Is leather production sustainable?
The leather industry is widely described as one of the most polluting industries in the world. Routinely on top ten lists of the earth's most polluting industries, the leather industry is often vilified by vegans and environmentalists alike. And yet, it's an industry which has survived and seemingly thrived on the earth for centuries. So why is it so unsustainable and what is it about the industry that makes it one of earth's greatest polluters?
Leather production has been around for over 7,000 years. It is thought that the earliest vegetable tanning techniques were developed by the Egyptians and Hebrews around 400BCE. By the 15th century they had become widely practiced throughout Europe. However, towards the end of the 19th century, chemical tanning techniques began to displace vegetable tanning as oak, sumac, hemlock tanbark and chrome salts were introduced.
Thousands of years ago, questions of sustainability were far from our ancestors minds. And let's face it, why would they be? In 1800, less than one billion people walked the earth and they weren't using up the earth's resources faster than they can be replaced. Between 1900 and 2000, the world's population grew from 1.5 billion to 6.1 billion in less than 100 years. Population growth has increased production in all manufacturing industries as companies try to keep up with human requirements for clothes, food and other products. The leather industry is no exception. Currently, over 300 millions cows are slaughtered every year, but it is estimated that to keep up with rising demand, this figure will rise to 430 million by 2025. Population growth and rising standards of living in many parts of the world mean growing rates of consumption. But these are growing rates of consumption which our planet doesn't have the resources to supply.
The leather industry has one of the greatest requirements for the earths natural resources of any industry. A list of requirements which includes vast quantities of water, crops and land. It is estimated that 1/3 of the world's land is used to produce crops for animals and over 15,000 litres of water are required to produce one kilo of beef. Of course, the leather industry and the beef industry are closely interlinked. Some people argue that this makes it sustainable because it is a by-product of the meat industry. Adding to their arguments, leather is of course a material which naturally biodegrades. At a time when we are all conscious about reducing the plastic pollution of our oceans and water systems, surely leather is a better alternative to plastic shoes and handbags?
However, one of the biggest problems with this argument is that the leather industry is also a major polluter. Over 80% of leather tanning uses chromium. Chromium sulfate is the chemical often used to preserve the leather in Indian tanning companies. But waste disposal systems pump the chromium back into rivers, polluting waters where people drink and bathe. In India, large portions of the Ganges have become polluted and biologically dead. Chromium has been associated with a range of health problems including cancers, neurological problems, respiratory issues, skin problems and renal failure. It negatively impacts the health of both those who work within the industry and those who live in the surrounding towns and villages who rely on the Ganges for their water supply.
Another serious risk in tanneries is poisoning by hydrogen sulphide which is a colourless and extremely poisonous gas which can lead to death after inhalation. Apart from the dangers workers are exposed to from these toxic chemicals, tanneries also produce gases that pollute the air and large quantities of chemical wastes which have to be disposed of. At an Italian leather tannery in Carpiano, they pumped toxic sludge directly into local watercourses without the authorities knowledge. An investigation was was carried out after the widespread death of fish in the river raised the alarm and the businessmen responsible served jail time.
The leather industry is clearly a massive polluter and the Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report in 2017 most clearly demonstrates this, when it puts leather top of the list of materials with the greatest environmental impact.
Of course, this graph is quite generalist in that it doesn't distinguish between different types of cotton or leather production. The environmental impact of cotton may be reduced if organic cotton is used and more sustainably produced natural materials may have reduced environmental impacts.
There is also the further problem that if leather is a by-product of the meat industry, what would we do with the approximately 9-10 million tons of raw hides and cow skins if we didn't process them into leather? This would cause significant problems with the smell of rotting flesh and the volume of skins that would have to be disposed of. Some argue that the carbon footprint of disposal would be greater than or equal to that of the leather industry. It would also mean an increase in production of synthetic materials to meet demand, which could lead to more plastics in our oceans and water systems. This doesn't seem like a good solution when projections are already estimating that there will be more plastics by weight than fish in the ocean by 2050.
So, what is the solution?
At current rates of production, leather production is clearly unsustainable. Even if rates of production decreased dramatically over the coming years, pollution from the toxic chemicals used in the industry to our water systems, atmosphere and land should not be accepted. The impact of these toxic chemicals on fresh water supplies, workers health, and the health of the people in those affected communities can not be overstated. The leather industry really needs to clean up its' act if it's ever going to become sustainable.
Apart from this, material innovations look promising and Piñatex, a natural leather made from cellulose fibres from pineapples is probably about as eco-friendly as you can get. Hopefully, in the coming years we'll see a lot more fashion companies making the switch.