Gallery: Can Leather Be Eco-Friendly…Ever?

Elizabeth Olsen of Olsenhaus, Olsenhaus, Olsen Haus, vegan shoes, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, eco-friendly shoes

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 (The GirlieGirl Army) for Olsenhaus Spring/Summer 2010 Collection,  Olsenhaus, Olsen Haus, vegan shoes, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, eco-friendly shoes

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.

Olsenhaus Spring/Summer 2010 Collection, Olsenhaus, Olsen Haus, vegan shoes, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, eco-friendly shoes


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.

Olsenhaus Spring/Summer 2010 Collection, Olsenhaus, Olsen Haus, vegan shoes, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, eco-friendly shoes


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.

Olsenhaus Spring/Summer 2010 Collection


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.

+ Olsenhaus

22 Responses to “Can Leather Be Eco-Friendly…Ever?”

  1. erica_wog says:

    I had never really thought about all of the energy, chemicals and cruelty that go into producing leather goods. It doesn’t seem that an eco-friendly leather would be possible. I guess I always thought of leather as the more “natural” product, never knowing where the leather was actually coming from. Reading this post has made me realize that I need to start looking at synthetic materials, and know that it’s healthier for the planet.

    -erica with

  2. fashionlovespeople says:

    Thanks for this article, and for your stance on the leather industry… you’ve been educating in an important area that not many other people talk about. But one question remains for me: What about the durability of synthetics versus leather? You compared the two in terms of energy use, which is great. But I’m reminded of a quote I got from an interviewee once–“You have to balance eco-friendliness with performance.” I know that a quality leather bag or pair of shoes will last for years. How do the synthetics you use compare?

    (I ask this for both general knowledge and a specific purpose, because honestly I’d love to order your Charm shoes right now! But without being able to see them in person, I’m a bit leery of how the faux suede will wear.)

    Thanks, Elizabeth! :)


  3. fightforthegoodlife says:

    I appreciate that you are examining the impact of your materials, I myself study materials and their ecological footprints. I do not particularly advocate leather or wear it much all, but I think there are options in leather production that you may have overlooked. If it is impossible to make leather last without harsh, earth damaging chemicals, how did pre-industrial people all over the world make highly functional, long-lasting leather clothing and implements for thousands of years? As far as sourcing leather, I too think that factory-style cattle operations which utilize antibiotics, hormones, cages, and grain-feeding are terrible for the planet, and should be stopped immediately. However, as hard as we try to convince people to eat a vegetarian diet, surely there will always be people who want to eat beef. As long as someone in the world is raising cattle for food, there will (hopefully) be skin on that cattle. When the cows are butchered, their skin can be wasted or made into usable leather.
    I have not yet done the calculations, but my guess is that if we can greatly reduce our transportation emissions, industrial emissions, energy production emissions, population expansion, and (totally unnecessary) factory farming emissions, it would be quite sustainable for each person on earth to eat grass-fed steak a few times per year, and own a few excellent quality traditionally-tanned leather garments.

  4. luciana says:

    I’m not trying to be the devils advocate here..but…I’ve always had a few doubts about this issue. I understand the problems with massive, industrial, assembly line production of leather. But what is the problem with real organic production of leather. If I live in a community where there is a real sustainable use of our natural resources, where all the resources are used properly. Just as we have farmers who grow our fruits and vegetables, we have ranchers who produce our meat products, and not only do they produce meat products for the community to eat, but for other purposes too, which is the case of leather. If we (as a community) have and kill a cow to feed ourselves and our families (with milk and meat), why is it wrong to put to good use other parts of that cow that would be thrown out in other cases. In my opinion this is as organic and resourceful as it gets.
    If you dobt it just look at the “gauchos” in the argentina pampas, who live off the land and its resourcess and dont throw away a single part of an animal they kill in order to live. Would you consider them unecological?

