Leather has been with us since the earliest days of humanity and has long been prized for its durability, availability and versatility. Nowadays fine leathers are synonymous with luxury and are appreciated as something that gets finer with age. Moreover, leather is a natural product so that means it is automatically sustainable right?
The truth about leather is a little more complicated as it is a by-product of food production. This connection with the meat and dairy industry, which is one of the worst polluting industries on the planet, severely taints the reputation of leather as a sustainable product. In response it is often argued that, by creating something beautiful and useful from the waste created by meat production, the leather industry annually keeps 7.3 million tonnes of solid waste out of landfills. The logic being that leather production keeps an industry with an extremely negative environmental impact from being even worse.
While waste reduction is a valid argument, the leather industry has been plagued by its own set of sustainability issues. Chief among these are the use of hazardous chemicals, waste management, energy demands and worker safety. Fortunately a number of changes have taken place over the past few decades to ensure the leather industry moves towards a sustainable future.
To begin with, in Europe and North America, environmental regulations have closed the vast majority of leather tanneries. In the developing countries, governments often lack the will or resources to enforce such regulations but fortunately there are a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that set global standards and perform audits. Among these organizations are The Leather Working Group (LWG), The ZDHC Foundation (which stands for Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals) and ICEC (Institute of Quality Certification for the Leather Sector). With the help of the above NGOs the leather industry is largely cleaning up its act.
In stark contrast with just a few decades ago, most leather tanneries nowadays run their own wastewater treatment plants or at the very least send their liquid waste to a local treatment plant. The goal for many tanneries is to create a circular waste system that provides new materials and energy sources from solid waste.
In regards to chemical toxins, various NGOs have created Manufacturing Restricted Substances Lists (MRSL) which restrict the international use of hazardous toxins such as mercury, arsenic, phenol or formaldehyde. By and large these old harmful chemicals have been swapped out for new water-based technology. Moreover, the solvents used are recaptured and reused rather than emitted into the environment. In this regard the leather industry is actually more advanced than the textile industry when it comes to eliminating toxins from the MRSL lists. Nevertheless tanneries are increasingly automating their processes in an effort to recapture chemicals, reduce waste, create a safer workplace and manage energy usage more efficiently.
Leather tanning requires huge amounts of electricity. The energy required is the main cause of environmental damage due to the leather industry. Studies have shown that switching tanneries to a clean power source will actually have a greater positive impact than any changes in production processes. It is a hopeful sign that more and more producers are adopting clean power sources. For example, the tanneries we work with have already invested significantly in solar power and are gold certified by the LWG standards.
In conclusion, the leather industry is far from perfect but progress is being made. Consumers and brands can help advance change by demanding leather from tanneries at the forefront of the sustainability movement. As long as there is a meat industry there is a need for leather. That does not mean, however, that we shouldn't be dedicated to using the most sustainable leather possible.
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