There are several environmental drawbacks of the global leather industry, the main being of course that leather is made from animals that are themselves energy and water-intensive. However, there are various different methods for leather production that can make it less or more environmentally impactful.
Here we will discuss the least sustainable way of producing leather - chemical tanning - which is, unfortunately, still the most common.
The production of chemical-tanned leather uses a ton of water, studies showing that approximately 160 liters of water and 8 kg of CO2 are used to produce just 1 kg of leather.
Water has two main functions in the production of leather: to wash off and carry away chemicals, and to fill the drum in which leather is tanned so it can turn without scuffing or damaging the product. Water is also needed to raise the cattle which in turn will provide the hides that create the final leather product.
The production of leather is also very energy-intensive. A large majority of this energy is spent dealing with the wastewater produced by the treatment process, where water must be cleaned of all the chemicals before it can be disposed of. In fact, 55-70% of the energy it takes to make 1kg of leather is used in cleaning wastewater.
Other energy-intensive parts of the leather industry include running the factories needed to produce the product, transport products between different places, and the raw energy cost of raising the cattle.
The majority of global leather manufacturers use chemical tanning to treat hides. These chemicals are some of the most polluting and dangerous on the planet, especially if they leak into surrounding groundwater and ecosystems.
Anthracene, Formaldehyde, and Arsenic - all known poisons - are commonly found in leather tanneries. These chemicals can cause health problems in the eyes, lungs, liver, kidneys, skin, and lymphatic system, and can produce cancer.
Under-regulated tanneries that do not properly dispose of harmful wastewater can easily poison rivers and water systems surrounding the factory, leading to outbreaks of health problems in nearby residential areas.
In order to make leather as sustainable as possible, innovators have sought to reduce the three main drawbacks of leather: water, energy, and chemical usage.
New technologies from ECCO® have allowed for the first real step towards water-free leather production. This new type of leather, called DriTan™ leather, saves 20 liters of water per hide equal to 25 million liters of water saved annually.
By changing the chemical composition of the tanning agents used to treat leather moisture that is already present in the hide is captured and used instead of added water.
In chemical tanning, up to 70% of the energy used goes to dealing with wastewater and sludge created during the process. Since DriTan™ technology doesn’t need added water, it ends up producing 0% wastewater and 0% solid waste, meaning a huge amount of energy is saved.
Sustainable leather also reduces energy consumption by using hides that are a by-product of the meat industry. In this case, the energy used to raise the cattle is not attributed to the leather-making process since the original hides were considered to be waste.
Leather Without Harmful Chemicals
The last way leather producers are transforming to create more environmentally friendly practices is by reducing or eliminating the use of dangerous chemicals. Many new ecologically minded tanneries are using different methods, like vegetable tanning or non-chemical tanning to accomplish chemical-free or chemical-reduced tanning.
Vegetable-tanned leather employs the ancient practice of tanning hides with natural tannins, such as tree bark. This is how leather was tanned since antiquity and actually produces a higher quality product than chemical tanning. Vegetable-tanned leather has a smoother texture, higher grain quality, and actually looks better over time. It’s also less likely to crack or dry out with age because it retains more natural moisture than chemically-treated hides.
Is leather better for the environment than other materials?
While leather can never be fully vegan or environmentally friendly, it is actually a lot more eco-friendly than other materials. For example, it takes far less water to produce leather (even chemically-tanned leather) than it does to produce cotton or plastic.
Leather is also far more durable than many other natural materials like linen, so it doesn’t have to be replaced as often. Furthermore, leather is a renewable resource, there isn’t a finite amount of it in the world and more can always be made, unlike coal or gas.
For these reasons, a sustainable leather product may be better for the environment than a fake leather one, especially if it’s made from plastic. This isn't true for all vegan leather however, read about how vegan leather is made here.
As a leather goods company, it’s important to make sure our leather is sourced from only the most environmentally-friendly tanneries. That’s why we source all hides from ECCO® DriTan™ leather, known to be the most water and energy-efficient leather in the world.
We also offer Vegan Leather Wallets made from upcycled car windshields. By removing the PVB present in car windshields we save huge amounts of non-degradable waste from ending up in landfills. And the result is vegan leather that looks and feels as good as the real thing.
Discover our line of leather wallets, available in Matte Leather, Vachetta Leather, Vegan Leather, and Full-Grain Leather.
With growing concerns about the Earth’s climate, consumers are increasingly more interested in the environmental impact of their purchases. This state of mind is often referred to as conscious consumerism. People still want to purchase items, but they are willing to pay more or spend more time searching for companies and products that align with their environmental ethics.
The upside of this is that businesses must become more transparent with their manufacturing and sourcing practices, as customers begin to ask harder questions. This is making it easier and easier for everyday people to truly evaluate the environmental impact of businesses.
When looking for sustainable leather products, companies with transparent information about where their leather comes from and how it is made are the ones you should seek out.
Leather will never be truly eco-friendly (after all it is made from animals), but there are certainly ways to make it as environmentally safe and ethical as possible by arming yourself with the knowledge of what makes leather bad in the first place. Always investigate where leather is coming from before you buy, and remember that ethical leather is always going to cost a bit more than the unethical kind.