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A Glimpse Into the Leather Industry’s Environmental Impact


Often associated with luxury and durability, leather has long been a staple in the fashion industry. Its timeless appeal can be seen in leather jackets, handbags, shoes, and a wide range of accessories. 

But, the allure of leather holds hidden tales of environmental consequences that demand our attention. As an intricate web, the leather industry’s environmental impact runs deep starting with the procurement of animal hides and skin, typically sourced from the meat industry. Then, the leather curing, tanning, and finishing all leave a sad environmental story as it transforms into the lustrous material we recognise.

In this article, we’ll delve into the heart of a matter that concerns not just fashion enthusiasts but also our planet. We’ll uncover the hidden costs of leather production and discuss fashion’s path toward a more sustainable future.

How Environmentally Friendly Is Leather?

Leather Industry's Environmental Impact

Leather may appear to be an eco-friendly choice, but the reality is far more complex. When considering leather, we must scrutinise its environmental implications and recognise the significant role it plays in the fashion landscape.

Its journey begins on farms where livestock is raised, and so is its environmental impact with the carbon footprint associated with rearing animals for their hides and skin. Not to mention deforestation, as in the case of the Amazon region, due to cattle ranching which often contributes to the larger issue of climate change and global warming.

Also, the tanning process of real leather typically involves the use of dangerous chemicals like chromium salts and tanning liquor, posing significant environmental risks if not managed properly.

By exploring these aspects, we can gauge how environmentally friendly or unfriendly leather truly is.

What Is the Problem With the Leather Industry?

Let’s embark on a quest to unveil the truth about leather.

Environmental Impact of Leather Production

Leather Industry's Environmental Impact - Environmental

At this point, we know that leather production poses environmental concerns, but how intricate is its link? Let’s unravel the hidden complexities of this process, which connects leather products to global challenges.

Link to Global Warming

In sprawling cattle ranches all over the world, animals are raised for both meat and leather production, forming an integral part of the leather supply chain. However, this interconnectedness comes at a price. The rearing of livestock and the associated activities emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to the phenomenon of climate change.

Leather Tanning and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

As we dive deeper into the leather production process, we encounter the pivotal leather tanning process—where tanning stabilises the skin and prevents it from drying out. This critical phase, responsible for imparting the desired texture and durability of most leathers, often relies on the use of harmful tanning methods and chemicals.

Traditional methods, such as chromium tanning, have been notorious for their environmental consequences. These processes, driven by harsh chemicals, also release harmful greenhouse gases, further exacerbating the environmental impact of leather. 

Fossil Fuels in Leather Processing

Moreover, the leather industry heavily depends on fossil fuels for various stages of production, including transportation and energy requirements. The use of these non-renewable resources shows the industry’s reliance on unsustainable practices and the broader implications of leather in our carbon footprint.

Leather and the Meat Industry

Leather Industry's Environmental Impact - Leather and Meat

Animals raised for meat also yield hides, which are subsequently transformed into leather. But, the leather and meat industries share more than just their connection to livestock. 

The Interplay of Leather and Meat

The intensive practices associated with factory farming have been under scrutiny for their contribution to the pollution of local waterways and other environmental problems. So, as leather products form an integral element of the meat industry, they are also entangled with the far-reaching environmental consequences of meat production. 

This underscores the importance of understanding how our choices as consumers impact both sectors and that these consequences should be taken into consideration when evaluating the true cost of leather.

Health and Social Impact

Leather Industry's Environmental Impact - Health

Now, we turn our attention to the profound consequences it holds for both human health and the well-being of local communities. Within these aspects, the processing of leather intertwines with health risks, ethical considerations, and social implications.

Health Risks

Individuals working within the leather industry, often in close proximity to harsh chemicals, face significant health risks. Exposure to these chemicals during the tanning process has been linked to severe allergic reactions and other respiratory problems, reproductive problems, and even cancer.

Negative Impact on Local Communities

The leather industry also significantly impacts local communities where leather processing is prevalent. These communities often grapple with the consequences of a polluted environment and other chemical hazards. Environmental degradation, in turn, affects the livelihoods and well-being of those living in these areas.

Ethical Aspects

Ethical considerations come to the forefront as well. As we engage with sustainable practices and environmental compliance, we must also reflect on the treatment of animals in this industry. Using animal hides and skin for fashion items is complex, and addressing them requires a full understanding of the industry’s practices and their impact.

