We’ve already put together guides about some of the most eco friendly fibres and fabrics, and the least eco friendly fibres and fabrics.
In the guide below though, we look at how sustainable, eco friendly and cruelty free real leather (from animals) might be across it’s various stages.
For those interested in reading about faux leather instead, you can also read a guide on the sustainability, eco friendliness and animal friendliness of faux leather here.
Summary – Is Conventional Leather Eco Friendly, Sustainable & Animal Friendly?
Sustainability & Eco Friendliness
– Potential Benefits
There may be potential to decrease the water footprint of real leather using various practices
There may be potential to decrease pollution at the leather manufacturing stages (tanneries, dyeing, finishing, etc) with better practices such as capturing and re-using chemicals, capturing and re-using waste water, or treating waste water and effluent or outflow before discharging into the environment
Some more sustainable, eco friendly and ethical forms of real leather may exist. We outline examples of these real leathers towards the bottom of the guide below
Real leather may be able to be recycled in some instances
Real leather may have a longer lifespan whilst in use than faux leather, which may enable the production footprint of real leather to be averaged out over more years than faux leather
– Potential Drawbacks
One report indicates that when comparing real leather and faux leather, the processing/tanning stage of turning raw hide/skin into leather has a slightly higher carbon footprint than all of faux leather’s lifecycle combined. When the agricultural stage is added in, it increases to be roughly 7 times that of faux leather
When looking at finished real leather’s carbon footprint, the agricultural stage might be responsible for the greatest share of that footprint by a significant amount (possibly to a 5:1:1 ratio when looking at the 3 stages of leather production according to one report)
Thicker real leathers may also have a higher carbon footprint than thinner leathers
Several sources indicate that real leather is energy intensive, and this seems like a valid claim if you include both the agricultural stage, and the leather manufacturing stage too
Several sources indicate that real leather production is water intensive, and this is especially the case when agriculture is included in the water footprint
The leather tanning, dyeing, finishing and related manufacturing processes use a range of chemicals, and can be responsible for a range of environmental pollution issues, such as water pollution (due to dumped waste water, tannery processes like processing raw cattle hides with chromium (III) oxide into a material called wet blue which can be the most polluting, other tannery outflow pollution, and with dye house effluent), and air pollution from VOCs. This may especially be true in developing countries with lax environmental laws
Real leather may take up to 25 to 40 years to decompose, and some sources indicate it may never totally decompose
Some animals might be used only for their leather, with the rest of the animal’s body discarded (without being used for other resources). Some consider this a waste of resources
Some sources indicate that the leather and fur industries are as bad as each other from an animal welfare and environmental perspective, and perhaps leather might be worse in some ways due to it’s scale.
Animal Welfare Considerations
Any use of animals in real leather production is an animal welfare issue in itself according to some groups and people.
Cattle/bovine are the animal responsible for majority share of real leather production, with goats, sheep and pigs responsible for majority of the remaining share. Other animals can be used too though
There can be a list of animal welfare concerns (beyond the use of animals for leather production) that occur during farming, hunting, transport, slaughtering, and other stages of animal processing
In addition to adult animals, infant animals like calves, and even unborn animals in some instances may be used for their leather according to some sources
Some animals are illegally obtained for real leather through methods such as poaching
Some argue that the use of real leather is made worse from an animal welfare perspective considering that non animal derived alternative materials could be used instead
Laws/regulations in some countries that don’t protect animals, as well as no labelling, or mislabelling of products, may both contribute to animal welfare issues in real leather production. At the very least, labelling issues can make it hard to know where a real leather product came from, and how it was made
Several sources indicate that the chemicals and substances used at tanneries and during leather manufacturing can be harmful or toxic to human health in several ways, and this may be more so the case in developing countries with more lax laws on workers health and safety
Some may argue that in the case that in the case animal derived products are responsible for the livelihood of people or families in lower income regions of the world, raising animals primarily for leather production, or with leather as a co-product (along with meat and other co-products), is justified in this instance where no alternative (and feasible) ways are available from an economic perspective. This may be a better option than that that person or family having to go work in a potentially unsafe field of work as an alternative, or, not produce an income at all
Leather as a material has traits and properties that other materials may not have, and this may make it more suitable for certain uses compared to other materials. However, some argue that suitable leather alternatives exist for several key uses
Some groups may be more ‘pro leather’, such as animal skin/hide suppliers, and leather producers and sellers. And, other groups may be more critical of real leather, such as sustainability and animal welfare groups, amongst others. This may impact the data and assessment narratives that are presented by different groups
There’s debate between some groups as to whether the agricultural stage should be included in sustainability assessments for real leather (included with manufacturing, including tanneries and other processes). Much of this rests on whether real leather is considered a by-product, or co-product of the meat and dairy industries.
