What are your thoughts on leather? Is leather eco-friendly?
We do buy leather, but most of the leather in our house and wardrobe is secondhand. For quite a long time now I’ve been having an internal debate as to how eco-friendly leather is compared to it’s vegan polyvinyl chloride and polyurethane counterparts (the main materials “fake leather” or “pleather” are made from). I’ve also had a few discussions with people about leather lately and thought it would be a good time to open up a good old fashioned debate on leather vs. non-leather alternatives, and seek an answer to the is leather eco-friendly question.
The Case For/Against Leather
Intensive animal rearing obviously has major environmental and ethical implications, including large scale deforestation, increased methane levels, and animal cruelty issues. Creating leather is resource intensive, in terms of water and energy usage, and it’s also no secret that the leather industry is hazardous to the environment, to workers and to local people’s health due to the heavy metal chemicals used in the tanning process, such as chromium. Chromium can cause cancer, and pollute waterways and soil, especially in India and China where many tanneries go unregulated.
Approximately 85-90% of leather is chromium treated. Other tanneries use traditional natural dyes in the tanning process, such as saffron, in place of chromium. This vegetable tanning takes much longer than chromium tanning, meaning you do pay a premium, but less harsh chemicals are involved, meaning there is less harm caused to the environment and to the tannery workers. Leather which is vegetable tanned is also easier and safer to recycle or dispose of, however this more sensitive way of making leather does not take away the fact that animals are being killed.
Leather is widely claimed by manufacturers as a by-product of the meat industry. As leather commands a higher cost than meat, I’m simply not clear on whether leather is in fact a by-product of the meat industry, or if meat is a by-product of the leather industry. According to PETA, a high proportion of leather sold in the UK comes from India, yet according to some reports half a billion people in India are vegetarian. We can’t look at that fact in isolation though: 90% of the leather we import from Asia is bovine, and in the last couple of years India has become the biggest beef exporter in the world, overtaking Brazil. Perhaps there is some truth to the matter, but it’s such a grey area.
Some people say that as long as there are people in the world willing to eat meat (currently 2% of the UK’s population is vegetarian) then there will always be animal by-products. Whilst I agree that when an animal is killed to be eaten then all parts of the animal should be used for something, even it’s skin, does this become an excuse to justify the need for leather, or is it simply being pragmatic?
Are Alternatives to Leather Eco-Friendly?
The case against leather would be more clear cut if leather alternatives were more eco-friendly. Although irrefutably more ethical when it comes to animal welfare, the production of PVC and polyurethane (PU) requires petrochemicals derived from fossil fuels, such as coal or natural gas. This fossil fuel use accounts for increased carbon emissions, making them non-renewable.
The chemicals themselves required to make PVC and PU aren’t pretty for neither the environment or for human health. PVC is regarded as the most toxic of all plastics – as well as being a known human carcinogen, it’s known to cause diabetes, damage immune systems, disrupt hormones, and create birth defects. It’s effects are wide-ranging – workers, soil and water supplies, and nearby communities can all be at risk.
PU is a better choice than PVC – although chemical laden, it requires less chemicals than PVC to produce, and although still toxic, particularly in the workplace, is less toxic than PVC. Manufacturers are also now starting to be able to make PU with plant-based raw materials, reducing the toxic chemical load in it, and meaning it can biodegrade.
Asking if PU is a better choice than leather opens up another eco-friendly dilemma: I have two vintage (+30 year old) leather bags (one of which is pictured above) that I have used on steady rotation for the past seven years. Both are still going strong: a little scuffed perhaps but it all adds to the character. Comparing that to the cheap PU bag I owned before switching to those leather bags – I bought it new and it barely lasted 6 months of near daily use before the strap stretched beyond repair and a hole developed in the bag itself. It ended up in the bin (to landfill) less than a year after purchase.
And herein lies the dilemma – which option is the best? There are no easy answers to this one.
Other Alternatives to Leather and PU/PVC
In the UK we import about £4 billion of leather fashion a year, predominantly shoes. At the same time, around 2 million shoes are dumped in landfill every year. If you already own leather shoes, then instead of buying more shoes in alternative materials, the most eco-friendly option would be to re-sole shoes that you already own, if that’s possible. I’ve noticed a diminishing number of cobblers, possibly related to the fact that people are more likely to throw their shoes away when worn rather than pay £15-£20 to have a pair re-soled.
If you’re looking to purchase alternatives to leather then there are a number of different materials out there. Cork leather, bark cloth, e leather, recycled ultrasuede, and glazed cotton are all materials to look out for. I plan on writing about some of these alternatives, as well as about natural dyed leather, so do keep your eyes out for that in the coming weeks.
Conclusions – Is leather eco-friendly?
I personally think there are cases both for and against leather, and I don’t think there’s any option that ticks all the eco-friendly boxes. I’d love to hear your views on leather – let me know your views in the comments below or get in touch via Twitter or Facebook.