Is Leather Sustainable?

Is Leather Sustainable?

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Leather is a multi-billion pound global industry, with its uses dating back to as early as 5000 B.C. Leather is both durable and comfortable, and so is perfect for shoes, bags, wallets and furniture etc. It is used all around us in our everyday lives, but do we know the real damage it could be causing to our planet?

Leather is animal hide which is cleaned of hair, treated/ tanned and then finished with a specific colour or texture. The production of this ubiquitous material is much more damaging than it sounds. To make space for cattle, the Amazon has suffered greatly. With the cutting down of trees being normalised by large industries, upwards of 50,000 acres of forests are cleared by farmers and loggers per day worldwide, and the equivalent of over 10,000 football fields are destroyed each day in the Amazon Basin alone. 

The most harmful part of the leather production process is the tanning element. 90% of the overall production uses chromium tanning, which is what is used to help stop the decomposition of the leather as well as add colour. The toxins which are produced are so noxious that tanneries across the US and Europe have been forced to close. This means that these areas are having to import leather from developing countries, where the untreated tanning waste often flows into local waterways, leading to the death of underwater animals and the growth of algae. 

Furthermore, in these developing countries, it is not uncommon to see child exploitation in the workplace, as well as shocking work environments. The leather industry creates a space for unpaid workers and tough conditions. Consumers who buy into this production are enabling such acts and creating demand for it.

There are, however, ways in which the tanneries are regulated in some areas. Tanneries which are rated by the leatherworking group (LWG) are assessed on energy and water use, emissions and chemical impact as well as having a clear supply chain that traces back to the slaughterhouse. When purchasing leather, this is something you would need to look out for. If the brand is not certified by the LWG, then you can assume that their impact on the environment could be significantly higher than a brand which is. Also, opting for a brand that uses vegetable tanning as opposed to a chemical which is less harmful to the planet. Leather products treated with natural vegetable tannins are biodegradable and can be easily discarded at the end of their natural life.

Vegan leather is an alternative which acts very similarly to usual leather but doesn’t have the same production process. Many people opt for faux leather as to not support the leather industry and by spending your money elsewhere, you’re not creating a demand for the product. This will in turn help to reduce the harmful effects leather production has on our environment, as well as the effect it might have on communities where the tanning process takes place. Being exposed to these chemicals for hours each day has been suggested to cause serious health problems such as leukaemia and heart conditions.

However, this comes with its own issues. Some vegan leathers are made from plastics which take years to biodegrade and furthermore, micro-plastics take a lot of water, energy and chemicals to be made. 13 million tonnes of synthetic fibres enter our oceans every year. Vegan leathers are famously not as durable as normal leather and with leather being so long-lasting and comfortable, you can see why there remains such a high demand for these products. Vegan leather is thinner and easier to work within the fashion industry, as well as being a lot cheaper to make. Despite this, The annual area of leather produced is 19,000 million square feet which are significantly higher than that of vegan leather, which leaves us questioning… Why choose vegan leather over regular if they’re both so harsh on the environment?

Although both types of leather have their drawbacks, vegan leather still seems to be less impactful on the environment than normal leather. Out of all materials used for fashion, animal fibres take out four of the top five least environmentally friendly, with cow leather the most damaging. Vegan leather also contributes to just one-third of the environmental impact compared to cow leather. 

Although vegan leather is better for the environment, it doesn’t mean you have to cut out normal leather from your life completely. There are easy ways to get around purchasing leather without creating a demand for it. With it being a popular option since 5000 B.C., there are plenty of opportunities to purchase second-hand leather. For example, buying from charity shops or eBay, or using a swapping app such as Swapabee where you are able to swap one of your old items for someone else’s without creating the demand for that item. Swapping is always a much easier and cheaper option when shopping for new things, it helps reduce the amount of clutter you have as well as enabling you to obtain new things that you need. 

All in all, both types of leather have their benefits and drawbacks, and it is up to us as a society to make the choices we think are necessary for the good of our planet.

This article is in association with SWAPABEE. An environmental app company that allows anyone to swap their items for others. Create an account and start swapping today at

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