Leather Industry’s Supply Chain

Leather Industry's Environmental Impact - Supply Chain

The industry’s supply chain connects various elements, from animal husbandry to the final leather products. Within this intricate system, we encounter the influence of developing countries and the challenges of waste management.

The Complexity of the Leather Supply Chain

This chain involves the procurement of hides, their transportation, and the transformation into leather. The process encompasses multiple stages and actors, emphasising the need for responsible practices at every step.

Role of Developing Countries

Developing countries often play a significant role in the leather industry, providing both raw materials and labour. This underscores the leather’s global reach and its impact on economies worldwide. 

Challenges of Waste Management

Another pressing challenge within this chain is the management of waste generated during various production stages. The tanning process, in particular, can produce substantial amounts of waste and by-products, which if not handled properly, can contribute to environmental degradation

Can the Leather Industry Be Sustainable?

As with the general efforts of the fashion industry towards a greener future, the leather industry can also work on the possibilities of sustainable practices and minimise harm to the environment.

Alternative Materials and Tanning Methods

For the fashion industry, one way it can contribute to environmental protection is by making conscious choices regarding materials. This includes considering sustainable alternatives to traditional leather, such as recycled leather and biodegradable leather like vegan.

Other alternative tanning methods such as vegetable tanning uses vegetable tannins in tree bark and woods. These alternatives not only reduce the industry’s reliance on harmful chemicals but also offer a path towards more eco-friendly practices and a step towards reducing waste management challenges in the industry.

Role of Environmental Protection Agencies

When it comes to safeguarding our environment and mitigating the detrimental impacts of the leather industry, regulatory bodies such as the US Environmental Protection Agency play a pivotal role. They are tasked with overseeing the industries’ adherence to environmental regulations from the sourcing of raw materials to the disposal of waste and enforcing guidelines to minimise its environmental impacts.

Leather Working Group’s Mission

The Leather Working Group, comprised of sustainable brands, retailers, and leather manufacturers, also emerged as a noteworthy player in promoting sustainability within the leather industry. Their initiatives include setting environmental standards, assessing the leather produced against these standards, and rewarding companies that adhere to these guidelines. 

The leather industry, like any other, must then shoulder its responsibility in curbing its negative impact on the environment. Meeting environmental compliance standards is not merely their legal obligation but a moral imperative.

Eco-conscious End-of-Life Practices

But the responsibility doesn’t end with material choices but extends to the entire lifecycle of fashion products, including end-of-life. Sustainable fashion companies are exploring innovative ways to ensure that leather goods are disposed of in an eco-friendly manner. They’re also considering options for recycling or repurposing old leather items, thereby minimising their final product footprint. 

It’s clear that sustainability is not only attainable but essential for the well-being of our environment, the welfare of animals, and the industry as a whole.

What Are the Major Pollutants of the Leather Industry?

The leather industry, while producing coveted leather goods, generates a litany of pollutants that impact our environment.

Some of the key pollutants that arise during leather processing are the toxic chemicals used in the tanning process that can lead to water pollution and other environmental problems. These pollutants, if not managed responsibly, can have far-reaching consequences on local ecosystems and water bodies.

What Are the Biological Hazards of the Leather Industry?

Beyond the environmental challenges, the leather industry poses biological hazards that extend to the health of workers and the well-being of plant and animal life.

Leatherworkers engaged in the production process are exposed to these biological hazards, which can lead to serious health concerns like lung cancer and respiratory problems. 

Moreover, the leather tanning process and chemicals can negatively impact local plant life and animal populations, even causing harm to the Amazon rainforest. These hazards go beyond factory farms, affecting communities and ecosystems.

Final Note

As we stand at this crossroads of fashion and environmental consciousness, we have the power to drive change. By patronising most leather products that embrace sustainable and ethical practices, we cast a vote for a fashion statement that promotes our planet’s well-being.

In the end, it’s not just about wearing leather—it’s about wearing a commitment to the health of our environment.

Ellora Sharma

Ellora Sharma is a 26-year-old fashionmonger from Leeds. She discovered her love for fashion through the many intricate and flashy designs found in the Bollywood films she religiously watched when she was younger (and continues to watch to this day). She has since developed an affinity for colourful and distinctive clothing, and loves to experiment with her style on the daily. She wants to help others find the same kind of joy and fun in clothing as she has.

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