Leather is a luxurious, soft, and durable material that’s been used by human civilizations since at least 2200 BCE. But leather is also a warzone—that is, between those who believe hide leather is a fantastic, sustainable material and those who would argue to the death that it’s both unethical and unsustainable. Like the issues that are toughest to resolve, it comes down to politics and ethics, plus a back and forth of facts about the material’s environmental and health impacts and its alternatives. Certainly, the leather industry is changing and modernizing—but for many, particularly those who care about animal welfare, responsible leather is a fallacy. Leather refers to the tanned skin of an animal—usually cows, although there are many other animals used for their hides, including fish, snakes, goats, crocodiles, and kangaroos. To keep things simpler for the sake of this article, hide leather will refer to cows alone. We’ll give you a primer on the arguments for both sides of the fence. When all is said and done, the decision to use or not use leather is a deeply personal one. What’s important is that consumers and designers have all of the information they need to feel good about the choice they make.
The anti-leather faction has a lot of powerful arguments. The most visible is that of the inhumane treatment of cows, which often live lives of pain, abuse, and disease before reaching the slaughterhouse. But for those who aren’t staunch vegetarians or vegans, there are other compelling reasons to opt out of hide leather products. For one, mass leather production depends on mass cattle farming, which involves significant amounts of pastureland, water, feed, and fossil fuels. Livestock farming (and feed crop farming) can cause deforestation and pollution can threaten waterways, leading to habitat loss for millions of species and accelerating climate change by producing massive amounts of greenhouse gases. According to vegan author and educator Joshua Katcher, “Livestock and their feed production consume almost one-third of all freshwater in the world today and are responsible for 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.”
And then there are the chemicals involved in the tanning and dying process. Most leather is tanned using chrome, in a highly toxic process that releases toxic waste into waterways, resulting in serious water pollution, poisoning ecosystems and local water supplies. Chromium is also hazardous to tannery workers, and to people who live near tanneries as well. Leather tanning, dying, and finishing can also involve toxic chemicals like phthalates, PCP, arsenic, and solvents.
Leather is mankind’s oldest textile. It’s been around for millennia. And it’s certainly evolving. Today’s leather consumers are demanding that the material be manufactured with higher environmental standards than ever before, using fewer toxic chemicals. They want to know that their leather doesn’t come from factory farms with inhumane animal treatment, and that it doesn’t pollute or contribute to deforestation.
While the majority of leather manufacturers continue to operate according to status quo, there’s a growing contingent of manufacturers that are stepping up to the plate and producing more responsible, sustainable, and less toxic leather products. Today’s ethical leather brands exclusively use hides of meat animals and are transparent about their sources. Often, they use hides sourced from Europe, where cattle graze on grass in open fields and artificial hormones are prohibited. Sourcing hides from Europe also demonstrates that companies don’t contribute to deforestation in developing countries or the Amazon rainforest.
Transparent, responsible leather companies like Garrett, Moore & Giles, Townsend, and Cortina, pledge never to harm an animal solely for its hide. Instead, they buy hides from the meat industry, using resources that otherwise would go to landfills. Bovine leather is ecologically sound, they argue, because leather is simply a byproduct from another industry, and so leather manufacturers are in fact removing a material from the waste stream. According to Cortina, “Currently 18 percent of hides are not upcycled into leather for use in upholstery, shoes, garments, etc., and are thus disposed of in landfills.” While this is true, the hide represents about 10 percent of a cow’s value, which makes cattle farming a more viable industry.
Another perk: leather is durable. Manufacturers claim that it can last up to five times longer than other upholstery materials, which reduces replacement costs and unnecessary waste. “Ethical” leather companies have also solved the issue of chromium contamination. Many have phased out chrome tanning entirely in favor of lower impact, all-natural solutions like olive leaves, tree bark, and other vegetable dyes. For example, Moore & Giles’ wet-green® tanning agent is an organic, plant-based concentrate made from olive leaf extract. These olive leaves are a byproduct from olive production that would otherwise be burned. They’re the first Declare Red List free leather options available in the world. Garrett Leathers too has pledged to use entirely non-toxic materials in its leather—no PVC, no heavy metals, phthalates, or other harmful chemicals. Cortina Leathers also manufactures chrome- and solvent-free, low-VOC certified leathers, as does Townsend.
But far from all leather manufacturers are adopting such practices. Chromium remains the industry’s most prevalent tanning method and forests continue to be cut down for feed crop and cattle farming, draining ecosystems of water and natural resources as they pollute waterways and emit greenhouse gases. While leather may market itself as a sustainable, ethical option, it’s important to look further at exactly what commitments each company has made to reduce its impact on the environment and improve human and natural health and wellbeing. For those who still aren’t convinced, explore our article on leather alternatives.