Are you looking for a quality leather handbag or a sturdy pair of leather shoes, but do you want to make a sustainable choice? Then it's important to inform yourself about the environmental impact of leather. Leather has advantages and disadvantages: it is a high quality material that lasts for years and even becomes more beautiful over time. However, there are also less sustainable aspects to the material. In this article, we will tell you everything you need to know about the environmental impact of leather. So you can make a conscious shopping choice!

Leather is one of the oldest materials in history. Our ancestors hunted animals for food, and then used the skins as clothing and tents to protect themselves. To this day, leather continues to play an important role in the global economy. It is one of the most traded commodities in the world and generates an estimated 150 billion dollars annually.

How are leather products made?

From animal skins to soft leather

To make leather from animal skins, they must first be treated during the tanning process. Animal skins contain a protein called collagen. The tanning process ensures that this protein does not rot and transforms the leather into a sturdy material that is also weather-resistant.

Before the Industrial Revolution, leather was tanned in a traditional way. Craftsmen used wooden tubs which they kept half underground. The leather was immersed in a mixture of dried oak bark and water. Once the skins were removed from the tubs and dried, they could no longer rot. However, this traditional process took a lot of time and labour. After a while, the traditional tanned leather was found to be too hard and thick.

Throughout history, therefore, new processing methods emerged to make the leather resistant to weather and wind, including chrome-tanned leather. Chrome-tanned leather was more resistant to moisture and heat, which made it more popular.

Chrome-tanned leather

With chrome-tanned leather, chemical products are used to treat the leather. To ensure that no chemicals end up in the water, additional purification processes are needed. Cow leather, goat leather and sheep leather all require the same amount of chemicals. Kangaroo leather, on the other hand, requires ¼ less chemicals and is therefore slightly better for the environment.

With chemically tanned leather, it is important to choose European tanneries. European environmental legislation is among the strictest in the world, so you can be sure that no harmful substances end up in the environment. In other parts of the world, unfortunately, you have no guarantee of this. For example, several scandals in India have already shown how water in rivers is polluted by chemical tanneries.

Vegetable tanned leather

To reduce the environmental impact of tanning, vegetable tannins derived from tree bark can be used. Vegetable tanned leather does not use any chemical substances and is therefore less damaging to the environment.

Belgian tanneries

Artisanal tanneries still exist in Belgium today. Family firm Altan in Zulte has over 100 years of experience in traditional tanning. They make high-quality leather skins from calfskin, sheepskin and even ostrich.

In Wallonia, at the family business Radermecker, the leather has been tanned with vegetable tannins for generations. The company was founded in 1870 by the Rademecker family. Radermecker only uses cow leather from France and Germany. Only high-quality products, made close to home! The company is involved in all steps from the slaughterhouse to the finished product. Thanks to the short chain, both quality and transparency can be guaranteed throughout the entire chain. A fun fact: at Rademecker, they only make products at the customer's request, so surplus leather is avoided!

How sustainable is the leather industry?

European production

Most animal skins used to be tanned in Europe. But because of stricter environmental regulations in Europe and high labour costs, leather production has moved from Europe to South America, India and China. Today, the majority of leather production worldwide takes place outside Europe and, unfortunately, the environmental problems have also moved with it.

In order to make the leather industry sustainable, it is important to shift production back to Europe. European cattle farmers are subject to strict environmental legislation, which means that the impact of European leather is kept to a minimum. Local production saves on transport and allows for more control and transparency.

From offal to shoe

Did you know that the leather in your handbags and shoes usually comes from a waste product from the meat industry? That is good news! Because this way, no extra animals have to be killed for the leather. Moreover, it is far too expensive to breed cattle just for their skin. Today, more than 90% of all leather in the world comes from cattle farming.. Animals are therefore used for both meat and leather, and are not specifically slaughtered to make handbags or shoes. This may be the case with exotic animals such as crocodiles and snakes. This is only the case for exclusive products such as haute couture pieces or a Rolls Royce interior.

Leather comes from animals

The leather used in the fashion industry comes for 90% from cows. To a lesser extent, leather from sheep and goats is used and in a few cases, kangaroo leather. It is certainly not the case that all skins from the meat industry are reused in the fashion industry. A large proportion will be wasted and end up on a waste heap. Even though leather is mined as a waste product from the meat industry, the rearing of the animals themselves has a huge impact on the environment.

As an alternative, several designers have started experimenting with fish leather. Here, the skins of animals are also a waste product of the food industry. Here too, it is important to produce as locally as possible and to choose local sustainable fish species. Mien Kaba, for example, uses local fish leather from zeeton, which originates from Bordeaux. Other fish species such as cod and catfish from Iceland can also be processed into shoes and handbags.

Animal welfare

It is not easy to guarantee animal welfare in the fashion industry. As with wool, it is often difficult to find out exactly where the leather comes from. Short local production chains are therefore considered more sustainable because more transparency is possible.

