In fashion, the most common animal material is leather. Leather can withstand wear and tear and last in your closet for decades. “Very sustainable, right?”, we hear you think. However, animal leather is a very controversial topic. The production process is known to harm animals and has a major environmental impact. With the environment and animal welfare up for question with traditional leather, vegan leather is on the rise. Unfortunately, most common vegan alternatives are, at least partly, made from plastic and could therefore be ranking low in the sustainability criteria. This has us wondering at COSH, does any sustainable leather exist?

Option one: Animal leather

Photographer: Alaina McLearnon | Source: Unsplash

Animal leather is the name for processed skins that we use for fashion, cars or furniture. The leather used in the fashion industry comes 90% from cows. Although it’s widely available, Rebecca Cappelli (2022), director of the documentary SLAY, states that making leather is a complex process: “The stages before tanning involve salting, dehairing, degreasing and soaking. The skins go through many baths with different chemicals to remove unwanted hairs and fats to prepare them for tanning, dyeing and finishing.” The sustainability of our animal leather clothing depends on the way these stages are completed and on the farming circumstances in which the cows live and are slaughtered.

Chrome tanning vs. vegetable tanning

The tanning process is necessary to transform a raw hide into leather and stop the skins from rotting.

The most common method is chrome tanning, whereby chemical products are used to treat the leather. This method is highly toxic. When the remaining toxic water is disposed of, it can wreak havoc on aquatic ecosystems and even negatively impact human health. The workers in tanneries face increased disease risk due to chemical-heavy, polluted water flowing through their streets and into irrigation systems. By the way, did you know that these workers have been found to work in ‘slave-like conditions’ in multiple countries?

With chemically tanned leather, it is important to choose European tanneries. European environmental legislation is among the strictest in the world to ensure that no harmful substances end up in the environment. In other parts of the world, unfortunately, this can’t be guaranteed. For example, several scandals in India have already shown how water in rivers is polluted by chemical tanneries.

To reduce the environmental impact of tanning, a chrome-free tanning agent can be used. Vegetable tannins derived from tree bark can be used. Vegetable-tanned leather does not use any chemical substances. This is not only kinder for the environment, but also for the workers who carry out the tanning.

Using cleaner technological methods in the preservation of raw skins, unhairing, tanning and dyeing operations can definitely make a difference in the sustainability of the leather!

Is leather a by-product of the meat industry?

Often the sustainability of leather is argued with: "Leather is a by-product of the meat industry, so it would otherwise be thrown away.” Therefore, one could argue that your handbag and shoes are actually helping minimize waste. The animal hides, that would instead end up in landfills, are recycled into clothing. Seems pretty sustainable, right?

Not so fast: the term by-product is a bit concerning, because it may simply be an excuse for a thriving industry. The global leather goods market generates an estimated 150 billion dollars annually. In this market, waste reduction seems to be far from the goal. Besides, in the documentary SLAY, it is stated that, because of the harmful effects of chrome tanning, “it would actually be better for the environment if we threw away skins and let them rot in a dump, rather than turning it into leather.” Instead of a by-product, leather is actually a co-product of the meat industry, where there is serious money to be made.

The environmental impact of farming

Even if we look at leather as a by-product of the meat industry, this industry in its current state is far from sustainable or ethical! It’s one of the largest pollution sources of greenhouse gasses, it takes up huge amounts of valuable land, and it needs lots and lots of water as cows get very thirsty! While some ranchers are doing their best to farm ethically and sustainably, it’s not enough to mitigate animal agriculture's environmental footprint.

Deforestation of the Amazon

Photographer: Renaldo Matamoro | Source: Unsplash

The cattle industry is the single largest driver of deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and of tropical forests globally. How exactly is deforestation linked to livestock farming, you ask? 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. This is at the expense of the beautiful Amazon forest with its endangered species and rare medicinal plants.

A recent study by Stand (2021) focused on tracking leather exported by JBS, which is the largest contributor to Amazon rainforest destruction in Brazil. It demonstrates that many fashion brands have connections to this company. These brands are therefore at very high risk of driving the deforestation of the Amazon, including H&M, Zara, Prada, Ralph Lauren and Dr. Martens.

Animal welfare

Cappelli shows us how animals might be treated during the different stages of the leather supply chain. A lot of leather comes from countries like India, Brazil and China, where there are poor animal welfare laws. Calves often are separated for slaughter, which is stressful and results in depression. Cattle are legally and painfully mutilated in standard leather supply chains. Cappelli states that “best practice for the slaughter of cattle is considered to be shooting a captive-bolt gun into an animal’s head before slicing their throat to eventually bleed out”. Across many leather production companies, cows are documented to be fully conscious while bleeding out. That’s awful, isn’t it?

Perceptions of animal welfare vary between countries. Today, the EU has some of the most humane farming and slaughtering practices in the world. The goals set for animal welfare and the reality still is often showing a gap, but luckily improvement is taking place!

So, can animal leather be sustainable?

In our opinion, animal leather will never be a fully environmentally and animal-friendly product: it is made of dead animal skin. And the leather industry still has important challenges to address: increasing sustainability and transparency in the supply chain.

