‘It is real leather, come and see!’ urges an Egyptian merchant, as he strikes a lighter and runs the flame over the black gladiator sandals I had glanced at just a few moments earlier. He invites me to feel the area he’d just lit and the familiar feeling of leather came to my senses; albeit with a touch of warmth. His fare trick reinforced just how much humans, and the fashion industry, still value ancient form of fabric. With attributes such as durability and aesthetics, it’s no wonder that it’s estimated to push sector global revenue to over $90 billion by 2018. Although it’s mostly developing countries that are suppliers of leather raw material, it is China who dominates as world leader, according to United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). We are all pretty familiar with the benefits of global leather production, which goes towards creating clothing, shoes, luggage, accessories and furniture that we’re happy to pay for. But is it environmentally friendly?
Things that aren’t that great about leather.
The most popular source of leather comes from cowhide, which typically means we’re wearing dead animal skin. And in some instances, the cow wasn’t swiftly or humanely killed. Take for example the leather that is made by targeting calf foetuses from their mother’s womb to extract their hide.
Leather is considered a by-product of the meat industry and thus to ensure the cows are healthy, quite a bit of land and resources need to be invested to feed them properly and keep them optimally hydrated. So if we’re keeping scores, that’s resource depletion and animal butchering mentioned so far. Then there are other animal leathers in the market that are considered more exotic, such as crocodile or snake, which put an animal species at risk.
This material is made through a process called tanning which makes sure that this biodegradable material doesn’t just start decomposing right off of your foot. There are quite a few tanning techniques such as vegetable, formaldehyde, rose and synthetic tanning, but the most commonly used is the chrome tanning technique, with 80% of the world’s leather being tanned in this way. The problem with the chrome process is that it is a highly toxic procedure that seriously affects the health of tannery workers. The ministry of Environment in Bangladesh estimates that tanneries in the country collectively dump 22,000 cubic litres of toxic waste on a daily basis. Because they do this in the main water supplies that locals rely on, health issues such as birth defects, infertility, respiratory problems and infections are common in the surrounding areas.
Tanneries have even been known to ‘kill’ entire water bodies, such as Buriganga River in Hazaribagh, Dhaka (capital city of Bangladesh). The tanneries’ pollution have killed the plant and fish life in that river, resulting in it being classified as dead. In the state of Kentucky, particularly in the tannery region, The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention found that there was five times the US average in Leukaemia occurrence among its residents.
In addition, it heavily contributes to water pollution when its wastewater is released into waterways. Tanning leather needs huge amounts of dangerous chemicals, for instance coal-derivatives, dyes, oils, cyanide-based finishes and mineral salts, as well as tonnes of energy. That’s why its effluent registers high volumes of acids, arsenic, lime sludge, salt and sulphides.
So where do we go from here?
As mentioned in an earlier TDS post, Fish leather is growing in popularity with fashion designers as an alternative to cow hide. For one, it makes use of fish skin that usually goes to waste. Secondly, it also makes for a great alternative to reptile leathers which tend to be endangered species. However, if you really want to do away with leather that is a by-product of an animal, there are substitutes such as cork leather and pineapple leather. There are divided opinions on whether PVC leather or ‘pleather’ should be a recommended substitute as it is petroleum by-product.
Then there is the school of thought that supports the use of leather to a minimal extent. Because it’s such a hardwearing material, it’s perfect for wardrobe staples such a boots, bags and belts that can be used for years to come; with the right care and maintenance of course. You can choose to use upcycled or recycled leather for the sustainable closed loop system (see article on this system here) if you really want to get your eco-friendly points up. The idea is to make fewer, high grade quality products that serve the demand and last more than five years.
As much as leather has helped create trends, fashion statements and wardrobe staples, you can’t deny that its manufacturing and tanning process has a massive environmental bearing. With India and China already presenting cases of what the leather industry can do to the health of people, and the environment, from mismanagement – has Kenya taken all this into account? Especially with the setup of the leather village? Are we exploring leather alternatives? How are we planning to deal with the waste from leather production?
As consumers, opting for ethical brands who are transparent about their sourcing decisions and chose to use the hides of meat animals has been argued to be the best way to promote ethical material. Choosing to reuse and recycle vintage is applauded too, as well as, opting for leather that was vege-tanned in order to reduce the toxic environmental run-off of pollution from production. If you are a designer, we encourage you to share leather sourcing with us and your customers, to push for more ethical clothing that we can wear guiltlessly. It’s a hard sell convincing the fashion industry to give up the leather gold, but can it be convinced to make the processes greener?
*Fun fact: Bush Princess has a new collection of bags where vegetable tanned leather was used. It will be available from end January, 2017.