The environmental impact of the leather industry

Can it ever go green?

We all know by now that, during the past decade, the high demand for cheap manufacturing and fast-changing trends have resulted in a worldwide waste crisis. We live in a world where people now consume about 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year – 400% more than the amount consumed 20 years ago. The reality of the situation is that, as of right now, fashion is responsible for 92m tons of solid waste each year, all of which, ends up in landfills.

During the 2019 Copenhagen Fashion Summit, fashion leaders, policymakers and creative directors demanded urgent action on sustainability within the industry. If the current pace of change doesn’t improve, fashion will continue to be a net contributor to climate change and cause further hindrance on achieving  the Paris Agreement’s goal.

A lot of brands have, throughout the years, made the conscious decision to stop using fur and recycle where possible. However, we can’t deny that those make up a very small percentage of the issue. Let’s stop for a second and think about leather. The True Cost has highlighted how the amount of feed, land, water and fossil fuels used to raise livestock for leather production come at a huge cost to the health of our world. In addition to this, the leather tanning process is among the most toxic in all of the fashion supply chain.

“Leather is extraordinarily harmful to the planet. The chemicals that are used to tan the leather is not biodegradable; it’s very harmful for the water [and] it contaminates the local communities that are in contact with that. It’s just a very destructive industry. Over 50 million animals are killed a year just for the leather and for the fashion industry,” commented Stella McCartney.

Peta explains that, although some manufacturers label their products as eco-friendly, turning skin into leather requires massive amounts of energy and dangerous chemicals – including mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives and various oils, dyes and finishes.

Raising animals for leather purposes requires huge quantities of water and wide areas of pastureland, which must be cleared of trees. In the last half century alone, 70% of the Amazon rainforest has been cleared to make way for pastures, or, for growing feed crops.

To add further, the production of leather doesn’t simply hurt animals and the environment, it hurts the workers too. In fact, according to Peta, studies of leather-tannery workers in Sweden and Italy, found cancer risks between 20% and 50% above those expected.

But the real question is, can leather ever go green?

Sure, vegetarian or vegan leather is an easy alternative for some. However, let’s not forget that this type of leather is made of plastic and, more specifically, polyester. This is, of course, a non-biodegradable material made of fossil fuels and its most damaging impact is the extraction and processing of oils into yarn.

Investing in top tanneries should be a priority for all fashion brands using real leather. The Leather Working Group is an organisation whose objective is to inspect tanneries as well as promoting sustainable environmental practices. Approved members include big brands such as adidas, Dr. Martens and Burberry.

Last but not least, anyone manufacturing leather products should be aware of the fact that in 2014, the EU published a regulatory plea to ban chromium VI from all leather articles. The chemical is known to “cause string contact dermatitis in humans and once sensitized, concentrations of 3 mg/kg are enough to trigger allergic reactions.”

Thankfully, now, more than ever before, awareness is being spread and people find themselves very interested in what they buy, where the items come from and what the environmental impacts are of their choices. Unfortunately, sustainability is not something that can be easily achieved overnight and there is no simple answer when it comes to getting it right. Get informed, know your fabrics and really question the ethics of your favourite brand. We are all responsible and we should all do our best to save the planet. If we don’t act now, then when?

words Alice Ierace
cover image Stella McCartney