The Environmental Impacts of Leather

The Environmental Impacts of Leather

• Tigger Montague

Leather is a part of life with horses. From halters, lead ropes and saddles, to girths, bridles, boots and belts, leather is ubiquitous with riding and horse sports. Besides the equestrian life, the fashion industry on the whole uses a large amount of leather to make shoes, and vests, jackets, pants, coats, handbags and purses because leather has a prestige of luxury and style.

The good news about leather is, proper care of leather tack and clothing can result in years and years of use. The bad news is that the process of tanning of leather and the amount leather scrap waste leftover is an environmental nightmare.

The tanning process:

Before the tanning process begins, the hide must be scraped clean of meat, hair and fat.  Sometimes lime pastes, bleaching or pickling the skin are used. Rawhide is not tanned skin, which is why it hardens in the heat and putrefies when wetted. Tanned leather remains flexible in heat, and does not putrefy when wetted.

There are four basic tanning procedures:

Vegetable tanned leather: utilizes tannins in vegetables, tree bark and other plant-derived sources. This method produces a soft leather that is ideal for leather carving and stamping, but is unstable in water. When bathed in hot water, vegetable-tanned leather will shrink and harden. It historically was used as an early form of plate armor as well as for bindings on books.

Synthetic tanned leather: uses polymers such as Novolac, Neradol, and Melamine. This process was invented during WWII because vegetable tannins were rationed due to the war effort. Synthetic tanned leather is known for its creamy white color.

Aldehyde tanned leather: uses glutaraldehyde or oxazoline, which gives the leather a white color and helps to create a leather that is soft, can be machine washed and is absorbent. This is the process used for chamois.

Chromium tanned leather: this is the most popular form of producing leather. It relies on chromium salts and tanning liquor to produce supple leather.

Environmental impacts of Tanned Leather:

Solid and liquid waste from tanning contains leftover chromium and other hazardous compounds. Dumping of this waste happens particularly in counties without strong environmental protections. Leather is primarily tanned in countries like China, India, Bangladesh, Mexico, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

Wastewater pollution from tanning can contain chromium, which when dumped into water systems can affect aquatic life and can instigate cancers in animals throughout the food chain. Kanpur, India, the self proclaimed “leather city of the world” was dumping 22 tons of waste from tanneries into the Ganges every day in the early 2000’s. The city took action in 2009, sealing 49 of the highest-polluting tanneries, leaving 355 tanneries to continue polluting.

In impoverished countries such as Bangladesh, the leather tanning industry generates more than $600 million in exports each year.  The Hazaribagh neighborhood of the capital city Dhaka was rated as one of the five most toxic, heavily polluted sites in the world, according to the Blacksmith Institute.

To make things worse, seventy percent of an untreated hide is discarded as solid waste; hair, fat, meat and sinew go straight to the landfill.

Health impacts of tanning leather:

Hexavalent chromium, which is used in tanning, is a purely manufactured form of the ore that is not found in nature and is inherently less stable than natural chromium. Hexavalent chromium has been labeled as a known human carcinogen by the EPA, the US Department of Health and Human Services, and the World Health Organization.  Germany banned hexavalent chromium in leather goods back in 2010.

Cows and leather

Cows and other animals used for leather:

Approximately 290 million cows are killed every year for the global demand of leather.  Projections estimate that by 2025 the fashion industry needs to slaughter 430 million cows per year. Some slaughterhouses can process up to 400 animals per hour.  In poorer countries, cows are driven on foot by herders for miles before they are skinned on the street.

The most luxurious leather (soft and thin) comes from new-born veal calves, and sometimes unborn calves taken from their mother’s wombs.

China is the leading exporter of leather, and the US is China’s biggest supplier of hides. Hides from the US are in high demand, as are hides from Brazil and Leon, Mexico. In fact China imports half of its raw hide and skin it needs to meet its industry requirements.

An estimated 2 million cats and dogs are killed for their skin in China, which can’t be detected by consumers because of either complete lack of labeling, and/or deliberate mislabeling. China knows that consumers in the west would not tolerate leather from the hides of cats and dogs.

Italian leather:

Leather stamped as made in Italy does not mean the cow was raised there and tanned.  There are premium quality vegetable tanned leathers that are produced in Italy.  But Italy also imports tanned hides from third world countries.

