How Leather Helps Us Live More Sustainably

We all recognise we need to live more sustainably. And research shows more of us want to know how the products we purchase are made. And their impact on the environment – from manufacture to end-of-life.

There is too much misinformation about how leather is made and produced sustainably. So we’ve created this overview that highlights how leather is produced sustainably and how it affects the world around us.

Responsibly made and sourced leather is a truly sustainable material. As a natural by-product leather is very durable, long lasting and ages well. Leather needs very little in the way of life-time maintenance and still lasts for generations. Moreover, it can be repaired and repurposed. 

Even after the long life of a leather article leather can be recycled and at the end of life it will biodegrade. Leather therefore fits perfectly into the circular economy model.

Leather and The Environment

Leather is a by-product of the food industry and exists only because of the meat industry. More than 99% of the leather produced globally is made with hides and skins from animals reared for meat. None of these animals were bred for their hides and skins.

Meat production generates about 11.6 million tonnes per year of hides and skins. If these were not used to make leather, they would simply be thrown away.

Leather’s impact on climate change

Ruminants, like cattle and sheep, produce methane, which is known to be a powerful greenhouse gas. However, they only produce it as part of the biogenic carbon cycle – nature’s way of reusing and recycling carbon atoms.

Unlike emissions from the fossil fuel industry, agricultural emissions do not add new carbon to the atmosphere – and, while cattle populations remain stable, will have no additive effect on global warming.

Cattle rearing can actually help to regenerate soil through regenerative agriculture practices, increasing its capacity to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Current methodologies for measuring emissions often fail to take this into account.

In addition, the industry is making great strides to further reduce its impact on the environment by looking at the composition of animal feed to reduce methane emissions.

As such the leather industry has long repeated that, as it cannot influence the farming of livestock, the climate impacts should not be passed onto the industry.

Leather and deforestation

All action to support deforestation in the world’s vulnerable forest regions is supported by Leather Naturally and like many, recognise the need for greater transparency and traceability in supply chains.

However, that action must be targeted at those parts of the supply chain that drive deforestation and not at associated sectors that have no influence on it, such as leather manufacture. Research at the University of Montana has shown that demand for hides for leather has no direct influence on the number of animals reared and slaughtered.

If the issue of deforestation and cattle rearing is solved, the issue for the associated hides and leather will be solved by default. In contrast, if those hides are not used to make leather, the production of meat in those regions will continue and the hides will simply be thrown away.

Our industry is also taking action to create traceability certification. It ensures, as far as possible, that the leather supply chain does not contain hides sourced from illegally deforested areas – giving confidence to customers and consumers that leather products are not contributing to deforestation.

Leather’s tanning process

The three main tanning processes for leather involve chromium (III) salts, synthetic tanning chemicals or vegetable tannins. Most people automatically assume the last is the most sustainable, but research has demonstrated that the overall environmental impact of these processes is about the same.

Chromium-tanning is highly regulated, as are all chemical processes, with safer bio-chemicals entering the industry every year. Some UK tanners that use it, such as Scottish Leather Group, are among the most sustainable organisations in the entire leather ecosystem.

All three processes are safe for workers, consumers and the environment if they are done well and responsibly. The key determinant for choice of tanning agent is the performance requirements for the final product. Different tanning methods produce varying results that suit different types of leather product.

The longevity of leather

Leather lasts a lifetime. And leather pieces can be passed down through generations, making treasured leather pieces part of the circular economy.

The good news is that consumer appetite for repair, repurposing and reuse is growing. According to Precision Reports 2024, US and European consumers are driving significant demand in footwear repair services. And global sales of pre-loved items surged by 18% last year according to Global Data. 

What’s more, a worldwide survey by Deloitte revealed that 90% of 16-24 year olds plan to increase fashion recycling & purchase pre-loved items.

Indeed fashion brands are now beginning to stitch repair into their customer services. And we can celebrate that reuse and resale options through the likes of DePop and Vinted have struck fire with Gen-Z shoppers. With CEO Kruti Patel Goyal  at the helm of Depop, the business has increased sales to £54.3million. 

There is a step change. Repair, reuse and repurposing is emerging as a steady but growing industry. 

So, is leather sustainable?

Yes. It converts waste from the food industry that would be otherwise thrown away, to make products we use in everyday life.

  • Leather keeps around 10 million tonnes out of landfill a year
  • Leather is long-lasting
  • Leather products are repairable
  • Leather can be recycled
  • At its end-of-life phase, leather degrades through chemical and biological means
  • The leather industry creates employment and skills for millions worldwide, an important defining factor in sustainability and the circular economy.

Thank you to Leather UK for some of the information and data we have included in this article.