Leather and environmental issues

(First published April 2009, last updated August 2012)

I started thinking more about leather a few years ago after seeing the most horrible video of an animal that was skinned alive for the fur/skin trade.

I can’t relay in mere words how horrific it was to see this animal after the process – the poor creature seemed fully conscious and the look on its face was just incredibly heartbreaking. Without its skin, I couldn’t even recognize what sort of animal it was. It looked so forlorn, confused and in so much pain, I nearly cried. It’s an image that I’ve never been able to shake from my memory.

It’s incidents like these that really make me question the concept of we humans as evolved and “superior” beings.

The practices of some in the fur and skin trade have gained a lot of media coverage to the point that wearing of fur as a fashion statement is generally frowned upon these days.
Leather is another story –  I guess that most of us like to think that the leather goods we buy – shoes, furnishing, clothing, bags etc. – have come from animals that have been humanely slaughtered and that the leather is more of a by-product rather than the focus; i.e. from animals used for meat.

Even if that is the case, and the term “humane” when it comes to slaughter is subject to a lot of controversy, what about the other environmental impacts from our desire for leather products?
Leather’s chemical cocktail
As leather is basically just skin, the base component (rawhide) is fully biodegradable. Without some form of treatment, known as tanning, it would simply fall apart or become stiff, rendering it unusable. It would also be a tasty snack for all sorts of critters.

Back in the old, old days, smoke was often used to cure leather as were vegetable tannins, salt, urine and animal faeces or animal brains – it was a rather smelly and messy affair, so most tanneries were situated outside towns.

These days, here’s how most tanning occurs:
– Hides are first prepared by curing them with salt
– The hides are then soaked in clean water to remove the salt
– The hides are treated with one or more of the following as part of the de-hairing process:
* Sodium sulfide
* Sodium hydroxide
* Sodium hydrosulfite
* Arsenic sulfide
* Calcium hydrosulfide
* Dimethyl amine
* Sodium sulphydrate
– Once the hair is removed, the hides are then treated with a mixture salt and sulphuric acid if mineral tanning is to be done.
– The hides are soaked in water once again and biocides such as pentachlorophenol may be used to prevent bacterial growth.
– Tanning can be performed, and usually this is via mineral methods using chromium, a heavy metal, in the form of basic chromium sulfate. Chromium is bioaccumulative, meaning it can build up in an organism over time.
Modern tanning is still a messy and smelly affair with a ton of extra energy, water and toxic chemicals thrown in. The process is so toxic that many old tannery sites cannot be used for agriculture. Tanneries not only often poison the land they are situated on, but also the waterways into which they discharge effluent.
Given all that, I’m left wondering if modern leather tanning processes are just as environmentally damaging as some of the plastics we use in clothing and furnishings such as polyester and nylon.
Imported leather

But surely if the toxicity of the process is well known, our governments have taken steps to address it, right? Yes, that’s often the case in places like the USA, Australia, Canada and the UK – but here’s a quote in regards to a tannery in Australia fined for environmental issues that sums up where the problem lies:

“…told the court the business would not operate as a tannery in the future, but would move to importing sheepskins”
Our desire for cheap leather coupled with tightening local government regulations is not solving the problem, but simply moving the environmental issues overseas to countries where controls are more lax – not only on the pollution side of things, but in relation to animal welfare.
So, even if the boots or coat you buy says “Made in Australia” or “Made in the USA”; there’s a very real possibility that the actual leather used in the product was imported from overseas.
So what’s a leather lover to do?
Firstly, we need to look at our consumption – do we really need 10 pairs of leather shoes, 5 wallets or 8 handbags? Every leather item you don’t buy mean less toxic waste entering into the environment and perhaps an animal not killed – you’ll save some cash as well.
We can also reduce our associated impact by asking companies where they source their leather – if it’s outside “developed” countries, assume the worst.
Additionally, if you’re prepared to spend a few more bucks, consider organic leather. Organic leather comes from animals raised and slaughtered humanely and the tanning uses more environmentally friendly processes such as smoke and plant based tannins. You can find these products simply by typing: organic leather X into your favorite search engine, where X is the type of product you are wanting.
Leather alternatives
After you watch a few videos and read a bit more about the treatment of animals destined to become leather products, it does tend to work away at your conscience; but the alternatives also present a minefield for the environmentally conscious consumer.

You could just turn your back on leather altogether, but so many of our fabrics are petro-chemical based or use incredibly environmentally destructive and energy intensive processes.

This is where we need to start looking more towards organic cotton, soy, hemp, bamboo and other forms of organic clothing. Most of these are still terribly expensive and I must admit I’m guilty of leaning towards cheaper and very non-green clothes – even if I do manage to squeeze a decade out of a t-shirt :). It’s a habit I’m trying to kick.

If you just love the look and feel of leather, consider pleather, which is just a slang term for synthetic leather made out of plastic; but just be aware of the associated impacts – not all pleather is created equal and some plastics will be worse than others. These range from the more natural calico coated with boiled linseed oil mixed with dryers and pigments to fabric bases coated with plastic, to 100% plastic substitutes.

Unfortunately for the leather lover – it’s a case of abstinence or choosing the lesser of the environmental and humanitarian “evils”; but a reduction in impact is certainly better than taking no action at all.