Some argue the agricultural stage shouldn’t be included because real leather is a by-product (or even waste product) of the meat and dairy industries. Others argue that the agricultural stage should be included because real leather is more of a co-product of these industries (due to the profit and desirability of leather, amongst other factors). They may argue that at the very least, real leather very strongly subsidises meat and dairy production, and can even impact the bottom line of these industries when leather isn’t selling well (according to some select data). The inclusion of the agricultural stage can significantly change the overall footprint of real leather, as well as the footprint for individual indicators, so it’s an important factor to consider
It might be difficult to accurately separate or divide/share the impact of the agricultural stage amongst the meat, dairy and real leather industries. But, there’s the shared impact of land use, land degradation, environmental impact, agricultural chemical use, inputs like water, and waste like animal manure to consider. Any analysis that includes the agricultural stage in a real leather footprint may want to consider identifying if they’ve assigned real leather the full footprint of the agricultural stage, or whether they’ve only assigned a % share of the agricultural stage (and what % share they’ve assigned compared to meat and dairy)
A practical consideration for cattle farmers and ranchers is that only female cows might be used to produce milk. Unless they can sell male calves for veal (and the veal market can fluctuate in demand), leather may be the only other profitable option in some instances
Overall, leather is an industry worth in the hundreds of billions of dollars, so, it’s reasonably important to the economy
When looking at the total value (as a %) of each product derived from cows, some sources indicate that leather only makes up about 5% to 10% of a cow’s total value, depending on the country where it’s being assessed. Some reports indicate that the skin/hide, when used for leather, is the most valuable part of the cow on a pound for pound basis
Implementing environmental protection practices and sustainability measures during the leather production process, such as better management of waste water, can be costly for producers, and impact the bottom line. This can be a barrier for some producers in some countries
Real Leather vs Faux Leather Comparison
In this guide, we compare the main differences, and other features and benefits/drawbacks of real animal leather and faux leather.
What About The Eco Friendliness & Sustainability Of Other Materials?
We’ve put together guides about some of the most eco friendly fibres and fabrics, and the least eco friendly fibres and fabrics.
These guides may provide further insight on how real leather compares to these fibres which can be used in materials.
Other Factors That Might Impact The Sustainability Or Eco Friendliness Of Materials
This guide outlines some more of the factors that contribute to how sustainable and eco friendly different fibres and fabrics might be.
*This Guide Is A Generalisation Only
It’s important to note that real leather production variables and processes can differ between between producers and suppliers (especially between countries), and the usage and disposal of real leather products can vary (as well as the products themselves e.g. the thickness of real leather can be a big variable in different leather products).
These factors and other factors can impact the final sustainability and eco friendliness footprint of different real leathers.
What Is Real Leather, & What’s It Made From?
Real leather is a material that can be used for a range of applications.
It comes from animal skins and hides that undergo chemical treatment and tanning, amongst other treatments and processes.
Stages Of Leather Production
Leather production may have three key stages, as well as other miscellaneous stages:
– Agricultural stages
The rearing and farming of animals by farmers and ranchers, as well as slaughterhouses and animal processing
– Manufacturing stages
Can involve a whole range of processes that convert a raw animal hide or skin into leather
This treatments are to turn the animal hide/skin into a stable and usable material, and to ensure it doesn’t decompose
This may include but isn’t limited to preparation (removing/stripping flesh and hairs), tanning, crusting, and for some leathers, there may also be a surface coating (and finishing) stage. The material may be thinned, re-tanned, lubricated, and, if required, dyed.
Wikipedia.org explains these stages in depth
– Leather in a finished product
Once the leather is produced as a material, it can be supplied to companies that use it in products.
For example, leather may be supplied to shoe and footwear manufacturers, or car manufacturers for car upholstery.
The leather may undergo further modification, or may simply be prepared for the finished product it will be used in.
– Other stages
Includes stages such as retailers/sellers, leather customisation and modification (by leather crafters and modifiers), leather usage, and finally disposal (or recycling/upcycling)
Which Animals Are Used To Make Real Leather?
Cattle are the animals that make up the majority share of leather production.
Goats, sheep and pigs make up the majority share of the remainder of leather production.
Other animals can be used too though, even if they are in the minority as far as share of total production goes.
Exotic animals for example can be used for exotic leathers (alligators, crocodiles, snakes and ostriches for example)
Dogs and cats can be used for real leather in some countries too.
