From start to finish producing leather though either chrome/chemical tanning or vegetable tanning, comes with a laundry list of problems, land devastation, environmental pollution, loss and devastation of natural resources, and water supply contamination, not to mention the spread of disease and the abuse and death of billions of animals.
The amount of energy alone that is required to create a leather hide is 20 times greater than the amount of energy needed to produce a similar one from synthetic material. But advocates of leather use feel that the process is a necessary evil, and we shouldn’t stop using leather, but we should instead use “preferable” methods to produce leather. Vegetable Tanning has long been viewed as being a less harmful alternative to the chemical tanning processes. However the only difference between vegetable and chemical tanning, is the source of the color. Vegetable tanning uses ingredients from vegetable matter, such as tree bark, which gives the leather a more subtle, muted color. Every other step in the process is exactly the same.
Organizations like The Leather Working Group, a group made up of stake holders in the leather industry whose mission according to their web site is to “Develop and maintain a protocol that assesses the compliance and environmental performance of tanners and promotes sustainable and appropriate environmental business practices within the leather industry.” The group has long supported the use of vegetable tanning processes over chemical ones; however Bill Bartholomew, a representative for The Leather Working Group admitted at the World Shoes Accessories Eco Ethics Conference in February of 2009 that so called “eco-friendly” vegetable tanning is just as polluting as chrome tanning. Let’s just say that these businesses are heavily invested in seeing a future for the leather industry, which could cause ecological reasonability to take a backseat to profit margins.
Aside from the myth about vegetable tanning being a less harmful alternative to chemical tanning, the other common misconception is that leather is a byproduct of the meat industry, making it more eco friendly because it’s using parts of the animal that would otherwise be wasted, almost like recycling. Unfortunately this is not really the case, in some cases farmers will sell the skins of an animal that was slaughtered primarily for meat. But make no mistake this is a money making effort, not something done out of the goodness of their hearts, it’s done to maximize profits.
The profit that a meat farmer can make selling skins varies greatly depending on the animal involved: while cows, of course, provide most of the leather we use, but there is an increasing demand for more exotic varieties like Ostrich, or even Sting Ray. Animals from which meat is not highly desirable or profitable, but whose skins are both.
There is just no way to defend leather as “eco- friendly” or sustainable, Of course alternatives made from PVC and PU plastics have environmental problems of their own, advancing the argument against them and increasing the demand for better alternatives. As a result innovations in alternative materials are making use of new organic, plant based, and post consumer recycled waste materials, in an effort to create new alternative textile options.
What it really comes down to is us, we as consumers have to take the responsibility for what were purchasing, because it is through those purchases that businesses decide what direction to go in. If we continue to buy leather products then businesses will continue to make them. But if we make the conscious effort to avoid leather products and buy items that are made from alternative materials, then hopefully the industry will fallow and make more of those items available for purchase.