  5. olsenHaus says:

    Thank you for all of your great comments and questions, I am very happy to address them.

    Leather is not ecological. Many of you have been asking questions about this subject and passing the info on. This is great! I will answer and clarify wherever I can. To start: leather is not a naturally occurring item. It is a processed product created from the skins of animals. Skin is composed of cells, protein, collagen, etc., that decompose when no longer living. To make leather, skins are put through the process of tanning, to preserve the skins and allow pliability. One question asked about pre-industrial tanning, how was it done? We would assume the traditional method would be sans chemicals and ecologically sounder.

    Tanning has been done for centuries. It was arduous, time consuming work, and was/is extremely noxious smelling. The chemicals used were of more natural means in pre-industrial times. Today’s toxic tanning chemicals replace: urine (often human), feces (dog & pigeon), brains (from the animal), alkaline salts, alum, tannin (from tree bark) etc. These various bodily fluids contain chemicals within them that caused putrefaction of the skin that was needed for creating leather. Traditional tanneries are extremely rare today, possibly not a surprise. Local tanneries using local cattle was brought up in a question, most likely they are utilizing the chemicals available today that are poisoning waterways, soil, and the atmosphere as well. I would call and inquire about their process.

    Durability of synthetics: Leather is very durable yes, considering all the chemicals used to preserve it. Ultrasuede is an excellent alternative to leather/suede that we use often. Unlike suede, ultrasuede can be spot cleaned. It has the look and feel of real suede, if that is of importance to you. It is very durable as it is being used as upholstery for furniture, car interiors, apparel, has breathability, and is stain-resistant. It really is superior to suede/leather. Otherwise OlsenHaus is constantly looking for the most durable eco materials to create with. All in all, it comes down to the individual’s opinion, and then subsequent choice. Take the information you have about the leather industry (please investigate for yourself as well) and the information you have on any ecologically aware company working for the environment rather than against. Choose from there. Your dollar is your vote.

  6. olsenHaus says:

    Please feel free to contact me directly:
    Thank you again!
    Elizabeth Olsen

  7. el3phant says:

    I posted this awhile back on Facebook as a response, but felt like others perusing this article should read it as well.

    “This article didn’t really answer any of the questions that I have. It actually raised more for me.

    For example, isn’t leather a renewable resource, compared to whatever the hell they use to make synthetics?

    Isn’t leather more durable? Therefore, aren’t synthetics more likely to end up in a landfill? For example, my mom has had the same pair of leather boots since the 70s–and I invested in a pair of decent leather moccasins a few years ago. Even with wearing them almost every day, they are in pristine condition. I can’t say the same for my synthetic shoes, even if I paid a lot of money for them.

    I hate to play devil’s advocate, but I am completely depressed by the lack of balanced reporting on this issue. Come on, Inhabitat!

    By the way, I find it kind of disgusting that you would play the “child labour” card. Let’s look at where MOST synthetics are produced–in sweatshops around the world. Go into places like Payless and you’re bound to pick up a pair of shoes made by children. It has NOTHING to do with the type of material–just with the garment industry in general.

    In my opinion, I’d rather invest in a pair of leather shoes that are going to last me for years than a pair of synthetic leather shoes that may or may not hold up–which creates this disposable culture.

    Next, why not give some REAL alternatives? Instead of allowing this girl to freely advertise her business, let’s talk about thrift stores! If you really want synthetic shoes, they’ve got tons of them there, and they are often better-made than what you pay $60 for now.

    I’m just saying…balanced articles, please!”

    I added:

    “That said, I don’t know which is greener, but all I’m asking is that I be accurately informed.”

  8. @el3phant

    Our “Ask a Designer” posts are op-eds, not investigative pieces, so any opinions of the designers are their own. We’ll be looking more in-depth into the issue in the future, however, so thank you for your comments and suggestions.

