What Environmental Impact Does The Leather Industry Have?
In the past few years it has certainly become a well discussed topic and for good reason. It is estimated that around 80 Billion pieces of clothing are produced every year1 and more than 13 million tons of textile waste! The real tragedy is that 95% of that waste could be reused or recycled but very rarely is, meaning it ends up landfill.
To add to this the fashion industry is responsible for around 10% of annual global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
So how much of a role does the leather industry play in all of this? Currently the leather industry exceeds $80 billion a year and this is expected to grow with the world population.
Rearing animals for leather requires huge amounts of water and lots of land which the majority of the time must be cleared of trees to make the space. It is said that the Amazon alone is cleared at an estimated rate of 20,000 square miles each year, 70% of which is used to grow feed for and raise cattle. This level of deforestation is devastating for local ecosystems, causes loss of habitat for millions of species and depletes the earth's tree canopy which is a huge contributor to climate change.
Water usage and pollution is also a massive impact that the leather industry has on the environment. The tanning process uses toxic chemicals such as chromium and arsenic which in developing countries often flows directly into waterways making these environments dangerous for animals and the people that live there.
In places like India it is predicted that 50 cubic meters of wastewater is produced to process just 1000kg off hides. These chemicals are so harmful that in the US and Europe there are strict regulations on the use of them meaning many tanneries had to close down.
One study of leather-tannery workers in Sweden and Italy found cancer risks “between 20% and 50% above [those] expected.”9. In some other countries it was found that children as young as 10 that were subjected to the chemicals from working within the leather industry had increased risk of reproductive issues and long term cancer.
All of this is before even discussing water pollution from raising livestock for leather which is a global trend. In the U.S. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has even acknowledged that livestock pollution is the greatest threat to our waterways.
There are some leather producers that promote their products as “eco-friendly,” but the reality is that producing and processing leather is so harmful to the environment that this is generally just greenwashing, a marketing tactic to make products seem more environmentally friendly than they really are. So what is the answer?
There are now lots of plant based leather options for designers and consumers on the market made with all sorts of different things like cork, apples and pineapples. These types of leather are equally as durable, look incredible, cause considerably less damage to the environment and are a far cry from the plastic fake leather we’ve been used to in the past.
There are also brands using recycled plastic in their collections which is often taken from our oceans and turned into fashion.
Plant-based leathers are making a lot of noise in the fashion industry at the moment, brands like NAE & Arsayo both have collections using cork leather and recycled PET is becoming increasingly popular with brands like Canussa and Beflamboyant.
There is a bright side! The negative environmental effects of the traditional leather industry are clear, it quite simply is not sustainable, however we have options.
By being more conscious about our buying habits and supporting companies using vegan sustainable leather products such as plant-based leather or recycled materials we can help halt the impact that the leather industry has on the environment. Make a positive choice with your wallet and collectively we can all be part of the change!
Written by Alex Innes, Founder of The Considerate Store
7 - https://www.dw.com/)
8 - Human Rights Watch (2012) Toxic Tanneries: The Health Repercussions of Bangladesh’s Hazaribagh Leather.
9 - https://www.peta.org
10 - Portland State University EcoPol website
11 - https://www.epa.gov/