The True Cost

of Leather

The leather industry is a major contributor to environmental degradation and animal suffering, with its practices escalating the severity of the climate crisis.

The transformation of skin into consumer products like clothes and accessories necessitates the use of substantial amounts of water and generates a significant volume of manure and slaughterhouse waste, leading to pollution of air, water, and soil. Annually, over a billion animals fall victim to this industry, which is closely linked to the same ecological threats posed by the meat sector.

Before the skins even reach tanneries, the majority of environmental damage has already occurred. This fact renders the marketing of “vegetable-tanned” or “chrome-free” leather as misleading, as these methods don't address the primary source of harm: "livestock" farming.

Leather is NOT a by-product, it is a profit-driven industry set to reach a staggering $629.95 billion market size worth by 2025. The leather industry could be considered a huge subsidy to the "beef" and "dairy" industries. 

Animal farming, encompassing leather production, is responsible for nearly one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions, a conservative figure. The Kering luxury fashion group’s 2016 report highlighted that over 93% of leather’s environmental impact stems from the land use and greenhouse emissions associated with animal agriculture.

Deforestation and Land Use

The requirement for extensive water and land to raise "livestock" for meat and leather leads to significant deforestation. Approximately 80% of Amazon rainforest clearance is to create pastures or grow feed crops, resulting in habitat loss, reduction of the Earth's tree cover, and exacerbation of climate change.

Pollution from Waste

The staggering amount of waste produced by factory farms - 130 times more than the entire human population - lacks adequate treatment facilities, contributing majorly to water pollution. In the UK, factory farms are the primary source of water pollution and ammonia emissions, severely affecting ecosystems and turning rivers into polluted, dead, water bodies.

Hazardous Tanning Processes

Leather, being animal skin, requires chemical treatment to prevent decomposition. The tanning process involves harmful substances like mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, and cyanide-based dyes. A significant portion of leather is chrome-tanned, producing hazardous waste. Often, the toxic wastewater from tanneries is irresponsibly disposed of, posing risks to the environment and human health.

Impact on Human Health

The dangerous conditions in tanneries lead to elevated incidences of cancer, skin, and respiratory diseases among workers and nearby residents. Due to these risks, leather processing is declining in the UK, Europe, and the US, shifting the burden to other countries and endangering global health.

The Ethical Cost of Leather

The leather industry is a key segment of animal agriculture and contributes significantly to the suffering and death of animals. Cows are raised in deplorable conditions, subjected to cruel treatment, and killed, often while still conscious.

The dairy industry kills newborn males since they do not produce milk, and with sales of "veal" in decline, using their skin to make "calf leather" is valuable to industry profits  - are you wearing a baby?

Moreover, other animals, like dogs, are also victims of this industry, with their skins misleadingly marketed as other types of leather.

Do you know whose skin you're in?

Upgrades to Traditional Leather

The growing demand for sustainable and ethical alternatives to animal leather is driving innovation in the synthetic leather market.

Polyurethane (PU) Leather, a common synthetic leather base, offers versatility and durability. Its environmental impact is far less than using animal skin but varies based on production and disposal methods. Recent advancements include bio-based PU and the use of recycled materials.

Developments in plant-based and biodegradable materials are expanding the choices available to consumers who wish to align their purchases with their values. 

   🍾 Cork Leather: Cork leather, made from cork oak tree bark, is sustainably harvested every 9-12 years, allowing the bark to regenerate without tree damage. This process aids in carbon sequestration. Cork is lightweight, water-resistant, durable, and soft. It's resistant to mold, mildew, stains, and is fully biodegradable.

   🍍 Pineapple Leather: Made from surplus pineapple leaf fibers, and coated with a water-based biodegradable PU resin. The brand Piñatex has become widely available, and is used by brands such as H&M and Hugo Boss.

  🍄 Mushroom Leather: Mushroom leather, such as Mylo, is made from mycelium, mushroom roots. It's rapidly grown in vertical farms, using significantly less water and land compared to cattle farming. This biodegradable, versatile material has been adopted by brands like Stella McCartney and Lulu Lemon for exclusive products, according to Collective Fashion Justice.

   🌽 Corn Leather: Made from 40% industrial corn waste like corn oil and combined with recycled and virgin polyester and nylon. Hong Kong's O.N.E. Brands, for example, offers products like YUMI Leather utilizing this composition. Brands including LØCI and Veja are selling shoes crafted from corn waste and other sustainable materials.

   🥥 Coconut Leather: Created from coconut husks and water (waste products), are innovatively produced by Malai Eco, an Indian brand. They ferment mature coconut water into a jelly, blending it with natural fibres, gums, resins, and oils to craft the unique material known as Malai.

   🌵 Cactus Leather: Primarily produced from Mexican cacti which preserve natural biodiversity, results in a breathable, leather-like material. Collective Fashion Justice notes that its production involves no deforestation. Mercedes Benz utilizes cactus leather and Mylo in its VISION EQXX electric car's interior.

Further examples of plant-based leather include apple leather and flower leather. As these materials continue to advance in quality and durability, they offer a glimpse into a future where fashion and consumer goods can be both stylish and kind to the planet and its inhabitants.

Your Role in Driving Change

By choosing not to purchase or wear animal-derived leather, you can play a part in reducing the harmful impacts of the leather industry on the environment, human health, and the victims. The increasing availability of vegan leather options demonstrates that consumer choices can influence the market and promote cruelty-free, environmentally friendly alternatives.

As we move forward, the evolution of these alternatives will likely play a key role in shaping a more compassionate and sustainable world 🌍 

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