How sustainable is leather?

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A growing contingent of brands are working to change the negative narrative that surrounds this durable classic.

How sustainable is leather?
Who What Wear recently declared leather “the weirdest trend for summer”. Traditionally reserved for products like satchels, shoes, shelter, sofas and for shielding the body from the cold, the protective hide is no longer season-specific when it comes to style trends. Or confined to the popular biker jacket. Now it’s being fashioned into items like wrap dresses and shirts – and included in must-have lists that are driving demand even higher.

In Vogue

Because leather is back in fashion, Vogue Business said: “A growing contingent of brands and retailers — and the leather industry itself — is working to change the negative narrative that surrounds this durable classic.”

Even though leather is technically a by-product of or co-product from another industry and comes from animals bred for their meat – meaning it doesn’t need any extra land and resources to make it – the tanning process used to treat it can have a huge impact on the environment and our health. They’re asking the hard questions to improve environmental standards – like using responsibly-sourced animal hide and better tanning practices.

What does that look like? It means using natural dyes, choosing recycled leather, only using long-lasting leather, choosing hides that come from cared-for animals and producing on demand to reduce wastage and restricting toxic chemicals.

Farm to fashion

A series of processes are needed to make sure leather doesn’t rot including curing, soaking, hair removal, deliming and bating, to vegetable or mineral tanning, lubrication and dyeing.

This requires a lot of energy and the chemicals used (like chromium, anthracene, formaldehyde and arsenic), have been said to be linked to nervous disorders, asthma, premature death, gynaecological disorders, weakness, dizziness, headaches, abdominal pain, nausea, constipation, skin and respiratory infections, cancer and other serious illnesses.

Like denim, tanneries belong to industrial sectors that use the highest levels of water. It’s said that it takes around 17 000 litres to make 1kg of leather – the equivalent of filling your bath 60 times.

There have been numerous exposés on how toxic leather can be for its workers and the populations that live around the factories and tanneries that turn it into a sellable material. A Pulitzer Center report revealed that Kanpur, with over 300 tanneries in the city, has become India’s leading leather exporter – and one of its biggest polluters. The water used is being dumped into sources of their drinking water, the factory chimneys expel thick smoke and an overflow of untreated effluent “passes through many communities on its way to the Ganges river”.

A conscious cleanup of the industry is already in the works, especially as socially-conscious millennials (also known as Generation Green), are willing to pay more for sustainable products and are putting pressure on brands to be more transparent.

What are the alternatives?

1. Buy secondhand or recycled leather products.

2. Even though there is not much known on whether vegan leather is friendlier to the environment, it helps reduce demand on animal hides (skins) that aren’t sourced or treated ethically.

3. Choose labels and brands that are transparent about their manufacturing process and impact on workers and the environment.

4. Maybe in the longer term, if we ate less meat, it would slow down demand, shrink the number of animals that are bred for it and in turn reduce the hides available for sale.

Where to shop ethical leather goods?

1. VELDSKOEN: Popular with actor/activist Ashton Kutcher, this South African shoe brand says in their FAQ section, that they source “full grain reversible suede, which is a sustainably and ethically harvested, by-product from the local meat industry”. Veldskoen Nordics offers free shipping to Nordic countries.

2. STUDIO EBN: Sustainable, handmade bags and accessories made by salmon leather (yes salmon leather, previously only a waste product from the fishing industry!). The designs are inspired by the Arctic nature and Scandinavian simplicity.

3. KERO: The leather for their shoes comes from reindeer hides and is tanned using traditional methods in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way. The shoes are suitable for all weather conditions.

4. Swedish Hasbeens: Handmade shoes using traditional methods, using environmentally friendly, high quality leather.

5. Belt and Band: This brand hand selects their hides from top ethical leather suppliers in South Africa. Offers worldwide shipping.

6. WODEN: Sneakers (also) made by salmon leather. Fish leather is (according to their website) both wear-resistant and durable. Synthetic materials are avoided in favour of genuine leather, suede and eco-friendly cork soles. Outsoles are crafted from a minimum of 10% recycled rubber. The sneakers are made in Iceland.

7. DEADWOOD: Leather products made from rescued deadstock skins, repurposed vintage clothing and upcycled post-production waste. The brand is Swedish, but the garments are produced in India, with a focus on quality, less pollution and good working conditions.  

8. VEJA: The French sneaker brand describe their product as “environmentally friendly sneakers, made with raw materials sourced from organic farming and ecological agriculture, without chemicals or polluting processes”. VEJA offers free shipping in Europe. The sneakers are available in several (online) stores.

9. SAYE: The company, which plants two trees for each pair of SAYE sneakers that are sold, uses recycled and organic materials. Produced in the EU, the sneakers are made from leather collected from offcuts destined for the landfill. Plus they are packed in recycled boxes and paper.

10. NAE Vegan shoes: Vegan shoes, bags and accessories made from recycled plastic bottles, cork, organic cotton and fibres from pineapple leaves. The brand aims to “protect the environment step by step”.

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