It’s worth noting that in addition to adult animals being used, infant and unborn animals can be used too, such as calves and unborn calves.
What Animals Make Up The Majority Share Of All Leather
Today, most leather is made of cattle hides, which constitute about 65% of all leather produced.
Other animals that are used include sheep, about 13%, goats, about 11%, and pigs, about 10%.
– peta.org.au, and wikipedia.org
libertyleathergoods.com has a table that shows lather industry production by animal type between 2012 to 2014 across the world.
This table shows the number of hides for each animal, but also the total tons (weight) that these hides made up.
In terms of millions of hides produced, sheep and lamb were at 550 million, goat and kid were at 486.3 million, ad bovine and buffalo were at 364.3 million.
But, in terms of weight produced, bovine and buffalo were way out in front at 7,200,186 total tons, sheep and lamb in second at 454,703, and goat and kid at 380,598.
They have a separate table which indicates that in 2015, cattle and buffalo by far made up the highest % share of leather production, at 67%.
Other Animals Used For Leather
We list examples of some of the other animals used for leather below.
Are Animals Used Just For Leather, Or For Other Products Too?
Some sources say leather can come from any cow used for agriculture.
Several sources indicate that cows are raised primarily for beef and milk (and other dairy products), and leather is mostly a by-product of farming cows for these primary products.
But, there might be instances where some types of leather come from new-born calves and sometimes unborn calves taken prematurely from their mother’s wombs. These calves may only be used for leather production in some cases.
Other animals can be farmed or slaughtered just for their leather in some cases, but in other cases they may be used for other body parts used to make other products too.
Examples of these other animals can include dogs and cats, animals used for exotic leathers, some wild animals (which can be poached), some local animals (which can be slaughtered by local or indigenous communities), and some overpopulated, pest or threat/problem species.
So, it appears that each animal different, and where they are farmed or involved in production.
What Product Are Cattle Mainly Farmed For?
Most leather comes from cows primarily raised for the beef and milk [i.e. the beef and dairy industries] … and leather [coming from skin/hides] is a co product of these products (peta.org)
Of the leather from cows, the majority is taken from those who are slaughtered for their meat or from dairy cows no longer producing enough milk to remain profitable (onegreenplanet.org)
[Leather is a] byproduct of the [livestock] industry [and] Leather comes from anywhere there are cows used in agriculture
The leather industry will never keep the meat industry going [and, this is especially true in places where there is poverty and the rest of the cow can be utilized]
There is always an industry for meat [so, the hide/skin will be wasted if it’s not put to use for leather]
[Animals hides are usually the] waste product of the food industry (libertyleathergoods.com)
… more than 99% of the world leather production is coming from the processing of raw hides and skins deriving from animals which have been raised mainly for milk and/or meat production [mainly bovine] (leatherpanel.org)
Young &/Or Unborn Calves
The most “luxurious” (i.e. soft and thin) material, however, is supplied by new-born veal calves and sometimes even unborn calves taken prematurely from their mother’s wombs (onegreenplanet.org)
… calf and lamb leather [might be two examples of types of leather where the animals are raised and slaughtered primarily for their potential to help make luxury leather]
[Some animals used for exotic leather are python, crocodile, and other reptiles]
In China, India and several other developing countries wild animals are poached (often illegally) [just] for their skins.
These include (but are not limited to) alligators, elephants, lizards, ostriches, snakes, and zebras.
Furthermore, in China – the world’s leading exporter of leather – an estimated two million cats and dogs are killed [either for the meat, or] for their skins …
So, Is Leather A By-Product, or A Co-Product?
Leather As A By-Product Or Waste Product
Some of the above sources may indicate that leather is a by-product or waste product coming from animals primarily farmed or used for the meat and dairy industries.
However, there are other sources that indicate that leather may be more of a co-product, or even a heavy subsidy of meat and dairy.
Leather production might even impact the meat industry in some instances …
Leather As A Co-Product To Meat & Dairy
collectivefashionjustice.org indicates that leather is not a waste product, and is not a by-product of the meat and dairy industries (some in the leather industry may push this narrative)
They use the comparison of plastic being derived from crude oil refineries to illustrate this
They indicate leather is likely a co-product because of the profitability and desirability of leather
Leather As A Subsidy To Meat & Dairy, & Potential Impact On Meat Industry
collectivefashionjustice.org again may challenge the narrative that the meat and dairy industries are unaffected by whether animals are used for leather or not.
They indicate ‘The meat industry and slaughterhouses specifically have reported their multi million dollar losses when skins are not selling or selling for far less, often accounting this to the rise of leather alternatives’
So, leather production may impact the meat industry in some instances.
