Leather is a popular option for a wide variety of things ranging from what we wear to what we sit on. This subject has many people torn because of where it comes from, the process to make it, and what it represents.
The leather itself is eco-friendly because it’s natural, lasts a long time, and biodegrades. However, there are issues because of animal agriculture, and other unethical practices associated with it.
Before you throw out your leather jackets, let’s look at all sides of the story.
How Does Leather Production Affect the Environment?
Leather comes from a dead animal, the popular option being cows, beef production is responsible for 41% of deforestation. As there are more people to feed, more trees and rainforests get chopped down and cleared away for farmers to raise more farm animals.
Many people believe that leather is not wasteful because it is a by-product of the animal we eat. The thinking is that if the cow is getting killed anyways for meat, we can use the skin to make something useful rather than throwing it away.
The problem is how the leather is made. Leather is dead animal skin, and if not treated correctly will stink and rot. The process of turning the skin into leather is called Tanning, and it requires chemicals like chromium salt, formaldehyde, and arsenic, all are known to be harmful to human health.
The workers that have to be in that environment are not safe, and even the community that surrounds those productions is not safe. A lot of water is used in the process, and the water then becomes contaminated with the chemicals used to preserve the leather and pollutes the surrounding community. One leather tote bag uses about 17,128 liters of water to make.
The other issue is if the leather is only made by the cows used for consumption. Are there farms out there that raise cattle just for their skin and not meat? What about all the other animals that are used for leather, like snakeskin or alligator skin, were the meat processed for consumption?
What is the Most Eco-Friendly Leather?
The most eco-friendly leather is leather that uses material that would’ve been wasted, but instead is turned into something useful. Something sturdy, high quality, and doesn’t take hundreds of years to break down.
If you eat meat and believe that the animal was going to be killed anyways, then real leather would be an option you’d consider because it’s natural, prevented waste, lasts a very long time, and only takes about 50 years to biodegrade. Of course, to be ethical, you must know where the leather came from to make sure it was a by-product and not a leather farm. This is why company transparency is so important for businesses.
Speaking of where it came from and how it’s made, the Tanning process with chromium salts is not eco-friendly, however, tanning can also be done “naturally” with vegetables instead of chromium. The vegetables used are oak, spruce bark, quebracho, tara pods, olive leaves, rhubarb roots, and mimosa. This method though can take several months and is limited to the natural colors of the hide, the chromium method takes about two weeks, can make more colors, and is cheaper.
Below we’ll talk about leather that is not animal-based.
Is Vegan Leather Better for the Environment?
Veganism is a lifestyle that avoids animal products in general, if you want to read if veganism is good for the environment, check it out here. Vegans, therefore, avoid leather, however, it’s the alternatives that we are concerned about.
Vegan leather is commonly known to be made of polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which are both plastics. As we know, plastic is hard to recycle and takes hundreds and hundreds of years to biodegrade, so they cause more harm when they are piling up in landfills.
If we’re comparing leather to leather by the biodegradability and waste, conventional animal leather versus vegan leather or “pleather”, then conventional is better because real leather lasts much longer and only takes about 50 years to biodegrade instead of 500 years.
Vegan leather may not last as long as traditional leather. So if it has to be repurchased every couple of years then that is more wasteful.
Not all vegan leather is created equal though.
Mylo is leather made from mycelium, the underground root-like system of fungi. It’s basically mushroom leather. Brands like Adidas, lululemon and Stella McCartney have utilized this technology.
Another alternative that is made without plastic is Piñatex®, made from the fibers of a pineapple plant, the leaves are a by-product from harvesting. It is already used in companies like Hugo Boss, H&M, and Hilton Hotel Bankside.
There are many more on the rise and it all goes back to transparency. We want to support the companies that are open and honest about their process to know who and what we are supporting.
How to Sustainably Shop for Leather
Something worth bringing up is why we even buy leather in the first place. When you hear that something is made of leather what do you think of? High quality and expensive? Maybe something along those lines.
Leather can be expensive, and that reason alone can make someone want to buy something. The underlying reason some people buy leather is that it shows status. It shows that you spent a lot of money. Fashion wise it can show that you’re trendy.
The word “Leather” itself is for marketing because leather means it comes from animal skin, so “vegan leather” doesn’t even make sense. It’s the connotation that is already associated with the word leather that makes us want to buy it in the first place. The bigger problem is to get people to stop buying things, but that’s not achievable.
With that being said, figure out what is important to you. If you already own leather, don’t throw anything out, that would defeat the whole “save the environment” deal.
If you’re vegan, what are you vegan for? If you’re not, what are you going to look for now when you shop for leather, are you going to continue shopping for leather?
The best eco-friendly way to shop is at secondhand stores or buying used online. Take good care of the items so they’ll last a lifetime.