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Leather’s sustainability and ethics

Sustainability and ethics 

In today’s ultra-connected, ultra-” informed” world, catchphrases and “movements” are everywhere we turn.  For the top handful of causes, few have the same reach, impact, or divisiveness as climate change.  In the automotive industry, the push towards more environmentally friendly products has been obvious and enforced for some time.  One relatively recent target of environmental crusaders has been the use of leather in auto interiors.  But is it really as bad as the naysayers would have you believe?  Let’s take a level-headed, non-political look at modern leather’s sustainability and ethics. 


CO2 Emissions 

The leather most used in automotive interiors is bovine, or cattle hide.  Bovine leather is entirely a byproduct of the beef and dairy industries.  Without these, there would be no leather industry.  Hides make up a small part of the overall value of cattle and therefore have no impact on cattle numbers.  In fact, beef demand far exceeds leather demand globally. 
If the leather industry failed to buy hides from beef production, most would become landfill or burned.  In the US alone, would lead to 33 million unused hides every year.  This would generate 750 thousand metric tons of CO2 emissions yearly.  Globally, these numbers would be approximately 300 million hides and 6.6 million tons of added emissions.  Making leather from hides of animals that were already going to be slaughtered is better for the environment discarding them. 



Beef production in Latin America significantly contributes to deforestation and habitat conversion.  Due to the leather industry being so closely intertwined with the beef sector, this reflects badly.  This means, although leather is a byproduct, its producers are not spared from needing to address this in supply chains.  As an industry that in 2022 was worth US$242.85 billion, it is certainly able to have some influence on the beef and dairy industries.  If, however, the original cattle were farmed differently, the story can change.  That is, on land that hasn’t been deforested or converted from its original use into intensively farmed land. This is called DCF beef, and ideally manufacturers would only be using DCF hides for their leather. 
The European Union’s REACH rules and ZDHC’s Roadmap to Zero set limits on the use of certain harmful substances in leather making. These substances, like tanning chemicals, can be bad for the environment and people’s health.  Then there is the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) Farm to Fork strategy.  This is set to target all steps of food production.  These rules help keep the environment and public health safe and encourage leather manufacturers to come up with safer options, which also spurs innovation.  Industry led certification programs, such as the Leather Working Group and Sustainable Leather Foundation show its commitment to sustainability and reduce its environmental footprint. 

Industrial Agriculture 

Certain areas carry a lower risk of deforestation related to cattle, like when leather is obtained from European cows.  But it’s important to recognize that there may still be a risk of deforestation tied to the production of feed corn or soy from such regions.  This underscores the significance of implementing essential changes at the source. 
The primary concern of deforestation related to cattle is supplying feed for the cattle. Large areas are needed for either pasture or the growing feedlot system. Deforestation is driven by the expansion of feed crops, and the enlargement of grazing areas.  Soy is a major force behind global deforestation. Forests are being cleared daily to create space for soy cultivation. Surprisingly, nearly 80% of this soy is cultivated not for human consumption but as animal feed. 

Good news 

It’s not all bad news though, when beef production is managed in a sustainable manner.  It can bring about various positive effects for conservation. Grazing helps support the health of grasslands and enhances soil quality through natural fertilization.  It also protects open spaces and wildlife habitats.  Moreover, carbon is stored in the grass and soil of these grazing areas.  Beef production also has social advantages by supporting livelihoods and fostering vibrant communities in rural regions dominated by grasslands. 


The Tannery 

Environmentally conscious tanning techniques could offer a more sustainable and environmentally friendly alternative to conventional chrome tanning.  One example is microwave assisted tanning, which reduces how much chrome salt is used.  These types of methods reduce the reliance on harmful chemicals and decrease the risk of water pollution and carbon emissions.  That can help address the environmental issues linked to traditional natural leather production.  The main threat to the environment results from the dumping of liquid and solid waste that holds leftover chromium. 
But chromium tanning also carries eco-friendly advantages.  Its efficiency in converting raw hides into leather means reduced chemical, water, and energy usage throughout the leather production process. Chromium can also be recycled and used multiple times before it needs disposal.  It can be infinitely safer for people ant the environment when handled correctly. 
Industry led certification programs, such as the Leather Working Group and Sustainable Leather Foundation show its commitment to sustainability and reduce its environmental footprint.  

Views and eating habits 

Ethically, your view of leather probably reflects that of your view of meat. Carnivores generally don’t have a problem with leather.  Vegans who are against all forms of animal exploitation will hate it.  Those who don’t eat meat as a health choice may be on the fence.  But the “leather bad, vegan good” chant in the modern eco-centric mindset does not recognise some telling truths of how modern leather is sourced and produced.  The ethics of leather should concentrate on how the animals live and die.  It should also view how the environment is impacted throughout the animal’s life, including and up to leather production. 


Animal Welfare 

Good practice in animal welfare reduces unnecessary suffering and produce healthier animals.  This is due to the close links between animal welfare, animal health and disease.  The welfare of animals is directly connected to safety in the food chain, particularly those farmed for food production.   
Modern farming techniques are more regulated than ever before in most major beef production nations, which includes animal welfare. This is especially true in Europe, where most high-quality automotive leather is produced.  EU legislation sets minimum welfare standards for all farmed animals including transport, stunning and slaughter.  At no time in modern history have animals been better looked after in food production, therefore into leather production.  Yes, there’s room for improvement, but once again, the leather industry is helping to sway old mindsets.  The added margin afforded to producers from the sale of hides gives the leather industry considerable influence. After all, a better treated animal will be healthier, which will help increase market value.  It will also have a better skin!  


The welfare of animals during transport and at slaughter is also being increasingly regulated. Again, bodies like the RSPCA and EFSA are leading the way here too.  Many of their recommendations are being enforced by relevant Government bodies worldwide.  More and more countries, most recently Brazil, have banned live export of cattle.  This effectively means that the suffering and cruelty to millions of animals will be spared.  The ship voyage is perilous, with high stock densities, unfavourable temperature conditions and cruel handling evident.  Treatment of animals at their destination countries are often against the law in the country of origin, including slaughter without first being stunned.  Limiting opportunities for this maltreatment goes a long way in lifting the profile of the beef industry, and all cottage industries that branch off it. 

Sustainability and Ethics 


So, can leather be sustainable and ethical?  After all, there is no point in striving to lower your carbon footprint without checking if your efforts have been “greenwashed”.  The WWF believes there are many benefits to using leather as a byproduct of cattle production.  They say, “the leather industry has the potential to strengthen leather’s long-lasting commitment to sustainability and minimize its environmental footprint.” Through partnerships with the beef industry in conservation initiatives, companies that buy leather can use their influence to bring about change and speed up the preservation of vulnerable habitats. 
Leather is a lesson in circularity and is one of the oldest forms of upcycling.  But the animal’s treatment, and the greater impact of getting it from birth to tannery needs to be viewed wholly.  The Scottish Leather Group is a great example of this, insisting that it’s hides are sourced only from suppliers that follow the highest animal welfare standards.  It is also on the forefront of tannery techniques of its own environmental impact.  Its new Super Tannery delivered an 82% reduction in energy consumption and a 42% reduction in water use for the 2022 financial year.  All while creating some of the finest leather available. 

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