Although, they may take more a middle ground and indicate that ‘At the very least, the leather industry can be considered a great subsidy to the beef and dairy industries’
‘Only female cows who can become pregnant and … produce milk are valuable alive … [so] countless newborn male calves are slaughtered annually [and they can be used for their leather where farmers may not get income otherwise, especially when veal prices drop]’
Animal Cruelty & Animal Welfare Issues In Leather Production
Some argue that any animal derived product like leather has animal cruelty and welfare concerns.
It could also be argued that alternative materials to leather that don’t require the use of animals for production could be used for various applications.
The specific animal welfare issues across the leather production process could span across the farming stage (where there can sometimes be invasive or painful farm practices, and cramped spacing for farm animals), live transport or export stage, and slaughtering stage.
For wild animals, there’s also hunting and slaughtering to consider.
Some of the factors that may contribute to animal welfare issues in leather production might include laws/regulations that don’t protect animals, as well as lack of labelling or mislabelling of products
Potential Animal Welfare Issues
[In some countries, animals are skinned alive for their skin as there is a belief it keeps the skin supple] (onegreenplanet.org)
[The cattle agricultural industry might have animal welfare issues such as crowded feedlots, painful livestock procedures, live export, and questionable slaughter methods] (peta.org)
Most leather comes from developing countries such as India and China, where laws don’t protect animals killed for their skins.
Buying leather directly contributes to factory farms and abattoirs because skin is the most economically important by-product of the meat industry.
Animals are known to suffer both in farms, and on their way being transported to abbatoirs
– peta.org.au, and wikipedia.org
The most “luxurious” (i.e. soft and thin) [leather] material … is supplied by new-born veal calves and sometimes even unborn calves taken prematurely from their mother’s wombs (onegreenplanet.org)
Factors That May Contribute To Animal Welfare Issues In Leather Production
[skins from cats and dogs in China] can’t be detected by consumers due to either a complete lack of labelling or deliberate mislabeling (onegreenplanet.org)
The labelling of leather can make it hard to know where it came from, and how it was made (peta.org.au, and wikipedia.org)
Carbon Footprint Of Leather
When analysing finished leather, several sources indicate that the agricultural stage is responsible by far for the most emissions/the greatest share of finished leather’s carbon footprint.
One report indicates that when comparing real leather and faux leather per square metre of leather produced, the processing/tanning stage of turning raw hide/skin into leather has a higher carbon footprint slightly higher that all of faux leather’s lifecycle combined, and when the agricultural stage is added in, it increases to be about 7 times that of faux leather.
It’s worth noting though that it might not be completely clear how much of the carbon footprint from the agricultural stage had been attributed leather, and how much was attributed to meat and dairy products, as theoretically they should take a share each and not the whole footprint of this stage.
One report also indicates that the thickness of leather can impact the final carbon footprint.
There is a source that indicates that mentions that leather tanning is not energy and carbon intensive, but we couldn’t find data to back this.
wikipedia.org outlines the ‘carbon footprint of cattle rearing’ as one of the three main environmental problems related to leather.
Although it’s worth noting that this footprint would be share with other cattle co-products.
In agriculture, there’s land use, as well as emissions from synthetic fertilizers and the livestock themselves to consider (methane for example).
Leather Tanning Stage
Among the different industries [in the economy], tanning of hides and skins is not an energy and carbon intensive sector
[Overall, all industries and manufacturing as a whole only contribute for 19% of total GHG emissions].
Carbon Footprint Of Finished Leather
[A review of] the life cycle material flows of leather … indicated the carbon footprint of finished leather to be about 15,190 kgCO2 equivalent per 100 m2 of leather for shoe uppers
[Of the raw material extraction stage (agriculture, cattle raising, and slaughter house), the manufacturing stage, and the distribution/transport stage, the raw material extraction stage by far makes up the biggest carbon footprint of finished leather]
… the thickness of finished bovine leather has significant impacts to the carbon footprints
Real Leather vs Artificial Leather Carbon Footprint
collectivefashionjustice.org indicates that:
[Even when only accounting for tanneries, chemicals outputs and transport, CO2e emissions for real leather are 17kg of CO2e per square meter of leather produced. This doesn’t even include the emissions at the agricultural stage]
[This is in comparison to a CO2e of 15.8kg per square meter for artificial leather’s for it’s total supply chain]
[A separate estimate indicates when taking into consideration farm emissions, the carbon footprint of cow skin leather is 110kg of CO2e per square meter, which is about 7 times more than synthetic leather]
[The processing and tanning of raw animal skins into leather is as impactful from a carbon emissions perspective as producing faux leather itself]
How Much Energy Leather Production Uses
Most sources indicates that leather production as a whole is energy intensive.
