As we all try to live more sustainably, it’s vital that we know how everything we buy is made and its impact on the environment – from production to end-of-life.
This is a complex issue, so we’ve created an overview that highlights how leather is produced sustainably and how it affects the world around us:
Leather exists only because of the meat industry. More than 99% of the leather produced globally is made with hides and skins from animals reared for meat. None of these animals were bred for their hides and skins.
Yet when we conducted research among 2,000 UK consumers in 2022, only 24% of them were aware that hides or skins used to make leather are a by-product of the food industry that would otherwise go to waste.
Meat production generates about 11.6 million tonnes per year of hides and skins. If these were not used to make leather, they would simply be thrown away.
At a global level, a hide is currently worth on average between 1 to 2% of the value of the whole animal when slaughtered. Clearly, no-one is rearing cattle for such a tiny percentage of the value of the animal.
It has also been shown that demand for hides and skins has no direct influence on the rearing and slaughter of animals. In fact, the best estimates suggest that up to 40% of the hides produced each year are still disposed of as waste.
Ruminants, like cattle and sheep, produce methane, which is known to be a powerful greenhouse gas. However, they only produce it as part of the biogenic carbon cycle – nature’s way of reusing and recycling carbon atoms (figure 1).
Unlike emissions from the fossil fuel industry, agricultural emissions do not add new carbon to the atmosphere – and, while cattle populations remain stable, will have no additive effect on global warming.
Cattle rearing can actually help to regenerate soil through regenerative agriculture practices, increasing its capacity to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Current methodologies for measuring emissions often fail to take this into account.
In addition, the industry is making great strides to further reduce its impact on the environment by looking at the composition of animal feed to reduce methane emissions.
And as noted above, leather production doesn’t drive cattle-rearing as it is a by-product of the meat industry. If those hides were discarded, it would actually add to the problem.
As such the leather industry has long argued that, as it cannot influence the farming of livestock, the climate impacts should not be passed onto the industry.
We completely support all action to reduce deforestation in the world’s vulnerable forest regions and recognise the need for greater transparency and traceability in supply chains.
However, that action must be targeted at those parts of the supply chain that drive deforestation and not at associated sectors that have no influence on it, such as leather manufacture. Research at the University of Montana has shown that demand for hides for leather has no direct influence on the number of animals reared and slaughtered.
If the issue of deforestation and cattle rearing is solved, the issue for the associated hides and leather will be solved by default. In contrast, if those hides are not used to make leather, the production of meat in those regions will continue and the hides will simply be thrown away.
Our industry is also taking action to create traceability certification. It ensures, as far as possible, that the leather supply chain does not contain hides sourced from illegally deforested areas - giving confidence to customers and consumers that leather products are not contributing to deforestation.
The three main tanning processes for leather involve chromium (III) salts, synthetic tanning chemicals or vegetable tannins. Most people automatically assume the last is the most sustainable, but research has demonstrated that the overall environmental impact of these processes is about the same.
Chromium-tanning is highly regulated, as are all chemical processes, with safer bio-chemicals entering the industry every year. Some UK tanners that use it, such as Scottish Leather Group, are among the most sustainable organisations in the entire leather ecosystem.
All three processes are safe for workers, consumers and the environment if they are done well and responsibly. The key determinant for choice of tanning agent is the performance requirements for the final product. Different tanning methods produce varying results that suit different types of leather product.
Leather lasts a lifetime.
FILK is a renowned body in the research, development and testing of materials, which has carried out experiments looking at the performance of some of the most frequently mentioned leather alternatives and how they shape up to real leather. Download the FILK report here.
A series of tests for product lifespan and comfort, such as tensile strength, water permeability and tear resistance, saw leather beating its artificial alternatives. The implication is that leather products will last longer and be replaced less often, meaning they will probably have a lower environmental impact across their lifetime.
And when at last you do throw that leather product away, perhaps decades after you bought it, it will biodegrade without shedding microfibres into the environment.
On a global level, grazing livestock are being (wrongfully) blamed for a number of serious environmental impacts. This video explores the most common misconceptions about grazing livestock’s impact on the environment, namely biodiversity, carbon in the soil, competition for land and water use, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.