  9. olsenHaus says:

    El3phant and Readers,

    -OlsenHaus has been featured in VOGUE, Daily Candy, Marie Claire, O the Oprah Magazine, on THE FASHION SHOW, on Fox TV and other notable publications. OlsenHaus does not need to use Ecouterre as a base for advertising. I was asked to do this piece based on my industry experience, and to raise awareness of this issue, which is the goal of OlsenHaus as a whole. We thank Ecouterre for bringing this issue to the table for discussion and education.
    -We are not aware of the FaceBook post you mentioned, I assure you that your questions would have been addressed promptly.
    -Leather is the product of the chemical tanning of animal skins. This process keeps the skin from decomposing while polluting the ecosystem. Hence, a loved pair of leather boots from the 1970’s is still around today. Does this make them eco? How many pairs have been thrown out since the 1970’s? There are too many directions to go in with this debate.
    -Indian leather units produce 80,000-90,000 cubic meters of wastewater per day. “Tanning of one kilogram of leather requires about 35-40 litres of water, all of which is polluted during various processes of converting skin into leather.”. (1)
    India is one of the largest producers of leather (funny as it is a mostly vegetarian country) and has no environmental laws or no enforcement pollution control. Among the disastrous consequences of this noxious waste is the threat to human health from the highly elevated levels of lead, cyanide, and formaldehyde in the groundwater near tanneries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the incidence of leukemia among residents in an area surrounding one tannery in Kentucky was five times the national average. (2)
    -The issue is not that OlsenHaus wishes to use synthetics. We are a Vegan company. Our priority is to show the world there is an alternative to the emotional and physical abuse, and murder, and wear of non-human animals. OlsenHaus demonstrates that the use of animal derived products is excessive, outdated, and without modern logic.
    -We are committed to utilizing materials that are less damaging to the environment, recycled and organics as they become available. To address where our alternative materials are made, our main material is made in a highly technical factory, adhering to the strictest environmental laws, located in Japan. Other materials we use are from Italy. We strive to be earth and human animal friendly whenever possible. The textiles industry is aware of the demand for these eco/sweatshop free materials. We are excited to be a part of this evolution in textiles and accessories.
    -We believe in animal rights as well as human rights. We gain nothing by “playing” the “child labor card”. Child labor is a very serious human rights issue. It is not something to be “played” or taken lightly. Our factories employ adult women and men paid fair wages- provided a safe working environment for the employee- no child labor. We do not produce in Asia. We do not use sweatshops.
    -We are not Payless- and yes, they are produced in sweatshops. This was our original point.
    -I have worked in the fashion industry for over 15 years, having visited both tanneries and synthetic production facilities. I speak from first hand experience.
    -Again, thank you for your thoughts! These topics however are based within emotional opinion, not research. I encourage everyone to do their own research and come to an educated decision. Please visit below sources and links.

    Elizabeth Olsen

    (2) Richard E. Sclove et al., Community-Based Research in the United States (Amherst: The Loka Institute, 1998) 52.

  10. orange_angel says:

    There are a few tanneries in Sweden that actually tan their leather in Sweden using animals from Scandinavia and they all do vegetable tanning. It’s not really fair to compare the tanning that’s done in Asia with the products made by Olsenhaus, which, I hope, is a big improvement comapred to much of the fast fashion synthetic leather products produced.

    All products we produce have the potential to be harmfull for the enviroment, let’s not have a fight over what material is the best, there will seldome be a definitive answer. Let’s try to figure out what we can do to improve everything instead.

  11. […] Designer Elizabeth Olsen is on a mission – to turn your old TV set into fabulous shoes! […]

  12. kathleen fasanella says:

    A long time sustainability advocate working in the production side in the apparel industry, I cannot corroborate many of the statements made in this editorial. I’ll let it all go but the most egregious -assigning the costs (ecological and otherwise) to the by product hides themselves. As much as one could want to believe it, it is simply not tenable that animals in India are raised and killed for their hides; the costs of leather would be astronomical.