If you include the agricultural stage which includes energy inputs, and add the leather manufacturing and tanning stage which uses energy both directly and indirectly for chemicals and the power to run those processes, this claim likely has some validity.
[Leather production is energy intensive] (theurbanlist.com)
To make … animal skin wearable, this means using lots of energy and chemicals to transform the skin into the leather material we’re used to (harpersbazaar.com)
There’s also energy required for agricultural inputs like water, agricultural chemicals, farm machinery, and so on.
Among the different industries [in the economy], tanning of hides and skins is not an energy and carbon intensive sector (leatherpanel.org)
Water Footprint Of Leather
How much water leather uses might depend on whether leather is a co-product or by-product of the beef industry.
It may also depend on whether waste water is captured and re-used at the tanning and manufacturing stage.
Several sources indicate that leather production overall is water intensive.
fluencecorp.com has a good breakdown of water use across the agricultural and tanning stages of leather production.
They mention how leather production is water intensive, but it depends on whether leather is a by-product of beef or not as to whether this claim is fully accurate.
The water footprint of the leather tanning and manufacturing stage may be dependent on how much waste water can be treated, captured and re-used.
They also mention how leather’s water footprint might be decreased using different practices.
[Leather production is water intensive] (theurbanlist.com)
Chemicals Used For Leather Production
There can be a range of chemicals used in leather production.
Chemicals are used at the farm level, and also during the various stages of manufacturing, such as during tanning, dyeing and also finishing.
One source indicates that chromium (III) oxide used during tanning of raw cattle hides, and then released in tannery outflow, may be one of the most polluting aspects of leather production.
At the agricultural stages, there’s the chemicals (like synthetic nitrogen based fertilizers, and pesticides and herbicides) used to grow animal feed crops, and also the waste and manure from the livestock themselves.
Leather Manufacturing Stage
[Tanning] involves the use of a variety of chemicals to remove flesh, oil glands, and hair from the raw hides.
[Harmful chemicals can include] chromium, alum, tannins, [and other chemicals used] tanning.
[Chromium is used in leather production, and can be a problem chemical in leather production waste] (wikipedia.org)
wikipedia.org outlines the ‘use of chemicals in the tanning process’, such as ‘chromium, formic acid, mercury and solvents’ as one of the three main environmental problems related to leather.
[The] leather transformation process [may use] … hydrogen sulfide during dehairing and ammonia during deliming … (wikipedia.org)
[Chromium, sulfide, fat and other solid wastes, and pathogens can be found in leather production waste, and pesticides can be added to hides for protection during transport] (wikipedia.org)
[The processes used to turn animal hide or skin into leather can use] several chemicals and toxins including ammonia; cyanide-based dyes, formaldehyde; and lead.
The chemicals used in real leather tanning production includes formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, and some finishes that are cyanide base
These chemicals are some of the most environmentally damaging amongst all industries
To make the animal skin wearable, this means using lots of energy and chemicals to transform the skin into the leather material we’re used to [and] … strong chemicals … are used to break down protein in the skin.
This can be done with a more natural process as well, but often harsh chemicals are used to speed up the tanning process
wikipedia.org, in their resource outlining the preparatory stages, tanning and crusting of leather at the manufacturing stage, outlines the various chemicals used at each of these three stages.
These chemicals can be used to remove hair, turn the protein of the animal hide into a stable material, and to thin, retan, lubricate, and color leather during it’s manufacturing processes.
Some leather also use additional chemicals and substances during an additional surface coating stage.
fluencecorp.com also mention several of the chemicals used in leather tanning, dyeing and finishing processes, and mention how they may impact the environment.
At the tannery stage, raw cattle hides processed with chromium (III) oxide into a material called wet blue, and then released via tannery outflow, may be one of the most polluting processes during leather production.
Biodegradability Of Leather
At some point leather has to be thrown away when it’s reached the end of it’s use.
Leather does not appear decompose quickly compared to other materials, and some sources indicate it doesn’t completely decompose at all.
Leather biodegrades slowly—taking 25 to 40 years to decompose (wikipedia.org)
collectivefashionjustice.org indicates that [whilst faux leather won’t fully biodegrade, animal derived leather won’t get to the point of total decomposition]
From vocativ.com: An animal hide or skin [might] break down easier and quicker than a synthetic petrochemical based faux leather
Recyclability of Real Leather
From vocativ.com: Real leather may have an edge in sustainability because [it can] usually be recycled (whereas it’s hard to recycle faux leather – it might be able to be repurposed – but that is limiting)
Lifespan Of Real Leather
Something to note about real leather is that is can have a long lifespan whilst in use.
