Materials Factsheet

Leather

Background

Probably the most ancient fabric used by humans, leather is a global industry worth over $30bn, with demand still growing.

Leather is animal hide (skin) that's cleaned of hair, treated (or ‘tanned’) to preserve it and then finished with a specific colour, embossing or feel.

It's a hard-wearing natural material, which is why it’s primarily used for footwear, and its durability is behind a thriving vintage or second-hand market.

Most leather comes from bovine animals - mainly cows, but also sheep and goats. An estimated 3.8 billion of such animals each year, in fact – around one animal for every two people on the planet.

Depending on who you ask, this leather is either a by-product, co-product, or sub-product of the meat industry. On average, he hide represents about 10% of the value of the cow on average. As a result, some argue that leather helps make sure that the hides of animals killed for meat won't go to waste. At the same time though, this also makes the farming and slaughter of animals more economically viable and encourages its growth.

Other hides - such as snake, alligator, crocodile, kangaroo, ostrich, deer and fish - used on a much smaller scale for luxury goods.

More than half the world’s supply of raw leather comes from developing countries in Africa, Asia (in particular India) and LatinAmerica (in particular Brazil), most of which have much weaker environmental and social protections than the EU or US.

China is the biggest buyer and processor of this raw material, mainly because it's the world’s leading shoe producer.

Natural alternatives to leather have been developed, including leather substitutes derived from pineapple, grapes, mushrooms and seaweed, as well as cork fabric from Mediterranean cork oak trees.

The ancient technique of tanning - using just plant extracts such as bark, wood, berries, roots and leaves to colour and preserve the hides - is also being revived, although this takes much longer than chemical processing.

Leather produced only from animals that have been organically raised and tanned is also available.

High-grade artificial leathers and suedes derived from recycled polyester and using non-toxic dyes are in development from international chemicals groups.

However, the most popular synthetic alternative, vegan leather, is essentially plastic, bringing all the environmental and social problems associated with that material - in particular heavy reliance on chemicals and the fact it's non-biodegradable.

Durability - it’s durable and hard-wearing.

Quality - it’s a sensual material, both in its feel and smell, and can be beautiful.

Reusable - it's reused and resold to much higher levels than other fabrics.

Renewable - the material itself is natural, not man-made, so sources can be replenished.

Resource intensive - raising animals, whether for food and leather, requires huge amounts of feed, pastureland, water, and fossil fuels.

Destroys nature - the need for that pastureland and water drives deforestation. In the last half century, 70% of the Amazon rainforest has been cleared to make way for pastures or for growing feed crops, causing habitat loss for millions of species and driving climate change.

GHG emissions - the digestive systems of those animals and the methane and nitrous oxide they produce are responsible for more greenhouse gases than all the world’s transportation systems combined.

Generates waste - animals on factory farms produce 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population, all without the benefit of waste treatment plants. Runoff of that waste is a major source of both water pollution and depleted oxygen levels in water systems.

Animal exploitation - animals needed for the more luxurious and exotic leathers, such as snake, alligator, crocodile, kangaroo, ostrich and deer, can be intentionally farmed for their skins, as their skin is more valuable than their meat.

Chemicals usage - making leather – and in particular the tanning process – usually involves huge quantities of dangerous chemicals, in particular chrome, but also mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives and cyanide-based oils, dyes, and finishes

Toxic pollution - tannery effluent comprises chromium saturated toxic and carcinogenic waste water, which is regularly released into waterways (often deliberately), causing serious harm to industrial tannery workers, the people who rely on the water supply and the eco-system itself.

Energy intensive - turning animal skin into leather requires massive amounts of energy.

Our Position

As a start-up, we’re lucky – we can bed good practices into our business model right from the get go. And that’s absolutely vital with leather, given its many complex pros and cons.

At now sit down, we will:

Aim to use alternative plant-based non-animal leathers as far as possible - either ‘leather substitutes derived from by-products or waste from the food industry (such as pineapple leather, grape leather, mushroom leather or seaweed leather), or replenishable plant-based ‘leathers’ (such as cork fabric from Mediterranean cork oak trees)
If plant-based alternatives are not available or appropriate for the task at hand, look to use alternative leathers derived from recycled polyester or involving recycled polymers mixed with plant-based materials
If we have no option but to use animal-based leathers, we'll look to re-use existing leather first. If that's not available, look to use leather from animals that have been organically raised and organically tanned
In all cases, aim to avoid using chromium-based tanning and toxic dyes, instead using vege-tanning and natural, organic dyes respectively
In short, try to avoid using new animal leather if at all possible