Synthetic leather:

While some may believe that “faux leather” or "vegan leather" is the way to go, there are serious considerations due to how it is created.

Polyvinyl chloride, also known as PVC, is a plastic coating used on fabric to make synthetic leather. PVC requires additives to prolong its life cycle because it is brittle and susceptible to deterioration under light and heat.  Additives include plasticizers, stabilizers and fillers. The dominant group of plasticizers is Phthalate plasticizers, which pose considerable health and environmental hazards. Dioxins, the by-product of the PVC creation, pose more serious health concerns. These dioxins are unintentionally formed during the stages of PVC and vinyl lifecycles.

PVC is made from ethylene and chlorine. Ethylene is a by-product of petroleum and makes up 43% of the polymer weight. PVC production is the largest user of chlorine gas in the world. The by-products of PVC production are highly persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic.

According to Greenpeace, “PVC is the single most environmentally damaging type of plastic.”

Another form of plastic coating for synthetic leather is polyurethane, which is made up of two chemicals: polyol, a type of complex alcohol and diisocyanate, a petroleum byproduct that reacts strongly with alcohol. The combination of these two creates a polymer known as urethane. Polyurethane is less toxic to produce than PVC, but still relies on fossil fuels.

Had enough of the bad news? Here are some alternatives:

Cork leather bagsCork is a sustainable alternative to leather and synthetic leather. Cork trees provide bark harvest for 200 years. They re-grow their bark every 8-10 years, and can produce 40-60 kilos when harvested. Cork tree bark is hand-stripped, no mechanical devices or chemicals are used, plus it requires no soil preparation, irrigation, pesticides or herbicides. Wallets, handbags, and even shoes can be made out of cork. It's durable, water-resistant, easy to clean, and soft to the touch. Changing Tides has a wide selection of beautiful cork bags made in Portugal. Our entire collection is 100% cruelty-free, vegan, eco-friendly & ethically handmade.

Firehose and Hide BagsRecycled fire hose and reclaimed leather are used in Elvis & Kresse's unique handbags and totes. This UK company is a leader in reducing landfill waste from decommissioned fire department hoses in London and leather scraps from the fashion house Burberry. To rescue leather fragments, three interlocking shapes are cut and lovingly handwoven together, piece by piece, to create whole new hides. Created with renewable energy, fifty percent of their profits go to Firefighters Charity in England.

Shoes: There are many new materials and sustainable sources for quality footwear popping up around the globe. Here are just a few:

• Tropicfeel from Barcelona, Spain, has created an all terrain sneaker called Canyon, made from recycled plastic bottles with Agion antimicrobial shoe liners made from silver and copper which bacteria cannot survive in. Each pair of shoes recycles 3 water bottles. I bought a pair on Kickstarter, and they arrived a few days ago. Slipped my feet in, and viola, comfortable, lightweight, walking shoes with plenty of support for my old knees.

• Rens Shoes are slip-on shoes made from recycled coffee. This Helsinki based company has helped pioneer used coffee grounds to make a flexible yarn that is odor proof, anti-bacterial, waterproof, and quick-drying. Funded on Kickstarter, you can preorder a pair on Indiegogo. Shipping begins January 2020. Rens shoes puts a whole new meaning to the phrase: "coffee to go" 

• From Seattle Washington is a new travel shoe line by BauBax made from coconut, merino wool, latex from plants, and bamboo. The shoes are stain resistant, water resistant, provide odor control, flexibility and comfort. The travel line includes a pump, flat, slip-ons and loafers.

• The Pacific is a European style dress shoe has been re-imagined by a small company in NYC using recycled leather and algae. The leather used is repurposed from leather trimmings that would normally end up in the landfills. The algae-based foam is produced from algae biomass.

As you can see, there are more and more alternatives to cow leather and synthetic leather. There are companies that are repurposing leather remnants, and others who are using cork, bamboo, recycled plastic, and even coffee. Every purchase we make has an impact on the planet. It’s up to each of us to choose wisely.



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1 comment

  • Rande C Coleman

    this is amazing information! thank you for educating us. i had no idea re the ramifications of leather.

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