The Problem With Leather – A Harmful Industry

With the rise of ethicality and sustainability on the majority of consumers’ minds at the moment, especially now that COP26 has been in the news for the past few weeks, the fashion industry is experiencing changes in relation to worries about where certain practices may lead to. 

One topic in particular that has been causing concerns for a good few years is the leather industry. The leather industry is claimed to be the second oldest profession in the world and it is a major industry with huge economic importance on an international scale. In just one year alone – 23 billion square feet of leather is produced, accounting to around 45 billion dollars.

What is leather?

Traditional leather is the end-product of tanning the rawhide of animals. Tanning is a process that alters the protein layer of the hide (such as fat, fur and meat). It is a complex process which scientists still do not fully understand to this day.

Leather is usually produced using cattle hide due to the size, cost and quantity – however a range of different animal leathers are available including other mammals and even exotic animal leathers such as crocodiles and pythons. 

Different parts of the animal hide produces different types and qualities of leather, and higher quality leather can be made by altering the production process. One alteration revolves around the amount of surface coating – as genuine leather should be no more than 0.15mm thick. 

Animal leather is very versatile and is used frequently within the fashion industry today – the final product is a very tough but flexible material that can be found in clothing, boots, bags and a range of other products such as sofas and saddles. 

Why can leather be seen negatively?

Unlike fur, the leather industry was not hit as hard by animal rights concerns, yet it is not too dissimilar from its counterpart. Whilst fur is produced through farms specifically designed for the sole purpose of killing and stripping animals of their fur, leather is often thought of as simply a by-product of the meat industry. 

This connotation made the leather industry seem less harmful than the fur industry, as cows would have to be killed regardless for meat, and using all of the animal seems less wasteful than the alternative. 

However, this is not always the case. The majority of leather being made in countries such as India, China and Brazil is not a by-product, and the animals are killed specifically for their skins.

Leather is also harmful to the environment – turning animal skin into leather requires chemicals such as formaldehyde, coal-tar, oils, dyes, and finishes (some of which are cyanide-based). The production process also uses mass amounts of energy and creates C02 and methane gas. 

“A chrome-tanning facility wastes nearly 15,000 gallons of water and produces up to 2,200 pounds of ‘solid waste’ (e.g. hair, flesh, and trimmings) for every ton of hides that it processes.” (PETA).

What are the alternatives?

Due to these impacts – there have been many leather alternatives popping up over the years. 

One of the most frequently seen on the market is ‘pleather’ which is plastic leather.  This artificial leather contains polyurethane (PU), a thermoplastic polymer which is completely synthetic. 

‘Pleather’ or plastic leather is an alternative that aims to solve the ethical concerns of animal based leathers. It is usually marketed as a vegan alternative – and it is used frequently within the fashion industry today. 

Many large brands including Dr. Martens, Ted Baker and Saint Laurent and a range of fast fashion brands use plastic leather in their products, and many individuals consider it one step in the right direction away from animal leathers. 

However, plastic leather is likely an even worse alternative for the environment than animal leather is. Unlike real leather, plastic based leather will never break down, and will end up sitting in landfill or our oceans for hundreds of years if the product isn’t recycled – with 13 million tonnes of synthetic fibres entering the oceans each year.

‘Micro-plastic pollution is a big threat, as it uses an extensive amount of water, energy and chemicals to be processed and made into the material which sadly impacts the earth.’ Harpers Bazaar.

The other alternative to animal leather and plastic leather is plant-based leather. Plant based leather alternatives have been developing over the last few years as a more sustainable and ethical option to animal and plastic leather. 

A new report from British charity The Vegan Society highlights the growing importance of leather alternatives in the fashion industry – a survey revealed over 70% of customers would be ready to spend more money on plant-based leathers over animal-derived ones, confirming a flourishing demand.

If you would like to read more about plant based leather alternatives, you can do so over on our blog!


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