The term sustainability has been one of the most discussed topics across the leather industry over the past year. Manufacturers around the world are striving to reengineer their practices by making them more sustainable. But what does sustainability really mean and how do we relate the leather industry to it? Let us dive deeper.
In a white paper titled Leather Sustainability, Leather Naturally provides an overview of the current status of the leather industry. Identifying non-sustainable practices is quite straightforward. However, defining what is sustainable can be quite tricky. Since there is no well-defined definition of sustainability, companies use it carelessly in publications, documents and conversations with little regard for its meaning. We are here to give you an overview of it briefly.
As of today, the leather industry is not sustainable.
The cause is not the practices or people involved, but the unknown chemicals involved. Problem is, the chemicals that were used in the past were also regarded as safe. As time passed, science progressed and the apparently safe components began to prove problematic and even potentially dangerous. The cosmetics and medicine industry, for example, has been removing chemicals like arsenic, cadmium, and other toxic substances from their products for decades. Although leather is made from biological sources, scientists are still researching modern ways to use different approaches and materials to reexamine old processes.
First, let us define what sustainability is:
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs
Leather Naturally reports that, if handled correctly, the leather industry can meet all sustainability criteria. Here's why:
- Leather is made from a natural material
Leather comes from a natural material and is a biophilic material helping consumers navigate through the world filled with glass, metal and electronic devices. A biologist from the United States named Edward O Wilson first developed biophilic design to counter the negative effects of urbanisation on the natural environment. Following this discovery, the building industry looked at the impact of natural materials in the built environment on health and well-being. Leather is said to be the closest thing to natural, as it's made from the skin and hide of animals.
- Economical Aspect of the Leather Industry
Although the leather industry has modernised somewhat, it remains largely a hand-to-eye occupation. Leather is also vastly used in the footwear and apparel industries. Jakov Buljan of UNIDO shared at an industry conference in 2014 that a single square foot of leather creates 50 jobs in leather-using industries. Since leather is used in multiple industries and cannot be fully processed by advanced technologies, it will keep creating jobs and help to bring people out of poverty.
Looking in the future, it is clear that consumeristic tendencies among the public should be replaced by sharing and a circular economy to preserve natural resources and live a sustainable life. Leather is important for its longevity and repair.
Design director of Earthkeepers and Timberland Boot company Pete Lankford said:
"Leather wins over any material you can think of. If you can buy a pair of boots that last twice as long as a synthetic alternative, you will end up with half the environmental impact in the long run"
Leather itself lasts for a long time. If the coating is thick enough to qualify for leather, then even products heavily coated with pigments and full-grain types outlast plastics. Plus, leather ages gracefully and is easily cleaned with a damp cloth, so it belongs to the reuse, repair, and re-manufacture model.
- Ecological Aspect of the Leather Industry
During the 1970s and beyond, the manufacturing of leather products like shoes, gloves, bags, and garments moved to less developed countries (creating millions of jobs there). New well-equipped factories were built on green sites, which put pressure on older leather economies. Due to the location of their factories, the manufacturers were unable to maintain a decent waste treatment plan and meet the high demand of consumers. As a result, many of those plants were shut down and replaced with modern factories and enhanced environmental protection. In the west, manufacturers of leather have rebuilt or updated their factories to produce items of the highest quality.
As a result, the chemicals used to make leather are highly regulated and, if handled properly, are safe. But in places where the industry is still transitioning into a modernised era, it is essential that every worker has the proper equipment and working conditions so that such incidents do not occur. Additionally, there is a risk of untreated effluent spilling onto land and into water channels. People who drink or bathe in such water will face serious health problems. And so we must leverage best practices to help our industry counterparts in developing economies transform.
- Chemical Compounds in Leather Treatment
Chemical treatments used in leather manufacturing are safe when performed properly. Among all treatment processes, common salt is the most difficult to remove. Since it has a negative impact on water, manufacturers are trying to remove it from rawhide without dissolving it.