The longer it lasts, the more years it’s production footprint can be averaged over.
This should be taken into account when comparing it to faux leather.
From vocativ.com: Real leather may have an edge in sustainability because it can last longer than faux leather …
Impact Of Leather Production On The Environment, Humans & Human Health, & Wildlife & Animals
Leather has an ability to impact across it’s different stages.
We link the different potential effects to the different stages below.
– Agricultural Stage
We’ve previously written about the potential negative effects of agriculture on the environment in this guide.
There’s agricultural chemicals used to grow animal feed crops, and also agricultural waste and animal manure that can cause pollution of different parts of the environment.
There’s also greenhouse gases and land use to consider.
– Production/Manufacturing Stage
Heavy or harmful chemicals and substances used across the different production stages can be dumped via waste water into the environment without proper treatment, or ideally capture and re-use. This may cause water pollution.
There may also be air pollution from the chemicals used during leather production.
sciencing.com also mentions that regulations may be better in some countries than others when it comes to managing, discharging and treating chemicals.
Wikipedia.org goes further into the numbers behind environmental impact from leather production relating to VOC emissions, waste water, and so on
[The three main environmental problems related to leather production might be]
The carbon footprint of cattle rearing … [the] use of chemicals in the tanning process (e.g., chromium, formic acid, mercury and solvents) … [and] air pollution due to the leather transformation process (hydrogen sulfide during dehairing and ammonia during deliming) and the solvent vapors
fluencecorp.com indicates that ‘… raw cattle hides are first processed with chromium (III) oxide into a material called wet blue [and] This phase of the tanning process, the most polluting, is often carried out in developing countries’
With leather, pollution is caused by the toxic chemicals that are used in tanning to artificially preserve the animal skins (peta.org.au, and wikipedia.org)
[Some leather tanneries use only byproduct materials from livestock agriculture and] have a water recycling system to prevent pollution and use vegetable dyes instead of harmful chemical dyes (ecocult.com)
[The processes used to turn animal hide or skin into leather can use several chemicals and toxins that can be] … environmental pollutants, which end up released into the air, ground, and water supply [and] these processes are especially polluting in countries where environmental regulations aren’t enforced (onegreenplanet.org)
One ton of hide or skin generally produces 20 to 80 m3 of waste water.
With solid wastes representing up to 70% of the wet weight of the original hides, the tanning process represents a considerable strain on water treatment installations.
In leather production wastewater, there can be chromium levels of 100–400 mg/l, sulfide levels of 200–800 mg/l, high levels of fat and other solid wastes, and notable pathogen contamination (wikipedia.org)
[Tanning] involves the use of a variety of chemicals [and a] significant volume of waste is generated in the process.
Irresponsible industrial practices often lead to the contamination of the environment with harmful chemicals like chromium, alum, tannins, etc., that are used in tanning.
Tanning is especially polluting in countries where environmental regulations are lax, such as in India, the world’s third-largest producer and exporter of leather.
Chromium is a problem chemical in leather production waste
In less developed countries or countries with poor environmental laws, it usually costs more to treat production waste than to dump it and receive a penalty fee for irresponsible behavior
[Without efficient pollution prevention systems, chromium loads and VOC emissions can be higher]
[Chromium used for leather tanning can leak into] nearby soil and water at high enough levels to be carcinogenic and mutagenic.
For every tonne of hide produced, twenty to eighty cubic metres of chemically toxic, pathogen-contaminated wastewater is unleashed on the environment.
The use of heavy metals in the tanning and dyeing process has been a major concern in leather manufacturing, putting at risk the environment through chemicals leaking into water streams, the workers and also the wearer themselves (harpersbazaar.com)
[Some sustainable fashion advocates choose] animal by-product furs over synthetics because of the environmental impact of the latter, [but] the trade-off is that they aren’t cruelty-free] (fashionista.com)
Humans & Human Health
Chemicals used during the leather production process, specifically tanning, might be a hazard to workers, and those who come into contact with waste.
This may especially be more likely in countries with poor environmental regulations, or worker health and safety protection regulations.
– Leather Tanneries As A Toxic Industry
[In assessing] the most dangerous sources of toxic pollution in the developing world … Leather tanneries came in at number four on the list, behind battery recycling, lead smelting and mining and ore processing.