However, animal leather can last for years, is easy to recycle and, depending on how it has been processed, does not burden the environment when broken down. Steps have also been taken in the right direction. For example, in the Netherlands, leather was included in the Sustainable Garments and Textiles covenant, in which Dutch companies, trade unions and the government agreed to work together on social improvements, prevention of animal suffering and the reduction of negative effects on the environment. In addition, there is a growing group of brands for which the environmental friendliness of leather products is a priority.

Also, there are some things you can do to make a more sustainable choice:

  1. Be on the lookout for transparent brands that communicate where their leather comes from and what steps they take to protect animals. Short local production chains are more transparent and therefore often more sustainable and animal friendly.
  2. Opt for vegetable-tanned leather that comes from organic livestock farms and that is produced in Europe!

Option two: ‘Pleather’

A lack of traceability throughout the animal leather industry makes it super difficult for buyers to find out more about sustainability and animal welfare issues related to the production process. Many consumers are therefore opting for vegan leather made from plastic, a.k.a. ‘pleather’ Now let’s check out whether this indeed is more sustainable.

The ins and outs of pleather

man holding his leather jacket
Pleather jacket

When Michael Jackson wore plasticky leather in his early moon-walking days, people called it ‘pleather’. This material is now a hit again with the new generation. However, just like with animal leather, there are environmental concerns to consider with this vegan alternative.

Vegan leather is a material that mimics leather. It is most often made from two different plastic polymers: polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). The main drawback of using plastic is it is non-biodegradable, and it takes a very long time (500-1000 years) for decomposition. The burning of plastic releases toxic chemicals, causing environmental pollution and health issues.

Besides, the plastic could end up in water or landfill. Synthetic fibres from clothing turn out to be the biggest source of microplastic pollution in the ocean. Via the water, the pieces of microplastic end up in fish, jellyfish and all animals that live in the sea or rivers. Despite the fact that vegan leather is supposed to be "animal friendly", pleather will still be harmful to animals.

Lastly, to create this non-biodegradable plastic leather, there is a process of extracting fossil fuels and using chemicals, non-natural dyes and huge amounts of water. And this while plastic leather will wear out much more quickly than animal leather.

So, can plastic vegan leather be sustainable?

Because the vegan leather is made from plastic, we can be rather short about this one. The environmental friendliness of pleather is, to put it mildly, a bit concerning.

Option three: non-plastic, non-animal leather

The third option is all about avoiding animal by-products and plastic leather alternatives. Scientists and innovative companies are introducing new kinds of leather-like materials. In this search for sustainable leather, four categories stand out: plant-based leather, silicone-based leather, lab-grown leather and recycled leather.

Plant-based leather

Appleskin bag by MYoMY

As an alternative to harmful plastic, vegan leather made from plant fibres is also available. Here, natural products such as cork, coconut, pineapple, apples, cacti, coffee and mushrooms, are transformed into fibres and then processed into a leather-like material. Note that not all natural products are strong enough to be turned into vegan leather without the addition of plastic! Just because a product contains a natural ingredient from agricultural waste, does not mean it is better for the environment. By adding plastic to vegan leather, the environmental impact will increase significantly.

Silicone-based leather

Silicone leather is an environmental alternative to PU and PVC. It is made of natural silicone rubber derived from sand-based silica. Silicone is in the middle of being an organic material and an inorganic material. Hence, its ability to have both the elasticity of organic materials with the stability of an inorganic material. There are several advantages to the material:

  • The production requires less water and electricity than plastic-based leather.
  • Silicone is recyclable (not biodegradable, though).
  • It’s more ocean-friendly than plastic and is non-toxic to soil and aquatic organisms.

Lab-grown leather

Genuine animal leather grown in a lab using cells from a biopsy: thanks to the American company Modern Meadow, this is on the very near horizon. The material is quite identical to standard animal leather, but its footprint is minimal compared to that of animal leather. Besides, the controlled environment of its production allows for customized qualities in terms of size and appearance.

Recycled leather

Monsak uses rescued leather scraps | Photographer: Maarten van der Wal Fotografie

You’ve probably heard of the term ‘recycled leather’ when going through the market to shop for leather fashion. But what exactly is it? It is manufactured by combining scraps and residual fibres. The discarded pieces of the genuine leather are collected and then sent to the relevant factory for the recycling process. During this process, the leather fibres are shredded, put together with a PU binder and squeezed out into a fibre. These fibres are later coated with PU, giving it the look and feel of genuine leather. So, basically, recycled leather is a blend of animal leather and pleather.

As we saw earlier, adding plastic to a product is not the most sustainable solution. Besides, recycled leather has a shorter lifespan compared to genuine leather. However, it is regarded as quite eco-friendly, since it puts the potentially harmful leftovers of animal leather to good use.

With recycled leather, it is important to use clean technologies, i.e. not using chemicals in the cleaning process, and to use sustainable natural leather fibres.

So, does any sustainable leather exist?

When it comes to sustainability and the fashion industry, remember that we need to buy fewer new items and seek quality clothing. Only if the quality is impeccable, the production is as sustainable as possible, and the style will last you for decades to come, the animal leather may be a more sustainable solution than a vegan (plastic) alternative that is not recyclable and only lasts a year or two. As for the non-plastic, non-animal alternatives: they are fairly nascent, but together they signal a promising pivot towards a more sustainable future for the leather industry!

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