Another chemical that contributes to leather manufacturing problems is chromium due to its cancer-causing capabilities. It is true that the cancerous form is not used in leather manufacturing, but can be created due to careless processing. Ingestion of chrome is dangerous, not contact.
Any effluent water, regardless of whether or not it contains chromium, should not be discharged untreated into a watercourse from which it will be ingested.
- Ethical Issues Involved
Farmers keep livestock for many reasons, but making leather is certainly not one of them. Skins and hides are by-products of keeping livestock and aren't profitable enough to justify maintaining a herd of cows or sheep.
However, exotic leather is usually made from reptiles, which is an exception. In terms of global leather production, it accounts for less than 1% of the total, but it plays a crucial role in the luxury goods industry. Leather Naturally does not get involved in the fur trade or this part of the leather industry. Leather Naturally notes that the production of such goods has ethical implications, and does not represent the entire global livestock industry.
As a company, Leather Naturally expects transparency and honesty about the origins of skins, as well as certification of everything tanned. Additionally, they are aware that some luxury conglomerates have purchased the supply chain to be able to control not only the produce supplies but also the ethics and procedures involved.
As far as leather is concerned, all cattle, sheep, pig, and goat hides and skins are by-products that are to be made into leather. The purpose of breeding and slaughtering any animal for leather is not to produce leather. In 2018, the EU accepted this viewpoint as a rule for carbon footprint-building in leather products (PEFC, 2018).
- Alternate Uses for hides
As a result of the 2008 financial crisis and the current COVID-19 pandemic, the market upset caused a decrease in demand for some hides, and in several cases slaughterhouses with any storage space threw them away.
In order to achieve sustainable leather, it is important to know about alternate uses for materials and manage any waste that may occur. Hides and skins contain proteins that can be eaten and used in other ways. In cosmetics and medical products, gelatine, sausage skins, and other substances are in demand. In the present, only parts of the hide, bones, and hooves are being used for the aforementioned alternatives.
Leather Naturally believes that historically making leather was the best way to utilise this by-product. But there may be another way.
- Common Myths about the leather industry
(Aside from those who come from animal rights and vegan groups), the main argument against livestock is its effect on the environment. Generally, the complaint about methane release from cattle is misunderstood and people make wrong decisions about diet and farming. To find out more, read the full report by Leather Naturally or find out more here.
Why should you care about the sustainability of leather?
An appropriately made and sourced leather can be a truly sustainable material. Leather is a durable and natural product that combines:
Beauty: Leather can look and feel rich and luxurious. A variety of finishes and colours are available for tanning and conditioning. The fact that it becomes more beautiful and interesting with age and acquires a unique character adds to the argument.
Comfort: Leather is comfortable since it absorbs moisture from perspiration and it breathes. Its fibrous construction allows it to shape to your needs over time. Therefore, whether you are purchasing a jacket, shoe, glove, or bag, you can rest assured that it will fit you perfectly.
Practicality: It protects you from wind and cold and can be made resistant to rain and snow. Leather is durable and can be easily cleaned, plus quality leather is often made into products that are timeless, fashionable classics
Sustainability, in general, is not a destination to be reached, but a process of continuous improvement. Leather Naturally also recommends the Leather Working Group, a group of major retailers, among them Timberland, which was formed in 2005. This global organisation rates leather manufacturers on their efforts to reduce their environmental footprint and is considered to be one of the best and most effective.
The following Chinese manufacturers are gold rated and certified as 100% traceable:
- Changshu Maydiang Leather Co Ltd.,
- Dezhou Xinghao Leather Industry Co. Ltd., and
- Dongguan Ao Sheng Xie Cai Co Ltd,
As well as silver-rated fully traceable:
- Binzhou Binhai Leather Co Ltd, and
- Ding Feng Leather Co Ltd.
To find out more click here.