a year by 2025. For many of us, leather is an enduring staple and an age-old sign of good quality. Unlike purchasing a fur jacket, when the association of cute fluffy animals immediately steps in to deter us, when we look at leather, who is really thinking about the cows, or even, the environment?

4 stages of leather production

The world is beginning to stand up and pay attention to environmental issues. China has recently brought in new anti-water pollution standards specifically directed at leather and fur production. Richard Pearshouse (Human Rights Watch) tries to save Buriganga river, which runs through the hide production zone of Hazaribagh, Bangladesh. “This has to be one of the most polluting urban environments in a world” says Richard. “Bangladesh exported more than 660 million dollars worth of leather in 2011, much of which ended up in Europe” according to Human Rights Watch. Hopefully raising awareness of the ecological state of rivers and their surrounding eco-systems will bring about further regulations to offset the current chemical outpour.

If you don’t want to stop using leather but would like to know more about your environmentally and ethically conscious options, read on:

1. Buy vintage or secondhand leather

Leather is such a durable material that it’s relatively easy to find in good condition secondhand. I have a pair of vintage leather ankle boots that have been re-heeled once, and have lasted me 5 years so far.

2. Opt for transparent brands that use byproduct hides

If you feel ok about using leather as a byproduct, then make sure it really is a byproduct of the meat industry. If you’d like to avoid toxic pollution choose vegetable-tanned hide.

3. Choose organic leather

Choose leather that has been organically reared and dyed using natural dyes such as, bark tannins, plant tannins, lime or smoke. Thus resulting in a fully biodegradable product. Organic certification also ensures higher welfare standards for cattle. Though the sources of organic leather that I checked were derived from cattle intended for meat, leather-as-byproduct isn’t a requirement of organic standards. So it is worth checking on this account.

4. Avoid leather from endangered species and calf leather

Many luxurious leathers popular in designer handbags come from animals specifically slaughtered for their skin. Sadly, snakes and crocodiles some of which are endangered species are among options. Another form of ‘premium leather’ is also inhumanely taken from the skin of calf fetuses, removed directly from the womb. You might want to avoid these forms of hides if you want to make an ethically conscious decision.

5. Revaluate your wardrobe

Allowing a small amount of leather into wardrobe in the form of a leather handbag and shoes is another possibility, since these kinds of products will last years or even a lifetime, in comparison to some of their short-lived synthetic alternatives. A leather bracelet however, do we really need that? The answer is no. Choose pieces that really benefit from the durability of leather and have a justifiable place in your wardrobe.

6. New natural leathers

Since our demand for leather is rising faster than the supply fish leather have been recently getting more attention. Despite what you may think, leather from fish skins is completely odourless, and uses a byproduct currently going to waste. Fish hide has recently seen a spike in popularity as famous brands like Nike and Prada have incorporated it into their products. Besides another somewhat longer term resident cork leather new really exciting leather alternatives are landing on the market. Options include, pineapple leather, kombucha tea leather; palm leather; mushroom leatherJellyfish leather made from an invasive proliferating species due to climate change. Eco-leather alternative made from natural fibers and oils. Currently commercial uses of such leathers are not existent, or very limited. Yet, by being aware of them we as “consumers” can demand this from brands.

Company Modern Meadows using biotechnology aims to bioengineer cow-free leather, which should be a way more sustainable alternative and should be available for commercial use in the coming few years.

7. PVC Vegan leather is not a sustainable option

Since synthetically-derived leather damages our ecosystem and the habitat we and wildlife depend on, PVC (Polyvinyl chloride) leather is not a sustainable choice. An article regarding vegan leather will follow on Amberoot shortly.

So next time you buy leather think of the environment, people and animals.

cow leather

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