The debate has been going on for years now: is leather good or bad, sustainable or unsustainable, ethical or unethical?
Leather dating as far as ancient Egypt has been found without having decomposed, which really goes to show the longevity of the material. As an industry, leather working goes almost as far back as any human activity, but as we rethink our relationship towards meat and animal protection agencies cry out about the issues surrounding fur, a lot of people have started to question leather as a material.
As we launch our new products made out of leather off-cuts and defects, we share our research with you in the hopes that it can help you judge and decide for yourself what suits your sustainable living goals.
leather as a byproduct of the meat industry
The demand for cow hides has been dropping, but the demand for beef is still increasing, leaving a large amount of hides to be thrown away. While there are some animals which are killed exclusively for their hide/fur, this is definitely not the case with the bovine industry, where hides and other byproducts account for about 44 percent of the slaughtered animal’s weight, but less than 10 percent of its value, US government datashow. - Bloomberg
Leather is also not exclusive to the meat industry, as vegetarians still support the leather industry: it has become industry practice to kill dairy cows within the first 10 years of their lives - for their are too ‘spent’ - and their meat is processed into soups and pet food, while the hides will usually be processed into leather.
Do the chemicals used in leather render it unsustainable?
The tanning of leather is defined as a ‘process which permanently alters the protein structure of skin, making it more durable and less susceptible to decomposition, and also possibly coloring it’. It was traditionally done using vegetable tannins from oak or fir trees for example, though nowadays it usually involves a vast amount of chemicals. It must be mentioned that an array of chemicals are used is almost all human industries nowadays, and that most of these are safe to be handled by non-professionals or even inert (including a lot of the chemicals used in leather tanning). In some industries, such as the automotive industry, additional treatments are given to ensure that the end-material keeps to demanding regulations - such as being fire-retardant, chemically stable while safe to be in close proximity to infants and pets for extended period of time, etc. Companies within Europe keep to strict regulations (REACH) when it comes to safely handling the required chemicals and the safe disposal of waste chemicals and waste waters - the UK still abides by these regulations too.
That said, beware of companies who do not disclose the origin of their leather or of ‘Italian Leather’ products - Italy imported 105 million kilograms of leather in 2017 alone, most of it from China. To be clear, we are not talking about raw hides, but tanned and finished leather. China is the worlds largest exporter of leather and keeps to very lose regulations for the handling and safe disposal of chemicals. Among other controversial issues, China has also been known to label the skins of cats and dogs as simply leather, passing on such their onto the hands of unsuspecting buyers all over the world.
Leather tanning is also a water-intensive process.
In comparison, a lot of vegan alternatives to leather don’t fare up well either, with PVC being the most widely used leather alternative but also the most toxic of all plastics and impossible to recycle; while most fruit/vegetable based alternatives still require plastic for structural integrity (meaning they have plastic in their composition or are glued to another material for structural integrity). PU is another popular alternative, but even the most sustainable PU is at least 50% plastic (usually made from virgin oil) and then has a percentage of bioplastic. Alden Wicker wrote this great post on ‘If there are so many great vegan alternatives to leather, why don’t ethical brands use them?’ which I highly recommend if you are looking to learn more about this subject.
Can leather ever be considered ethical?
Leather is a readily available by-product that would otherwise be waste, while almost all plastics are made from non-renewable sources (oil) and therefore environmentally depleting.
When leather is a byproduct of the meat/dairy industry, then a case can be made that by using a material that would otherwise be wasted we are indeed being ethical. The same cannot be said when animals are killed for their hides or furs, or when the hide or fur is the most valuable part of the animal, or if the way to obtain it was cruel. This is definitely true for calf leather, which is considered extremely luxurious but is obtained through the cruel process of prematurely taking the calf from the pregnant cow and for its leather only.
There are but a few exceptions where the hide can be more lucrative than the meat, such as deer, rabbits and some other wild animals which are culled to protect the biodiversity of their ecosystems.
For the people who completely shun animal products in their lives, I would struggle to make a case for leather, but for anyone who does eat animal products (be it beef, game, fish or dairy) there are types of leather out there aligned with their values. Fish leather in particular has been gaining a lot of market in recent years as some of the tanning methods for it are more sustainable and it creates an interesting look when used in contrasting details. On the other hand, fish leather is not as strong as other types of leather, and so it isn’t well suited for use in shoes and wallets, for example, unless combined with a more structurally sound material.
Is real leather worth the investment? Does it suit your lifestyle?
Currently the prices of leather are at their lowest since 2014 and are expected to continue dropping. That doesn’t necessarily translate into cheaper products, as not all companies will pass on those savings to the consumer, while other companies acting with more transparency simply pay their workers fairer wages or opt for more demanding manufacturing (such as handmade) which drive prices up.
Premium vegan leather companies have heavily invested in their designs, and their products are also sold at prices as high as regular leather, defying the perception of leather as a premium material and of its plastic counterparts as ‘cheap’. Despite that, the durability, touch and patina of leather remain inimitable.
At the end, deciding if real leather is a good investment is always up to the individual person, as for many people leather is the obvious choice while for others buying or using leather is unthinkable. Sustainable living means different things for different people, but it remains as important as ever to research before buying - as so many companies currently paint themselves to be greener than they are.
Leather is great a choice for those who want to buy quality items that will last them a long time, things that can be kept for a lifetime or passed on through generations or as part of a circular system.
What are your thoughts on all of this? Will you be saying Yay or Nay to leather? Let me know in the comments or tag us in your related social media posts @beforchange ;)