    Consider: cow hide from India sells at approx 2.25 a square foot, the average cow rendering about 50-60 sq. ft. That amounts to $112 – $135 per cow. The supplier who sells it to manufacturers paid half that or $56-$66. The hide producer sold it to the supplier for half that, namely $28-$33. Considering the hide producer needed his margins, he paid half that again $14-$17 into which he had to roll all the costs of his operation (labor, facility, overhead, raw materials, profit) of which materials cost was 1/4 or $3.50+. It simply is not credible to think a cow can be cared for and fed -in increasingly deforested India no less- to maturation for $3. Think about it.

    Right now, vegetarians comprise less than 4% of the US population. Personally, it would be a dream come true if more people stopped eating meat, it’d make eating out a heckuva lot easier for me and my family. It’s ecologically saner and would dramatically reduce the amount of fossil fuels but I’ll just shut up about it.

    I see no contradiction btwn my being a vegetarian and working in leather production. If the supply of hides dried up because people stopped eating meat, I would be thrilled, absolutely beside myself. I would be *delighted* to be a casualty of the fall out and peaceably find another line of work.

  13. brett says:

    “Leather isn’t a byproduct of meat industry.” Until they start slaughtering cows and throwing away all but the skins, I’m afraid it is. At first this looked merely ignorant. Though, clearly, this myopic diatribe has an agenda that goes beyond the rational. Militant vegan, much?

    To not use the hides of animals that have already given their lives for food would be appallingly wasteful. Applying the process of raising an animal for market to the impact of using a byproduct of that process is misleading if not simply dishonest.

    The impact of leather is processing the skins. All the elements in true veg tanning are natural and biodegradable; if unpleasant smelling. The process can even take advantage of other byproducts depending on the method. Simply, it’s hard to imagine any industrially fabricated matirial that could have less impact than leather.

  14. olsenHaus says:

    A general response to comments refuting this article:

    -If you have not done research on this topic, I do not understand how you can think otherwise without offering factual information. I have stated fact upon fact in my article. All refuting comments have been based upon emotion and assumptions.

    -If you are not involved with any of these industries, have no experience and state no fact, please do not refute.

    -I find when you do refute this researched information it is from a place of guilt and fear of the truth. Consider this as well as the spiritual side. All things are connected.

    The research is available to all, please take advantage of this. When doing so please look directly at India. As this country is predominantly vegetarian, these animals are murdered for their hides.

    The meat industry in general could not survive without the sale of the animals hides for leather. Yes, leather is NOT a byproduct.

    It in fact is detrimental to our environment. The tanning process is volatile and is cancer causing. To the workers and the communities around a tannery. Our air, land, and water becomes polluted.

    If you wish to assume no responsibility that is your choice. If you are going to argue these facts, then you have to ask yourself where your conscious is.

    How about asking- what good is leather doing? Is there really a need for something so dangerous to the planet, the animals, and humans?

    And seriously- ” Militant vegan, much?” How about, into murder of innocent beings much?

  15. cleo says:

    i do not wish to get into this debate, merely to state that leather may come from other sources than expensively(monetary and environmentally) reared animals. here in new zealand we have an enormous problem with introduced possums decimating our native forests. there are many individuals and groups hunting and trapping these pests for the purpose of using their hides and fur. check out this website for more information.

  16. ackerz says:

    Readers of your article may also be interested in learning more by knowing about the UK based eco leather manufacturer and supplier They manufacture the eco leather referred to in the article and recognise the need to create an eco friendly alternative to regular leather, and as such created E Leather.

    E Leather is an environmentally friendly leather that is blended with other materials and re-woven to create a fabric that mimics the look and feel of 100% leather but weighs less and reduces cutting wastage to around 5% compared to 18-40% for natural leather.

