Boots, bags, briefcases, car seats, wallets; Start looking for leather, and you'll find it everywhere. Leather is one of man's earliest and most valuable materials, unique for its strength, stretch and warmth. Not to mention its aesthetic appeal and links to powerful cultural archetypes and icons; Robert Mapplethorpe, Marianne Faithful, Mel Gibson as Mad Max. Dressing in leather is synonymous with subcultures of the rebellious, sexy and tough. But sub no more, leather's gone mainstream.
Today, the global leather goods business is worth over $100 billion a year, with roughly half of all leather produced used to make shoes and about 25% for clothing. As a resource derived from an animal source, it's impossible to talk about leather without discussing animal ethics. Less obvious are the human rights issues and environmental impact involved in creating the material. This is Part I of a two-part series. Next week we cover Vegan Leather, a similarly complex industry that is only getting more intriguing. But for now, to help you buy leather pieces with consideration and care, we’re talking about real leather.
It is estimated that 17,000 litres of water are required to make 1kg of leather.
Producing leather is a resource-intensive process.
Our ancestors used leather to protect themselves from the elements. The process of creating leather is dependent on animal skins. Many animal species are used to make leather - pigs, goats, sheep, crocodiles - but most commonly, leather comes from the hide of cows. And if you've read anything about the meat industry, you're already familiar with the reputation the cattle industry has for wreaking havoc on the natural world.
Raising and slaughtering the billions of animals whose skins sustain the leather industry each year can be inefficient, and cruel and comes with a huge environmental impact. A rising global middle class has bolstered the demand for leather goods and the farming of cows. Around 290 million cows are killed annually, and the global herd is approaching 1 billion. It's projected that in order to keep us accessorised with leather wallets, handbags and shoes, the industry will have a yearly slaughter of 430 million cows by 2025.
“Legacy brand R.M. Williams has been creating leather goods since 1932 and offer full transparency on their website as to where they source their materials.”
Producing leather is a resource-intensive process, driven by land use, greenhouse gas emissions, and vast water use. It is estimated that 17,000 litres of water are required to make 1kg of leather. Cattle ranching is the world's largest user of agricultural land. The Brazilian cattle industry alone is responsible for 14% of the world's annual deforestation, primarily the Amazon rainforest. The Amazon is home to about three million species of plants and animals and one million indigenous people. It is a vital carbon store that slows down the pace of global warming, and biodiversity loss and climate change directly result from the growing demand for cattle rearing.
Traditional leather supply chains can be long and challenging to manage. We buy leather goods without knowing where the hide originates or the conditions the animals lived through. If all the ‘Italian leather’ goods were truly reared in Italy, you’d be pushing through cows for a better view of the Duomo. This stamp most often indicates that the piece was merely finished in Italy. In reality, nearly half of the global leather trade is carried out in developing countries, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and Cambodia, which have negligent environmental regulations and safety protocols for workers. These conditions put workers' health at risk and cause the exploitation of animals and humans alike.
The process of turning raw hide into leather is a hazardous and polluting business. A great deal of energy and chemicals are needed to transform the skin into the leather material we know so well. From the farm to the end product, the list of toxic chemicals used to make leather is daunting. It involves pesticides, chromium salts, tanning liquor, sulphide, acidic effluents and many more noxious substances, all of which are harmful to people and the environment.
Once an animal's skin is removed, chemicals are used to break down protein in the raw hide. This process is known as ‘tanning’ and prevents the skin from decomposing. Without proper regulation and safety protocols inside factories, the chemicals used in the tanning process are incredibly harmful to leatherworkers. Worldwide, the majority of leather tanneries use chrome, most commonly in developing countries, where workers breathe in and have direct contact with chrome daily.
Australian label Ginger & Smart use real leather sourced from New Zealand and have taken a stance against chrome tanning, stating that,
"Chrome tanning is still the main method used by 85% of tanneries as it is quick and cost-effective. But the hidden cost of chrome tanning is with the toxic wastewater that can seep into the ground and affect soil and groundwater, often harming the people in nearby villages."
Leatherworkers face health consequences from working in tanneries, from debilitating skin conditions to bronchitis, pneumonia, cancer and permanent blindness. Due to the levels of toxic chemicals in the soil, Environmental Protection Agencies deem previous leather tannery sites as defunct for a period after their use, much like a petrol station. The sites are rendered infertile, restricting our ability to grow anything or safely live in the area until they are regenerated.
Ginger & Smart opt for vegetable tanning, an increasingly popular alternative to chrome. Purchasing vegetable-tanned leather is significantly less harmful to the planet, and you guarantee that workers have not been in contact with hazardous chemicals. When the garment reaches the end of its life, vegetable-tanned leather is decomposable and does not leach toxins into the soil.
The animals' livelihood also needs to be taken into account. For brands to use leather for high-end, luxury goods, the animal's skin must be pristine. Animals are often confined to small, barren enclosures to prevent damage to their hide. These pens have been described by reptile experts as “overly-restrictive, understimulating and inhumane”. Marked skin and the irregular shape of animal hides can mean 20 to 30 per cent of animal skins regularly go to waste.
It is unlikely that the world's ever-increasing consumer population will be dissuaded from buying leather altogether. Part of the solution is to exclusively source leather that is a by-product. Many tanneries reclaim hides from the meat industry to prevent waste, which encourages a closed-loop system. Strateas Carlucci explains that this ensures that every part of the animal has been utilised,
"We are working with a well-established luxury handbag and shoe manufacturer who produces items for many of the larger luxury houses, and also working with suppliers who can ensure we are working with cruelty-free leather products, where the leather is a by-product, not the primary. We know this is not perfect and understand there is much work to be done in this space; however, we do want to be honest and transparent with our customers."
Another method to ensure workers and animals are treated humanely is to buy from designers who have transparent supply chains. Many tanneries are rated on their energy and water use, emissions and chemical input. Access to supply chain information also means the treatment of the animal can be traced back to the farm and slaughterhouse. Labels who are conscious of humane sourcing will supply this information on their websites.
If you choose to buy real leather, it is important to research the brands and materials you're spending your money on, both processes and products. Legacy brand R.M. Williams has been creating leather goods since 1932 and offer full transparency on their website as to where they source their materials. R.M. also build their leather pieces to last and offer a boot repair service and maintenance guide to increase the longevity of their footwear.
It is essential to look after your wardrobe to ensure you can wear it for years to come. And beyond this, focus on only purchasing pieces which are timeless and that you cherish. That way, you're buying less and are able to spend a little more on each piece to ensure that the animal's life, the craftsmanship of the leatherworker, and the Earth are being respected.
BY SALLY PATON