Be For Change

Waste leather: what to do with it?

War on WasteAna CarneiroComment
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'We believe there are enough resources on Earth for everyone to live comfortably and without depleting the planet of its resources. So we are exploring what it means to live mindfully in our age and developing long-lasting, high-quality products that keep fine materials away from the landfill.'

That is the opening statement in our website. For over a year now, it's been my intention to continue taking materials which would have been wasted and make products from them. But I'll be the first to admit that using leather had never crossed my mind... until recently, when a company got in touch with me, inquiring if I'd be interested in creating products from their waste leather.

The company in question, which shall remain unnamed, is a well known car manufacturer with production in the UK. Their offer took me by surprise, and made me feel flattered that they should choose to contact Be For Change. Flattery aside though, leather as a material is a divisive topic of conversation for those seeking to live sustainably. So I approached the subject with caution, and asked them for more information on the leather itself and on their proposition.

They promptly arranged a conference call with a manufacturing specialist who could answer my questions, and assured me that they have no 'proposition' other than providing me with free off-cuts of leather, with which I can do whatever I want. They have no interest in seeing tonnes of leather continuously go to waste if there is a chance that someone else can make use of it. They sent me two bags of off-cuts from their production line so I could get a better understanding of the material and make an informed decision.

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The off-cuts consist of pieces of hide that have been die-cut. There is as little space as possible in between cuts, but there are also big pieces of leather marked to signify there is a flaw - to be honest, these were initially hard to spot by my untrained eye. The leather itself is thick and a lot less supple than what you see in bags or wallets - not at all the kind of leather used in the fashion industry (which is more heavily chemically treated to become very supple and malleable).

As a vegetarian, it feels weird for me to handle these pieces of leather, to lay one big hide on the floor and see the shape of an animal that has been cut. But I still own a bag and several pairs of shoes made out of leather (bought in previous years), and I continue to use them. Given how I'm comfortable with those items, I push myself not to be hypocritical and acknowledge that all leather is part of an animal now dead. I focus on the fact that upon killing cattle, it's more ethical and sustainable to use every part of the animal.

Personal new-found feelings for leather aside, and I'm still feeling conflicted. On the one hand, of course I want to divert as much usable material from landfill as possible. On the other hand, do I want to put my time, energy and money in the creation of another leather product?

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I briefly told you this situation on Instagram stories, and asked you guys what your thoughts on the matter were - feeling more than a little bit afraid of what your reaction would be. Much to my surprise, 83% or you replied that you would buy products made out of waste leather.

Having now gathered your opinion and having spoken to the manufacturing specialist, I decided to go ahead and design a couple of pieces made out of leather. (Probably homewares given the thickness and quality of the leather.)

Here are the facts on this leather and my considerations on it:

  • all of this leather is a by-product of the meat industry and comes from cattle in the UK and Ireland. In case you don't know, it is illegal in Europe to kill cattle for the leather alone, or in the words of the specialist I was speaking to, 'If there was no meat-industry, we would have no leather industry in the UK'. With the decline of the meat-industry, we can therefore expect less and less leather to hit the market and its prices to increase. This would make leather too expensive to use in mass produced items, and with a decline in the use of leather the cost of the animal's meat would in turn increase as well. It's a cascading effect that begins with less meat being consumed, so if this is an issue you want to address that is the best place to start.
  • This leather processing factory disposes of roughly one metric tonne of leather per week - that's 52 metric tonnes of leather a year. That is A LOT of processed material currently being thrown away. And though it doesn't all go into landfill (the company burns a percentage of its solid waste to produce heat and therefore reduce its use of fossil fuels), quite a lot of it is still wasted - an issue which they seem keen to address. Among other things, I imagine that giving their leather waste away is less expensive than paying for waste disposal, which explains their interest in giving anything away.
  • The leather tanning process is very resource intensive and includes using a number of harmful chemicals. Leather tanning and dying requires a lot of water, and this company supplies both chromium treated and chromium free leather - curiously though, the chemicals used for chromium free tanning are more toxic and harder to safely dispose of. This company uses almost half the European average of water and has its own water ultrafiltration plant, which enables them to reuse 40% of their waste water and keep a lot of chemicals from ever living their site. To me this speaks of their understanding of how polluting they are and shows an interest in improving - though there is still a long way to go.
  • All the leather being offered is tested to meet automotive standards, which are some of the strictest health and safety requisites to meet. It is tested in a confined space without much ventilation to make sure there are no chemicals polluting the air or seeping into other materials (as a result of friction, for instance). This leather is extremely chemically stable, safe enough for infants and pets to spend hours in close proximity to it and not be negatively affected (and yes, safe enough for your dog to lick it and not be poisoned).

All in all, this is not the worst kind of leather in the world. None of this makes me a fan of the leather industry, and indeed my decision to use some of this leather is based on wanting to keep it away from landfill when it can still be used. I also know that it is safe to handle and won't negatively affect my health or the health of customers (or their pets) which is very important to me. Knowing its provenance, the efforts this company is making to be more sustainable than its peers and them not wanting their name stamped on everything makes me comfortable that Be For Change isn't about to be used for a greenwashing marketing campaign. Finally, I just want to say that by using this leather I don't want to in any way legitimize the meat or leather industries - which we know to be incredibly polluting, not to mention the many ethical issues they raise. I am, however, acknowledging the current state of affairs in our imperfect world and doing my best to keep a resource intensive material from ending up in landfill where it is of no value to anyone.

It is my hope that this project can bring increasing attention to how much leather is being wasted, and add value by creating quality, long lasting products from it.

I've opened up comments for this post, and I would very much like to hear your opinion on this issue and on my decision.

Ana xx