Leather has been around for thousands of years; it's believed that leather was used all the way back in 1200 BC. Leather started to get its notoriety in the 1700s. Everyone at one point has owned something that was made of leather - a handbag, wallet, shoes, a car, a watch, furniture, etc.
I remember as a kid learning that leather was a quality product, that it was strong, durable, valuable, and is favored. But no one told me what it takes to make that belt or handbag, and that's what I want to share with all of you today.
During my senior year at FIT, I took an "intro to sustainability" class. I was assigned the topic of the leather industry for my final presentation. In 2018, I didn't know very much about the negative impacts of the fashion industry, especially the leather industry. Looking back now I see how ignorant I was, but I'm thankful I have opened my eyes and am eager to help push for change now. This project was what ignited my motive to help bring recognition to what goes on behind closed doors not just within the leather industry, which generates nearly 54 billion annually. But within the entire fashion industry.
Leather is a byproduct of the meat industry, made from the animal's hide or skin, which makes a lot of people claim that buying leather products is not necessarily bad because otherwise the hide would be thrown away if the leather was not being made.
I understand that point, and I considered it for quite a bit of time too. But after investigating a bit deeper into the leather industry I determined that the impact the leather industry has on the factory workers, the surrounding communities, environment, ecosystems, if far more disturbing than one is probably aware of. Even I was not once aware of.
Leather tanning is an extreme chemical-heavy process, which is typically made in developing countries that do not have the proper protection or waste management systems to dispose of the chemicals. In India and Bangladesh - early death, respiratory disease, and cancer are not uncommon for those who work in a leather tannery.
While there are different ways to tan leather, such as vegetable tanning that uses natural resources such as tree bark to create the notable brown color. Approximately 80-90% of the leather made today is from chromium tanned leather.
Chromium is a carcinogen, it affects the upper respiratory tract, and can increase the chances of contracting lung cancer. Those who work in the factories or live nearby have higher rates of developing asthma, bronchitis, polyps of the upper respiratory tract, and pharyngitis.
When Chromium comes in contact with your skin it can cause dry, cracked, scaled skin or even ulcers, which are commonly known as "chrome holes"
Many studies over the years have proven that there are direct links between the tanning process, cancer, and tannery workers. Cancers found in tannery workers include nasal, bladder, testicular, lung, and pancreatic cancer. In the early 2000's research also discovered the link between Chromium and increased risk of respiratory cancer.
Tannery workers have gone blind due to no protection while working with chemicals and have even died from exposure while cleaning "sludge tanks". See the video below.
Now take a moment to think about the potential danger that it could have on the end consumer (you!). While there may not be as many chemicals on the final product, I'm almost certain that there are still some that remain.
Below are some more scary facts I discovered about the leather industry.
- Over the next year, more than 50 billion land animals will be raised and slaughtered for food around the world.
- Sheep, dogs, cats, goats, pigs, are also killed for their skin in other countries. Once the hide has been turned into leather it is next to impossible to tell what kind of animal the leather came from.
- To break an average beef cow down by mass:
7% is allocated to the hide
49% is meat and edible offal
22% is split between animal feed, food-grade bones, and food-grade fat
22% is unusable waste
- "Made in Italy" does not always mean safer. It is referring to where the product is made, not where the leather is made.
- Livestock farming contributes 18% of human-produced greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. This is more than all emissions from ships, planes, trucks, cars and all other transport put together.
- To produce one kilogram of beef requires 25 kilograms of grain – to feed the animal – and roughly 15,000 liters of water.
- If all grain were fed to humans instead of animals, we could feed an extra 3.5 billion people.
- Industrial livestock farming relies heavily on antibiotic use to accelerate weight gain and control infection – in the US, 80% of all antibiotics are consumed by the livestock industry.
- Switching to a more plant-based diet could save up to 8 million lives a year worldwide by 2050 and lead to healthcare-related savings and avoided climate change damages of up to $1.5 trillion.
- One of the leading causes of deforestation is from farmers making room for livestock.
- It takes approximately 3,600 gallons of water to produce 1 pair of leather shoes.
I'm hoping by now the question, "what can I do?" has popped into your head.
There are numerous companies out there that are taking waste from all sorts of things - pineapples, mushrooms, grapes and turning it into a leather alternative. Because leather is still preferred by most, and small leather goods drive sales for a lot of brands, it's equally challenging to convince the brands as well as the consumers to shop for an alternative.
The two most popular types of alternatives are PVC (polyvinylchloride) and PU (polyurethane). PVC has a greater impact on the environment and also uses more chemicals, the process is far less dangerous than leather. It is essentially adhering plastic to fabric. PVC cannot be recycled and is not breathable, making it not preferred for clothing or shoes. PU is breathable and less toxic when compared to PVC. There are new technologies that are creating a PU coating from vegetable oils, rather than plastic. I believe over the next year or so more of these innovations will become more mainstream. While PU and PVC are not perfect, they have a significantly less environmental impact than traditional leather.
Stella McCartney is an industry leader when it comes to using ethical and environmentally friendly fabrics, not just leather. Stella uses recycled polyester, which is 24x less impactful on the environment than animal leather.
"The beliefs I was raised with - to respect animals and to be aware of nature, to understand that we share this planet with other creatures - have had a huge impact on me."
- Stella McCartney
I've listed some brands that offer leather alternatives that I prefer:
Matt and Nat
The Real Real - they sell used clothing and accessories, which is better than buying new, including leather.
I encourage you all to make bolder choices, consider consuming less meat, to question old habits and beliefs and take action and help spread the message of the climate crisis.
Change can push you out of your comfort zone but making better choices you, the planet, the environment, and people may feel small, but remember there are 7.7 billion people on the planet, almost all with the opportunity to make a choice every day.