Elizabeth Olsen, founder and owner of Olsenhaus
Producing leather—whether by chrome/chemical tanning or vegetable tanning—comes with a host of problems. It heavily contributes to global warming, land devastation, environmental pollution, the depletion of valuable natural resources, and water-supply contamination, not to mention the spread of disease and the abuse of billions of animals.
Chloé Jo Berman of The GirlieGirl Army
From start to finish, the amount of energy required to create a leather hide is 20 times greater than what’s used to produce a synthetic material. The production of leather includes breeding and raising the animals, transporting feed, removing animal waste, powering housing and killing facilities, the use of vaccines and antibiotics, and removing carcasses and transferring pelts. At the tannery, the skins are sorted, soaked, fleshed, tanned, wrung, dried, kicked, cleaned, trimmed, buffed, dried again, finished, then transported to the garment maker, wholesaler, and so on.
From start to finish, the amount of energy required to create a leather hide is 20 times greater than what’s used to produce a synthetic material.
Leather is the hide of a dead animal. It is, by nature, meant to decompose. To prevent decomposing, it is treated with chemicals—including hexavalent chromium salts, aniline, azo dyes, lead, cyanide, formaldehyde, tannins, solvents, formaldehyde, and chlorophenols—that pollute the land, air, and water supply. Groundwater samples collected near tanneries have shown the presence of arsenic, chromium, lead, and zinc. At the same time, toxic gases like ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and carcinogenic arylamines are emitted into the air. The smell of a tannery is the most horrifyingly putrid smell on earth.
VEGETABLE VERSUS CONVENTIONAL TANNING
There are several methods used in the tanning of hides: vegetable, chrome, aldehyde, alum, and synthetic. The only difference between vegetable versus chemical tanning is the source of the color. Vegetable tanning uses ingredients from vegetable matter, such as tree bark, which gives the leather a more subtle, muted color. Every other step in the process is the same.
The smell of a tannery is the most horrifyingly putrid smell on earth.
Although vegetable-tanned leather is often touted as being less harmful to the environment, Bill Bartholomew, a representative for The Leather Group admitted at the World Shoes Accessories ecoEthics Conference in February that “eco-friendly” vegetable tanning is just as polluting as chrome tanning.
THE CASE FOR ALTERNATIVES
Synthetic materials account for far less pollution—and only a fraction of the energy used. Regardless, synthetic polymers are not the only alternatives. There are plenty of plant-based or sustainable and renewable fabrics available, including cork, wood, linen, hemp, cotton, bamboo, Ultrasuede, and more.
Plus, with so much development in terms of new organic, plant-based, and post-consumer recycled waste materials, comparing leather to these materials is like comparing a mountain to an anthill in terms of environmental impact.
LEATHER AS A BYPRODUCT
Leather isn’t a byproduct of meat industry. As more people reduce their intake of meat and dairy products, the industry increasingly relies on money made from selling skins. In India, there is a huge industry built around slaughtering animals for their skins, exporting hides, and employing child laborers.
Leather isn’t a byproduct of meat industry. There is really no way to defend leather as “eco-friendly” or sustainable.
We live in a culture where we’ve been brainwashed, through incredible marketing, by those who stand to profit from the continual abuse of our fellow living beings, as well as the surreal concept that fur or the hide of a dead animal connotes luxury.
Across the board, there is really no way to defend leather as “eco-friendly” or sustainable. In order to really create change for the future of the planet and health of mankind, we all have the responsibility to question what is really going on and get to the root of the problem.