… some 100 sites around the world have been, or are being, polluted by tanneries, potentially endangering more than 1.8 million people.
– Impact Of Tanneries On Human Health
Leather tanneries use toxic chemicals that pose severe health risks to workers and surrounding communities, usually in regions like Bangladesh, India, and China where government protections are scarce, and end up in local waterways.
[The chemicals used during tanning] are highly detrimental to human health and some are even cancerous in nature.
More than 100 such toxic tanning sites have been identified by Pure Earth.
These sites endanger the lives of 1.5 million people living in or around such sites.
[The processes used to turn animal hide or skin into leather can use several chemicals and toxins that can be] carcinogenic … (onegreenplanet.org)
Leather production’s preparatory stage, in which the raw animal hide is prepared for tanning, usually incorporates substances (like hydrogen sulfide and ammonia) which put factory workers at risk for skin, respiratory, ocular or nerve damage, or in cases of extreme overexposure, death (eluxemagazine.com)
Impact On Wildlife & Animals
If chemicals and polluting waste water are discharged into aquatic environments, the aquatic life in the water sources where discharge flows to may suffer.
Are More Sustainable & Ethical Leathers Available?
Some sources indicate that there are more sustainable and/or ethical leather products available to provide different benefits.
Animals used for leather (and sometimes other body parts or products like meat for example) might provide sustainability, environmental, social and economic benefits.
So, there’s the ability to provide one of these benefits, and produce leather at the same time.
Some benefits might include to control overpopulation, to contribute to species conservation, to contribute to ecosystem health, using various parts of the animals’ bodies to reduce waste, local communities benefitting economically, private property being protected, and natural dyes being used in production.
There’s also various practices that can be implemented at various stages of leather production to improve the sustainability footprint, such as better management of waste water and effluent/outflow from tanneries, and better water conservation practices.
One barrier to implementing environmental protection practices though can be cost, and this can be a barrier for producers.
Locally Sourced Leathers
[Some exotic leather comes from animal hides/skin that are sold to luxury leather companies by local indigenous communities, and this source of income has many benefits for the local environment and local population of people] (ecocult.com)
Leathers From Overpopulated, Pest Or Problem Species
[Some deer skin/hide comes from deer that are hunted in areas where they are either overpopulated, or they are causing ecological damage to property] (ecocult.com)
Leathers From Local Culled Species
[One fashion brand uses] Kudu skins produced from government-regulated culling, locally-sourced rabbit and springbok in Kenya and South Africa, and vegetable dyes (fashionista.com)
The culling and hunting of Kudu is the result of a mandate issued by the South African government to control the overpopulation of the Greater Kudu.
As well as their hides, the meat and horns of the Greater Kudu are sold at local markets, which benefits indigenous communities and reduces waste.
This ultimately means that to some extent, Kudu leather can be classed as a sustainable animal by-product which has little impact on the environment, or indeed the conservation of the species
Some tanneries may focus on treatment of waste water, water recycling, re-use of chemicals, or the use naturally derived chemicals where possible for tanning and dying + finishing.
[Some leather tanneries use only byproduct materials from livestock agriculture and] have a water recycling system to prevent pollution and use vegetable dyes instead of harmful chemical dyes (ecocult.com)
If a tannery is properly managed, the waste will be handled in a way that avoids pollution (sciencing.com)
[Tanneries with efficient pollution prevention can decrease waste chemical loads and also emissions]
To give an example of an efficient pollution prevention system, chromium loads per produced tonne are generally abated from 8 kg to 1.5 kg.
VOC emissions are typically reduced from 30 kg/t to 2 kg/t in a properly managed facility.
.. several researchers have developed cleaner leather processing methodologies to reduce the environmental impact of conventional leather processing and to lower the burden of end-of-pipe treatment [and wikipedia.org lists these methods]
[One problem is] The higher cost associated to the treatment of effluents as compared to untreated effluent discharging [and this leads to untreated dumping to save costs]
fluencecorp.com mentions that leather production may be able to cut it’s water footprint with several practices, and that ‘… Some companies have cut water use by approximately 50% soon after instituting water conservation measures, including rainwater harvesting for production, reuse of water used internally during production, and extending reuse to entire facilities. Chromium can also be recovered from tanning effluent’
Companies That Produce Or Supply Finished Leather
Some companies only produce their leather from tanneries that work with animal skin by-products only, or that have a water recycling system to prevent pollution and use vegetable dyes instead of harmful chemical dyes
Some companies in the future may only produce their leather from tanneries who source from responsibly raised cows, and from farms that place an emphasis on sustainable farming practices.