  17. engineer26810 says:

    While I agree with the overall message and tone of your article, I think it should be noted that your point that leather is not a byproduct because the leather industry is greater than the meat industry is untrue. It is true that the VALUE is greater, but the total consumption of cattle head for head is greater in the meat industry (nearly 4X in fact, worldwide) than the tanning industry. Because of this, it could be seen that meat is more a byproduct of the tanning industry, because of the greater value of a leather hide (40-60 sq feet per animal) over the animals consumable flesh, or it could be seen (as it is by the majority of observers) that leather is a byproduct of the meat industry because of the fact that more cows worth of meat is produced than leather. Thank you for your bringing to light the environmental concerns behind tanneries, though.
    -R.W., BS Civil & Environmental Engineering

  18. SAHEL design says:

    I work with a small community of leather workers in Africa. They tan goat skins according to tradition, using the pods of a local tree (I’ve documented this process if you are interested in seeing exactly how). I fail to see how this kind of leather production is not good. The goats are free range, living in the village off prickly bushes and millet husks left over from pounding. Goat meat is nutritious and very much wanted in this hunger-striken part of the world.

  19. CorkFashionUK says:

    It will never be! Though it’s future might be taken by Cork products, surely most of you don’t know this but Cork (Portuguese Cork) is used in the making of hand bags, hats, bracelets, shoes, mobile phone covers etc.. It’s as smooth and durable as leather ( Yes i know 99% of you don’t believe this ), ECO-FRIENDLY!
    Have a look by yourself :

  20. rustictown (@rustictown) says:

    Yes, Leather can be eco friendly when the products are tanned naturally without using of any chemicals. Also there are many companies which uses chemicals to give it a fake finishing. uses vegetable leaves and vegetable oil to give finishing and making it water-resistant.

  21. BMacK says:

    As for the apparel and accessory industries, would you think it would be more eco-friendly to use plastics, such as PVC and PU verses vegetable tanned and sustainable leather – meaning without the use of harsh chemicals? Plastics are more toxic and will take thousands of years to disintegrate, not to mention a list of other horrible side-effects our planet has from plastic. What is your solution to this problem? Should people not wear shoes, or instead wear plastic shoes? Should we use plastic bags?

    It is although fact, that Leather is a bi-product of the meat industry. Chrome tanning and vegetable tanning do not use the same tannins for the tanning process, and do not create the same finished bi-product. As long as people are eating meat, there will be skins to tan.

    Let’s change our agriculture industry and the way people think about meat. Everyone needs to become more educated on this issue – and care about what is best for our planet and all of the living beings that depend on mother Earth for survival. Yes, cruelty and exploiting animals is wrong. We, as a society need to be environmentally cautious in our manufacturing process – from seed to product. We must treat all animals raised for consumption with compassion and give them a natural, stress-free habitat. Meat should not be subsidized and cheapened. People should not be consuming as much meat as they do. Unfortunately, being a vegetarian is not a viable option for most people. And the catch 22 remains..

Leave a Comment

Please keep your comments relevant to this blog entry. Email addresses are never displayed, but they are required to confirm your comments.

Please note that gratuitous links to your site are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments.

Add your comments


Do you live in Canada? Register here

I agree to receive emails from the site. I can withdraw my consent at any time by unsubscribing.

You must agree to receive emails from this site to subscribe.


Lost your password?

  • Welcome to, your online guide
    to the best ideas, innovations and emerging
    trends in eco fashion, sustainable style,
    organic beauty and ethical apparel.

    get the free Ecouterre newsletter

    Do you live in Canada? Register here

    get the free Ecouterre newsletter

    I agree to receive emails from the site. I can withdraw my consent at any time by unsubscribing.


  • follow ecouterre on:

  • The EDUN Runway at New York Fashion Week Was a Brand New Start

  • Ecouterre on Facebook
  • Ecouterre Video

    The Latest Eco-Fashions from the Green Shows at New York Fashion Week

    The Green Shows at New York Fashion Week