Another solution is organic livestock farming, where the focus on animal welfare will be greater than with industrial livestock farming. This is because the farmer respects the maximum number of animals allowed in a given area.

Biggest barrier to sustainability

A recent study (Moktadir et al., 2018) examined the biggest barriers within the global leather production chain to making it more sustainable. What it found, lack of willpower from management, and lack of awareness from customers around sustainable products are the biggest 2 barriers. Followed by too old machinery & lack of sustainable logistics.

The environmental impact of farming

Use of land and deforestation

As much as 76% of the agricultural land on our planet is used for growing animal feed and breeding farm animals. That corresponds to 29% of the total land surface of the earth. Livestock farming thus takes up huge amounts of valuable land and causes massive deforestation in tropical regions.

How exactly is deforestation linked to livestock farming? Well, to feed the animals, the farmers need a lot of grain and soya. To grow these crops, large amounts of rainforest are cut down. In South America, 70% of the deforested areas are used for cattle breeding. This is at the expense of the beautiful Amazon forest with its endangered species and rare medicinal plants.

Cows (and cattle in general) need much more food than is converted into meat. For one kilogram of meat, an average of seven kilograms of grain is required (for beef it is even more, namely twelve kilograms of grain). Cereal products require much less land and water than animals. We can therefore say that livestock farming is not at all efficient in its use of land and grain resources. This is a shame, because today 8.9% of the world's population still suffers from hunger.

Biggest cause of global warming

Livestock farming is one of the biggest causes of global warming. Today, there are more than 1.5 billion cows, 1.2 billion sheep, 1 billion pigs and 1 billion goats on the planet. This huge livestock population has a catastrophic impact on the environment. Animal breeding accounts for 14.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. However, the environmental impact differs per animal. Cows are by far the most polluting animal species for the environment, followed by goats and pigs. Kangaroo leather is the least polluting of all leather species.

Toxic greenhouse gasses

The best known greenhouse gas is CO2. But cows also emit other harmful gases, such as methane (CH4) from manure and wind. The use of artificial fertiliser will also release the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. Did you know that methane and nitrous oxide are more dangerous than CO2 for the climate? The greenhouse effect of methane is 25 times stronger than that of CO2, and nitrous oxide even 310 times stronger. An immense impact on the earth. Each cow produces 100 - 200 litres of methane per day, which corresponds to the CO2 emission of a land rover driving 50 km per day. In comparison, a sheep produces only 30 litres of methane per day.

Fortunately, methane and nitrous oxide occur in lesser quantities in the air, which means that CO2, because of its large quantity, is still the biggest threat to the climate.

Deforestation for soya and cereals further contributes to the high CO2 emissions from livestock farming. Trees automatically absorb CO2 from the air and store it as food in the trees and leaves, after which they convert it back into oxygen. So by cutting down trees, even more CO2 will remain in the air. In addition, there is an enormous amount of transport involved in the movement of soya and meat, which will further increase CO2 emissions.

Lots of water needed

Besides emissions, animals also consume huge amounts of water. A cow drinks about 120 litres of water a day, which is equivalent to a full bathtub. A huge amount of water is also needed for the growth of grain and soya. The crops will demand a large part of the available water through irrigation.

So livestock farming therefore has an enormous impact on the environment! The calculations above only take into account the 'Cradle to Gate' phase and not the use phase and recycling. In many cases, leather is a high-quality product that will last a very long time. Handbags or shoes that last longer are less likely to need replacing, which is also a huge win for the environment!

Concerns about animal welfare and the environmental impact of farming and leather production have led to a demand for more sustainable leather and vegan alternatives. To find out if they are indeed more sustainable, read more here.

© Monsak: Handgemaakte tassen van vergeten leer

Are you looking for sustainable leather?

Vegetable tanned and European production

Would you like to make a sustainable choice? Then we'll summarise it for you here: choose brands with a European production that use vegetable tannins during the tanning process. In addition, you can always look at certificates, but don't be blinded by them because they are not always watertight. Moreover, some brands are often too small to afford an expensive certificate, although they are sustainable.

Bonus for certificates

The most important certifications for leather are LEATHER STANDARD from OEKO-TEX®, a global independent certification system. This label takes into account legal production, lead use and the use of environmentally friendly production processes. The label applies to finished and semi-finished leather products. In addition, the NATURLEDER label has drawn up guidelines for production from raw material to sale, as well as for the use of the finished leather.

The most sustainable tip: cherish your leather items for life

But perhaps the most important thing is this: leather is a quality product that lasts for years and has a long life. By choosing durable shoes or a stylish handbag, you can enjoy them for a lifetime. There is nothing more durable than saving a beautiful handbag for your children or maybe even great-grandchildren.

Read also: Is vegan leather better for the environment and for animals?

Read here more about cotton

Read here more about wool

Are you looking for a durable leather handbag, belt or shoes? Discover sustainable options through our shopping guide.

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