Leather: from the Stone Age to the 21st century – time to move on? part 1

PART 1 – ENVIRONMENTAL AND SOCIAL IMPACT OF LEATHER

I want to admit from the very beginning of this post: this is a sensitive subject for many people and it was not easy for me to write about it. It is also a very important subject within sustainable fashion discourse. Did you know that leather has one of the highest environmental impacts of all raw materials? This includes greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global warming, high water consumption and pollution, intensive farming and deforestation leading to loss of biodiversity, toxic chemicals used in the tanning process harming people and the environment alike. But on top of all that it touches on the issue of animal welfare. I am not a vegan, but I hope those who are will not dismiss this article and still read it to find out that today there are many innovative alternatives to leather and most of them are plant-based! In fact, none of the other materials used in fashion have such vast number of alternatives like leather has. So trust me – this will be a very informative post to read, albeit long and sensitive at times.

Traditional leather shoemaking
Pinatex leather shoes

QUICK HISTORY OF LEATHER

Leather has been used by mankind for over 5,000 years and is believed to be the oldest material, after that came linen, wool, cotton and silk. It is made from hides and skins of various animals. It has always been considered exceptionally durable, flexible, breathable and weather resistant – this is why it is primarily used for footwear. To preserve the skin and make it last for a long time, it needs to be tanned. From the ancient times, the tanning process was vegetable-based. Then came the Industrial Revolution – new machinery and invention of “chrome tanning” in 1850’s allowed leather to be produced faster, thinner, and softer. It is very surprising to see that despite the modern tools and technologies this process did not change dramatically. In some parts of the world like in Fez, Morocco, you can even see those old tanning bathes dating to 11th century still being used today!

Leather tanning in Fez, Morocco

THE ENVIRONTMENTAL & HUMAN IMPACT OF LEATHER INDUSTRY

What has changed dramatically though in the last century is the demand for meat and leather as a response to the rapid population growth which almost quadrupled since 1900.  It is not just a “by-product” of the meat industry as some think, which suggests that it would be simply wasted otherwise. But it is rather a “co-product” and the cost of its environmental impact must be considered as a direct responsibility of the leather industry as well. Today it is estimated to be worth more than $100 billion in sales. According to UN Food and Agriculture Organization, almost 3.8 billion cattle and other animals are used in leather production annually. This acceleration of demand has directly led to massive deforestation as land had to be cleared for animal farming. Today 80% of all agricultural land is used for livestock raising. Brazil being one of the major producers of beef and therefor leather, is still clearing significant areas of The Amazon forests for cattle ranching. The amounts of valuable resources like energy, water and food required to raise these animals are staggering. Animal farming is also one of the largest contributors to climate change. It is responsible for almost 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions. The most important greenhouse gases from animal agriculture are methane and nitrous oxide. Methane, mainly produced by fermentation and manure storage, is a gas that is 28 times more potent than CO2. Nitrous oxide, arising from manure storage and the use of fertilizers, is a molecule with a global warming potential 265 times higher than CO2.

ANIMAL WELFARE

There is no doubt that the conditions of modern industrial meat and leather production anywhere in the world including the US and European countries are unethical and cruel. Yes, some areas of the world are working hard towards more sustainable farming and have very strict animal welfare laws. But what is very important to know is that a vast majority of leather comes from developing countries such as India and China, where animal welfare laws are very limited or not properly enforced. This Peta article and a video created by Stella McCartney will shed some light on how leather industry is complacent in this serious issue (warning: graphic content)

USE OF TOXIC CHEMICALS

The other big impact of the leather industry on both the environment and people is use of chemicals, specifically in the tanning process. Today 90% of all leather production is using chromium tanning. Chromium III compounds are not necessarily harmful to the human body if used in very small amounts. But during the tanning process it can turn into chromium VI which can cause serious allergies and lead to skin and respiratory diseases. Another 250 chemicals and metals are routinely used in this process, including sulfidic acid, cobalt, coper, mercury, zinc, formaldehyde etc. Today, tanneries in developed countries have much more testing and restrictions on chemicals than before, they also have stronger workers protection laws and health regulations. But the problem again is that a large portion of global leather production comes from developing countries where environmental standards and workers protection laws are limited or poorly regulated.

One such place is Hazaribagh, a district in the heart of Dhaka, which was until recently home to 95% of all tanneries in Bangladesh. In 2013 it was rated the 6th most polluted place on the planet! Toxic waste from the tanneries was simply washed directly into local waterways, contaminating rivers, air and land around it. Up to 15,000 people were employed in these leather tanneries, including young children! On top of being paid way below living wages, the tannery workers in such places are often not provided with any protective wear, nor do they have adequate healthcare support from the governments. They are often left with serious health issues ranging from skin and respiratory diseases, to digestive problems, kidney or liver damage, possibly even long-term cancer and reproductive problems. To learn more about Bangladesh leather industry environmental and social disaster read this article from Human Rights Watch.

Polluted waters near leather tanneries,Hazaribagh. Photo: Daniel Lanteigne
Chromium tanning (aka "wet blue") process, India. Photo: Larry C. Price

TRACEABILITY 

Billions worth of leather goods are exported annually from developing countries like Bangladesh, India, China and others to satisfy demand from consumers across the world including Europe and North America. Major brands also source their materials from these tanneries and then make goods in other countries. But labelling laws in fashion are so dubious that a product labeled “made in Italy” only means it is “finished” in Italy, meanwhile the leather production and animal farming can take place anywhere else in the world. One of the biggest priorities for the fashion industry today is traceability of the raw materials like leather. Several initiatives have been developed by leading international organizations to address these issues and help create a more traceable and sustainable leather supply chain – like Leather Impact Accelarator by Textile Exchange, Savory Institute and Leather Sustainability by Eurofins/BLC. These initiatives include establishing benchmarking for best practices from farms to tanneries, providing trainings and information on certifications and accreditations of materials, animal welfare and human rights standards, forest and land management, promoting regenerative agriculture, performing farming and environmental audits of the suppliers, chemical testing, etc.

Leather Impact Accelertor by Textile Echange provides Traceability Guidelines and other usefull tools tranneries and brands

So here we are 5,000 year later and so much harm done to the planet, animals and people especially in the last decade. Don’t you think it is time for the leather industry to take responsibility and change?? This includes reducing overall leather consumption by fashion industry and shifting some of this value into more sustainable and non-animal alternatives. Let’s take a look at the impressive number of alternative materials that exist today, new bio-technologies in the works and other encouraging improvements in this sector (read part two).

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