Is There Really Such a Thing as Eco Friendly Leather?

Can the leather industry finally start to cut back it’s environmental impact? Or is improving the tanning process only scratching the surface of a far larger problem?


Like much of the fashion industry, the manufacture of shoes and bags is often clouded with unethical practices and environmental damage, not least because of their use of leather. The tanning process needed to make leather useable by the industry involves a concoction of chemicals and petroleum products, making it very clear that not all “natural” materials are eco friendly. But with “eco friendly leather” now appearing on the market having undergone a tanning process using plant extracts, can the industry finally start to cut back it’s environmental impact? Or is improving the tanning process only scratching the surface of a far larger problem?

The Tanning Process

The tanning process is used to treat leather to turn it from a biodegradable animal skin to a long-lasting piece of material which can be used to make shoes, jackets, bags etc. The process requires a cocktail of chemicals, metals and petroleum derivatives including:

  • formaldehyde

  • solvents

  • lead

  • cyanide

  • arsenic

  • sulfides

  • chromium compounds

These chemicals, amongst others, produce gallons of polluted water and can contaminate surrounding land, as well as contributing to a significant rise in cancer cases amongst tannery workers and those living nearby, often between 20% and 50% above the levels expected.

Leather Origins

It is a common misconception that leather is purely a by-product of the meat industry. The process of leather production is long, complex and deliberate, with the tanning process playing only a small part in leather manufacture. Leather production carries all the environmental disadvantages of the meat industry, plus more, where high levels of energy are consumed through:

  • clearing land for animal pastures

  • animal feed

  • animal medicine

  • removal and disposal of animal waste

  • transportation of animals to abattoir

  • transportation of animal carcases to tanneries

  • water use during tanning process

The leather industry is also heavily condemned by animal welfare groups, with many cheaper leathers originating from China and India where animal welfare laws are rarely enforced. Factory farms in the United States subject animals to crowded conditions and tail docking, de-horning and castration- all without anaesthetic which groups such as PETA claim are deplorable.

Eco Leather”

A variety of new, “eco leathers” has recently begun to appear as an alternative to chromium treated hides. These leathers are treated with an alternative tanning process using vegetable waxes and plant extracts, often coming from the Mimosa tree in a way reminiscent of early leather production (“tanning” comes from the old German word for oak trees!) Eco leathers or vegetable-tanned leathers are often touted as the environmentally friendly saviour of the leather industry. But there is a large amount of debate over the difference that they really make. Tree extracts are used to replace the chromium compounds used in the tanning process, but considering over 200 other chemicals are used to prevent the natural breakdown of leather, the overall impact is sadly negligible. This, combined with the energy consumed in the rearing and slaughtering of animals for their skin means that even “eco friendly” leather has a range of damaging environmental effects.

With a range of, not just “eco friendly” leather producers but also “green” shoemakers promoting the use of vegetable-tanned leather, you would hope that the process would have a significantly smaller environmental impact than the practice of chrome tanning. However, when looking at the overall process, from animal rearing to shoe and bag manufacture, the use of vegetable waxes and tree extracts contributes little to improving the industry as a whole. While synthetic materials are often tainted with the “petrochemicals” label, the production of leather consumes a staggering 20 times more energy than that of synthetic material production.

 Synthetic and natural alternatives


Regardless of your stance on consuming animal products, it is clear that the leather industry, with the possible of exception of self sustainable, traditional leather makers using traditional, non chemical methods, is damaging to the environment. A range of eco friendly shoe companies now exist, catering not just for vegans but for those who are concerned about the overall impact of wearing leather. Many of these companies use high quality synthetic fibres which can easily mimic the soft, sophisticated appearance of leather, not to mention quality natural materials such as bamboo, cork and hemp.

To those who hate to give up on leather completely, it does has the benefit of being a tough and long-lasting material, meaning second hand leather items are easy to come by and it can generally be recycled and updated, reducing your overall consumption of new leather products and keeping them out of the waste stream. While it is easy to condemn leather due to its production process, it should at least be weighed up against the fact that its products are hard wearing and usually of a high quality, reducing the need to throw away and buy again, which gives them a small amount of viability as a sustainable product.

Overall, however, it is starting to become difficult to see leather in any kind of eco friendly light, unless produced on a small scale in a purely traditional and chemical-free manner. It could be time for leather to go in the same way as the heavily condemned fur industry, where, in the 21st century, faux is the way to go.

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