19 Jun

The Hidden Costs of Leather

From James Dean to Prada, punk to professional, leather has earned staple status in many wardrobes. But despite their longevity and versatility, leather garments and accessories might not always be an ethical investment. We unpack some of the concerning hidden costs involved in the production of leather.

How does leather impact the environment?

Those beautiful leather boots will put a dent in your wallet, but they also carry a hefty price-tag for the earth. The livestock industry is responsible for nearly 15% of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions and contributes significantly to deforestation.

Meanwhile, vast tracts of land are cleared worldwide to make room for livestock such as cattle, which are the main source of leather. According to Wageningen University and Research Centre, “agriculture is estimated to be the direct driver for around 80% of deforestation worldwide.” This means that animal habitats are destroyed and there are fewer wild places left on Earth.

The processing of leather also impacts the environment, with 300kgs of chemicals being added for every 900kg of animal hides tanned. The majority of the leather purchased in Australia has been processed in developing countries like India, China and Bangladesh. These countries often lack the controls necessary to ensure that toxic chemicals are being disposed of responsibly.

Leather-making is also one of the thirstiest industries, with recent estimates suggesting 17,000 litres of water are needed to produce just 1kg of leather. That’s over 60 full bathtubs worth! Ouch.

How does leather-making impact people?

You may be surprised to learn that leather can also carry a heavy cost for human welfare. Many of the developing countries where our leather goods are produced lack legal protections for the people affected by leather production. People living in polluted areas and tannery workers in particular, commonly suffer health problems like skin diseases and respiratory illnesses.

People have even been known to die from exposure to high concentrations of dangerous chemicals. Workers often work long hours without a living wage and child labour is common. This short documentary on tanneries in Bangladesh describes the impacts of the poisons involved in leather production on worker.

Animal welfare and the leather industry

The production of leather carries a variety of serious implications for animal welfare. Worldwide, a huge variety of animals suffer for the leather industry, including “pigs, goats, sheep, crocodiles, snakes, sting rays, seals, emus, deer, fish, kangaroos, horses, cats and dogs”.

In some countries where leather is manufactured, animal welfare laws are minimal or non-existent. Even in Australia, animals raised for leather and food are not given the same legal protection as companion animals or pets. For example, these creatures routinely undergo painful medical procedures without anaesthetic, including castration, de-horning, branding and mulesing.

Factory-farmed animals also live in cramped, unnatural conditions. Animal welfare becomes even more complex when leather is sourced from exotic and endangered species such as the Greater Rhea.

It is also important to remember that leather isn’t a by-product of the meat industry, or something that would end up being waste so is good to use anyway. Animal hide is extremely profitable, and often animals are killed strictly for their skin. This makes leather a “co-product” of the meat industry, and can essentially be seen as a subsidy on meat. It is vital not to fall into the trap of thinking that leather is a by-product, thus we aren’t ‘technically’ supporting animal slaughter.

Does better leather exist?

When buying leather made from animals, there are a few ways to make your choice more ethical:

  • Buy second-hand and recycled leather. Thrift shopping and market-hopping are fun ways to find quality leather products and give them new life.
  • Find brands that are attempting to reduce the chemical contamination caused in their tanning process.
  • Look for Fairtrade certified products that contribute to better living and working conditions for workers.

Can vegan leather be an ethical alternative?

It depends. Vegan leather can be a brilliant alternative for those of us concerned about the impact of our clothes on animals – but what is it, and why is it gaining a following from the catwalk to the school-yard?

Vegan leather textiles are similar in appearance and properties to animal leather. Sometimes called ‘faux leather’, these fabrics are often made from microfibres, polyurethane (PU), Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and other synthetic materials. We recommend avoiding vegan fashion and accessories made from PVC, which Greenpeace has labelled the most environmentally damaging of all plastics. But the good news is that leather-like products made from sustainable fibres have started hitting the scene.

Eco-friendly vegan leather

Many vegan leather products are now made from PU, which is considered a better synthetic material than PVC as its production does not involve the same damaging chemicals. Natural and recycled rubbers and recycled PET polyester are also good options. They minimise the negative impacts of synthetic rubbers and plastics while providing versatile and stylish materials.  New innovative leather-like materials are constantly being created from interesting eco-friendly sources like bark cloth, cork, glazed cotton and paper.

One innovative company hopes to reduce leather production with a new type of sustainable fabric made from pineapples. Piñatex is made from pineapple leaf fibres that used to be thrown away as a waste product. Piñatex creator, Carmen Hijosa, pioneered the product as a solution to the poor quality leather, working conditions, and toxic impact of leather production in the Philippines. While it is still unfortunately slightly too early to truly assess the environmental credentials of this and other innovative vegan leather alternatives, we are excited to see what the future may hold for all of them and the positive impacts they might have on the fashion industry and, in turn, people, the planet, and animals.

By reducing our dependence on animal leather, we can vote with our wallets for cleaner, safer and more beautiful products, that don’t cost the earth and harm its inhabitants.

Learn more about sustainable and ethical materials.

Editor's note

Feature image via Unsplash. This article was originally published in August 2015 and was updated in June 2017, and in September 2019. Good On You publishes the world’s most comprehensive ratings of fashion brands’ impact on people, the planet and animals. Use our Directory to search more than 2,500 brands. We may earn a commission on sales made using our offer codes or affiliate links.

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