MYTH BUST: Real leather is not sustainable. why leather is not sustainable

MYTH BUST: Real leather is not sustainable. Here's why.

Is real leather sustainable or not?

There’s been debate over real leather and its vegan leather alternatives. It’s often stated that "since leather is a by-product of the meat industry, it’s therefore sustainable.” We’re here to dispel those myths and help break down whether real leather really is or isn’t sustainable. 

Leather might be a by-product of the meat industry, but that certainly doesn’t make it sustainable. Not only does something coming from the fundamentally unsustainable industry not make it sustainable, but also leather is not simply a by-product of the meat industry. It involves a host of other processes which contribute to its sustainability. 

Certain vegan leather alternatives are also unsustainable, as we discussed here, so it’s about finding the most sustainable alternative. Today, we’re going to focus on real leather. Feel free to check out our other blogs about coffee-cycled vegan leather and the low-down on leather alternatives.


How is real leather made?

Genuine leather (or real leather) is made from animals. Real leather is most commonly made from cow hide (skin), but is also made from animal skin derived from sheep, goats and pigs to name a few, as well as snakes and alligators when creating more exotic leathers.

Once you’ve got the skin, the process is:

  1. Preparing: After soaking (rehydration) and cleaning, unhairing and fleshing, the skins undergo a bating and softening process.
  2. Tanning: There are two methods which are more commonly used, the first being ‘chrome tanning’ which results in serious water pollution that is toxic to the environment and the people that rely on the water supply and eco-system (read more about this here). The second method is called ‘vegetable tanning’, which is a longer, more challenging process involving tree bark and tanning, which in turn results in much more expensive leather products.
  3. Dyeing: The skins are dyed wet in large drums. The leather is also fatliquored (oil is introduced into the skin so that the individual fibres of the skin are uniformly coated) to give it suppleness and strength.
  4. Drying: The skin hides are put into condition for drying, which usually involves smoothing and stretching the hides, while compressing and squeezing out excess moisture. Then, the leather is dried.
  5. Finishing: To prepare the leather surface for its final appearance, the leather is often coloured in a dye bath, or covered with a layer of pigment, and waterproofed with coating.


Real leather is not sustainable 

why leather is not sustainable

The meat industry is far from cruelty-free, and inherently “unsustainable” 

The meat industry being far from cruelty-free, and inherently “unsustainable” extends to any by-product beyond it. 

If you buy organic meat, and care about where it comes from, you should with regards to the leather you buy too. However, given the largely untraceable nature of much leather, it’s really hard to know where it comes from.

Meat is unsustainable because: 

  • Animal livestock uses a disproportionately large amount of land. Out of the 51 million km2 of agricultural land, 77% is used for livestock and feeding livestock
  • Major source of greenhouse gas emissions, with carbon dioxide from soil cultivation, methane from livestock and nitrous oxide from fertiliser and manure being major contributors. 
  • Animal agriculture is a major contributor to water stress, with livestock accounting for over 8% of global human water use.
  • Pollution associated with animal agriculture and habitat destruction from pasture creation is a major threat to biodiversity, with the loss of species estimated to be running 50 to 500 times higher than would be expected from the fossil record.

  • Leather is a hugely profitable industry which supports the slaughter of animals

Leather is a hugely profitable industry, which means the industry financially supports the slaughter of animals, just like buying meat or dairy does. The global leather goods market is valued at $243 billion USD, and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.6% from 2023 to 2030 (including synthetic and vegan leather, but largest proportion remains real leather). Thus, animal skins are sold and made into leather goods for profit, not for waste reduction. 

This good on you article debates whether leather is a “by-product” or “co-product” very comprehensively.

  • The leather-making process produces huge water waste

The processes of making leather (described above) use an enormous amount of water. Without accounting for the water used in cattle raising, 1.32 sq.m. (for a biker jacket) uses over 27,000L of water – that’s the average water consumption for a person for 13.5 years. Accounting for the cattle raising as well, it makes up the average water consumption for a person for 36 years! 

This enormous water consumption is despite the leather production industry cutting its water footprint by 37% in the past 25 years. Granted, technologies are continually evolving and there is certainly improvement, but for now leather-making remains a big water consumer. 

  • Toxic chemicals polluting our environment

The toxic chemicals used in leather-making lead to air pollution, water pollution, and soil pollution. That’s not accounting for the potential impact of wearing these chemicals, putting them close to our skin.

The processes of chrome tanning and dyeing, along with certain types of coating (finishing), use toxic chemicals that are released into the environment. These go on our skins, into water sources, and into our bodies as a result of that.

To give one example: chromium is the most commonly used chemical in leather manufacturing, particularly for tanning. Chromium tanning makes the leather soft, supple, durable and water resistant.

However, chromium is a toxic metal that can cause cancer and other health problems. Its use in leather manufacturing has been a subject of concern, and several initiatives have been taken to reduce its impact on the environment and workers.

  • Tannery workers face serious health risks

Tannery workers are often exploited and face serious health risks, illness, and even death due to exposure to carcinogenic and harmful chemicals. For example, studies of leather-tannery workers in Sweden and Italy found cancer risks “between 20% and 50% above [those] expected.” Certain industrial areas in China where leather is tanned are even referred to as “cancer villages” by local and international news outlets.

Stay tuned for next month’s blog post all about the workers behind fast fashion!


Not quite the same leather jacket

Any of those reasons are enough to reconsider using real leather. Together, they make a cocktail of reasons pointing towards leather being unsustainable. Beyond the meat industry itself being unsustainable, tanning leather pollutes air, water, and soil; is dangerous for those managing the process; and consumes huge amounts of water. 

We’ve left out animal cruelty, because it’s not directly linked to sustainability (depending on your definition), but leather is also full of animal cruelty too. According to PETA, many of the one billion animals slaughtered for the leather industry endure all the horrors of factory farming—including extreme crowding and confinement, deprivation, and unanesthetized castration, branding, and tail-docking—as well as cruel treatment during transport and slaughter.

You may see your leather items a little (or a lot) differently after reading culthread’s blog. We understand. Thankfully, new material innovations are leading to the development of new faux leather materials that are both vegan and sustainable. These can be just as good as real leather in terms of quality and style, but without the baggage real leather has. 

Read more here: 
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