Most first-world countries have strict environmental regulations to ensure that these chemicals are handled properly, rather than being discharged.
Unfortunately, some developing nations do not.
Although it originally came from an animal, an up cycled or recycled leather that doesn’t use added virgin leather may be more ethical than virgin produced leather material.
[Some leather sellers are trying to source leather products that use] vegetable dyes, natural tanning processes, and slaughter only cattle raised on old farmland, as opposed to newly razed rain forests
Other brands are using alternative leathers, including fish and eel skins, which usually thrown away as waste in the food production process.
[Some brands have sourced leather from] fish skin …. in a bid to lessen the pressure of real leathers
[Some brands] only uses leather from tanneries that are rated [for improved traceability/a clear supply chain and] These tanneries are rated on its energy and water use, emissions and chemical input, as well as having a clear supply chain that traces back to the slaughterhouse
… [some brands are using] vegetable tanning as opposed to [other chemical tannin] …. [because] Leather products treated with natural vegetable tannins are biodegradable and can be easily discarded at the end of their natural life
Not only does vegetable-tanned leather does not contain any toxic substance (such as azo-dyes, nickel, PCP or chrome VI) many tanneries reclaim hides from the food industry to prevent waste, which in turn encourages a recycled closed-loop system
… when sourced from sustainable ranches and tanned and dyed naturally, [real leathers] have the potential to be less damaging to the environment than most ‘vegan’ leathers (eluxemagazine.com)
It could be argued that real leathers that make use of animal skins and hides that would have been discarded if not used for leather is contributing to zero waste production and supply chains. This is in comparison to say some real furs, where the rest of the body of an animal is thrown away and not used, and there is more waste.
Economic Impact Of Real Leather
When looking at the value of each product derived from cows, some sources indicate that leather makes up a much smaller total value of the cow compared to meat and milk.
Economic Value Of The Leather Industry
[Globally, the leather industry is a $100 billion manufacturing sector] (libertyleathergoods.com)
Annual Leather Production
libertyleathergoods.com has a table of the top leather producing countries in 2015, and this table lists the production (in millions of square feet) of each top producing country.
They mention that in 2015, 23,976 million square feet of leather was produced globally.
Countries That Produce The Most Leather
[In 2015, China was by far the largest producer of leather at 24.9% of all leather production, compared to Brazil in second place at 9.4%] (libertyleathergoods.com)
Most leather comes from developing countries such as India and China … (peta.org.au, and wikipedia.org)
Products That Most Commonly Use Leather
libertyleathergoods.com has a table that indicates that shoes and footwear by far used the most leather of any commercial product in 2015, at 47%.
Automobile upholstery was in second place at 17%.
What % Of A Cow’s Total Value Leather Makes Up
… [leather makes up about] 6% to 8% of an American cow’s total cow’s value [or about] 5% of the overall value of the cow [in some parts of India]
… leather accounts for approximately 10% of the animal’s total value, making it the most valuable part, pound for pound (onegreenplanet.org)
Real Animal Leather vs Faux Leather Comparison
In this guide, we compare the main differences and other features and benefits/drawbacks of real animal leather and faux leather.
Comparing The Leather & Fur Industries
Some sources indicate that the leather and fur industries are as bad as each other from an animal welfare and environmental perspective, but perhaps leather might be worse in some ways due to it’s scale, and because of the differences in the leather and real fur tanning/processing stages.
goodonyou.eco compares leather to fur:
PETA argues that leather production is just as violent, painful, and deadly as the fur trade.
The environmental impact of leather is arguably worse too. … [some have pointed out] the toxic leather tanning industry in Bangladesh that puts workers and children in danger.
The sheer scale of the leather industry compared with fur is a environmental and health disaster for the communities that produce the material.
… [some say] an ethical consumer motivated by the interests of animals would not consider purchasing any new product made from fur [regardless of how it compared to leather].
Some argue fur is more sustainable because it can last a long time
thetruthaboutfur.com explains the processing sag of real fur.
The mention ‘Unlike the tanning of leather, where the goal is to remove hair completely from the hide, fur-tanning solutions must be gentle enough to protect hair follicles while preserving the hide and enhancing the natural beauty of the fur. This is called “fur dressing”.’
They then go on to mention some of the natural ingredients used in fur processing in some places in the US and Canada, and how some of the practices during processing can have eco friendly features to them.
Read more about the sustainability and animal friendliness of real fur in this guide
24. https://pdf.sciencedirectassets.com/277910/1-s2.0-S1876610214X00184/1-s2.0-S1876610214028537/main.pdf (relevant search – ‘carbon footprint of leather’)