Fibre Briefing: Leather

Probably the most ancient fabric used by humans, leather is a multi-billion dollar global industry. Demand for leather goods is growing – but so is criticism of its severe environmental impact, which is driving a keen interest in sustainable alternatives.

Leather is animal hide that is cleaned of hair, treated (or ‘tanned’) to preserve it and then finished with a specific colour, embossing or feel. Manufacturers then turn this into footwear – the primary use – as well as clothing, fashion accessories, interiors and car upholstery. 

Most leather comes from bovine animals – chiefly cows, but also sheep and goats. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that around 3.8 billion cows and other bovine animals are used in leather production each year1– around one animal for every two people on the planet.

Other hides are used on a much smaller scale for luxury goods, such as snake, alligator, crocodile, kangaroo, ostrich, deer and fish – some intentionally farmed for their skins. In 2014/15, the global trade in raw leather was worth around $30 billion2 and the leather goods sector is estimated to grow by an average of around 4 per cent to 20193

The dominant segment in the leather goods market in 2014 was footwear with a 59 per cent share. More than half the world’s supply of raw leather comes from developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. China is the biggest buyer and processor of this raw material – unsurprising given that it is also the world’s leading shoe producer and exporter. 

High environmental costs 

As currently practised, leather production is linked to some serious sustainability issues, not least as a by-product of the meat industry. Extensive rearing of livestock has severe environmental impacts such as deforestation, water and land overuse, and gas emissions. 

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Materials Sustainability Index – which measures impact up to the point of fabrication – gives most leathers an impact of 159 (compared with 44 for polyester and 98 for cotton), due to its high contribution to global warming and water use and pollution4

Tanning is the most toxic phase in leather processing, with 90 per cent of production using chromium tanning5 Hides are doused in drums of water, chromium salts and tanning liquor to stop them decomposing and to give a supple, colour-fast leather.

It produces a slush of chemicals and gases, including carcinogenic chromium (IV). This is so noxious that strict regulations governing it have forced the closure of tanneries in the US and Europe. In developing countries, the untreated effluent, potentially laced with chromium, lead, arsenic and acids, often flows direct into local waterways6

Tannery workers – including children as young as 10 in some countries – risk severe side- effects from exposure to these toxic substances. Acute effects include irritation to the mouth, airways and eyes; skin reactions; digestive problems, kidney or liver damage; long-term cancer and reproductive problems7

Sustainable leather production

The Leather Working Group is a multi-stakeholder initiative involving brands, suppliers, manufacturers, NGOs and end users. It uses an audit protocol that assesses the
environmental compliance and performance capabilities of tanners, and promotes sustainable environmental business practices within the leather industry8

The LWG estimates that 20 per cent of all footwear leather is covered by their audits, which assess chemical, waste, water management and safety matters relating to tanneries. Around 42 brands as well as 36 suppliers, and many more tanneries, are LWG members. Alternative tanning methods exist – after all, leather was produced for centuries without heavy chemicals. 

The luxury end of the market has seen a revival of the ancient technique of tanning with plant extracts. Bark, wood, berries, roots and leaves are used to colour and preserve the hides, producing far less harmful waste, and a biodegradable leather. It does however, take much longer than chemical processing. 

The Tanners Extract Producers Federation (TEPF) is dedicated to spreading best practice among tanners to promote vegetable leather use for designers and consumers. It currently has 43 member organisations from the leather supplier sector9

Alternatives to leather

Synthetic alternatives to leather have existed for several years – such as polyurethane (PU). While this scores better than leather on the Higg Index with lower scores for global warming and pollution, disposal of PU poses its own environmental problems. More sustainable solutions are in development from international chemicals groups – high-grade artificial leathers and suedes derived from recycled polyester and using non-toxic dyes, destined for use in apparel, footwear and accessories.

Natural alternatives being trialled for use in footwear and accessories include cork fabric from Mediterranean Cork Oak trees, bark fibre reinforced with polymers, and leather substitutes derived from pineapple, grapes, mushrooms and seaweed.

For more on sustainable alternatives, take a look at our Fabric Switch: Leather guide.




References

1. FAO (2016) World statistical compendium for raw hides and skins, leather and leather footwear 1999-2015

2. UN Comtrade HSCode42 (see Reference)

3. CISION NewsWire (2016) Global Leather Good Industry 2015-19, accessed Oct 17

4. Ref to SAC Higg Index

5. Leather sustainability website, BLC Technology Centre

6. Human Rights Watch (2012) Toxic Tanneries: The Health Repercussions of Bangladesh’s Hazaribagh Leather.

7. Portland State University EcoPol website

8. Leather Working Group (2016) Homepage

9. Veg Leather Hub (2017) Member Directory Online

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