Behind the production and sale of leather is a wealthy and powerful industry, skilled at making their product appear far more sustainable and ethical than it really is. It’s important we look beyond green-washed marketing and to the hard, referenced facts, so let’s debunk some of the myths the leather industry pushes onto citizen consumers.
By Emma Hakansson, Journalist & Founding Director of not-for-profit Collective Fashion Justice
If you’ve ever heard someone argue that cow skin leather is better for the planet than synthetics because, unlike the latter, animal leather is biodegradable, you’ve heard a (potentially compelling) myth that allows the leather industry to keep more social capital than it deserves. You might have also heard that leather is just a by-product of the meat & dairy industry, produced to reduce waste, that it is overall better for the environment to produce than alternatives to it, or that by buying leather, you aren’t actually funding the slaughter of cattle.
Too often, these inaccurate claims are made without any kind of reference or citation hanging off the back of them, and so misinformation is able to spread rapidly. But we can’t allow that to happen. So let’s get to debunking the most commonly heard green-washed and ethics-washed arguments in support of leather production.
False claim #1: Leather is a by-product, made in order to reduce waste from the meat and dairy industries
We live in a deeply capitalistic society where very little happens without money being involved. Leather is not produced as part of some kind of voluntary waste elimination project of the cattle industry, but because selling it turns a great profit. Estimates set the value of the leather industry for 2022 at over $128 billion USD.
A lot of money goes into turning a skin pulled off the carcass of a cow into leather, and this money is invested because of the profit made when leather goods like bags, shoes and jackets are sold. It’s because of this profit that even the cattle industry defines leather as a valuable ‘co-product’, not a by-product. What’s more, when the sale of skins from slaughterhouses have dropped, in part, due to the rise of vegan leather alternatives, individual slaughterhouses have reported multi-million dollar losses. Buying leather helps to fund this system.
False claim #2: Leather is biodegradable
According to the leather tanning industry itself, leather is not effectively biodegradable, not even when vegetable tanned. While it’s true that cow skin, or any animal skin is biodegradable – in that it will rot like any part of a corpse – the transformation of skin into leather changes that. If it didn’t, leather shoes would decompose in front of our eyes.
The tanning process exists to make something organic, inorganic. Chemicals like formaldehyde, arsenic and chromium – which are found in 90% of leather around the world, not only impact the composition of leather, but are extremely harmful to the health of our planet, tannery workers, and surrounding communities.
Did you know that environmental calculations have shown that it would actually be better for the planet if we sent raw animal skins from slaughterhouses to naturally decompose, than if we tannned them into leather? Not only would this mean fewer emissions, but also less profit going to slaughterhouses, weakening a system which is inherently unsustainable.
False claim #3: Leather is better for the environment to produce, compared to vegan alternatives
So leather isn’t biodegradable, but at least it isn’t derived from fossil fuels like synthetic leather is, right? Surprisingly, data from the leather industry and independent studies, collated and analysed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, shows us that on average, cow skin leather production actually uses more fossil fuels than the production of synthetic leather alternatives! Overall, this data set found synthetic leather to have far less than half the impact of cow skin leather.
What’s more, a huge amount of leather is tied to deforestation, with 80% of land clearing in the Amazon Rainforest due to cattle ranching for beef and leather production. Even if leather doesn’t come from deforestation, it is hugely impactful on our climate. To produce a pair of cow skin leather boots, 66kg of carbon equivalent emissions are emitted. That’s over 56kg more than if those boots were made of synthetic leather, and those boots were then incinerated rather than recycled at their supposed end-of-life. Meanwhile, a cow skin leather tote bag requires 537 showers worth of water to be made, which is over 14 times more than if said bag was made of standard synthetic leather.
Of course, there’s also a growing number of better, total ethics alternatives to leather which are partly bio-based, and even fully biodegradable in some instances. These have an even lower environmental impact than both animal and conventional synthetic leather.
False claim #4: ‘Regenerative leather’ is going to become increasingly available, and is a sustainable solution
The argument that supposedly ‘regenerative’ leather, which claims to actually help sequester carbon from the atmosphere as it is produced, while also improving biodiversity, is one that is most dangerous to our planet.
None of the animal farming systems which are labelled as ‘regenerative’ are scalable to produce enough to feed and clothe us all. Animal agriculture is extremely land hungry, taking up 77% of all habitable land already. Today, many cows are confined in feedlots, and if they were moved into ‘regenerative’ systems, that number would increase, leaving even less land for Indigenous plant and animal life, critical to a liveable planet for us all, and invaluable in and of itself.
What’s more, the argument for supposedly ‘regenerative’ commercial animal agriculture as a climate solution has been debunked, including in an Oxford report with c.300 references. This report found that it would be far more environmentally beneficial to simply transition away from animal-derived products, than to try to ‘improve’ the way meat, dairy, leather and other animal products like wool are produced. Similarly, a report published in the scientific journal Nature Sustainability found that said transition from animal to plant-based (and lab-grown, and recycled) production by 2050 would result in the sequestering of 99-163% of our carbon emission budget to 1.5 C.
False claim #5: Leather production can be ethical
Not only are farm workers, slaughterhouse workers and tannery workers all far too often severely harmed or unjustly treated in leather supply chains, in this system profit is made from the slaughtering of animals which are bred in a system that also harms the planet. There is no way to make that system totally sustainable or ethical, because it is rooted in something inherently inefficient and unjust – seeing individuals as commodities that can be exploited and killed for the sake of profit, when there is no need to.
It’s important that we recognise sustainability and ethics are one and the same, as we can’t sustain environmental destruction, or injustice. We need to work towards a total ethics fashion system.
A critical part of the path to this better fashion system is the recognition of how the fashion industry of today works. We need to understand what is simply green-washing and ethics-washing, what is reality, and how to get accurate, referenced and trustworthy information and data on the fashion industry. So, next time you hear someone make a claim about leather, or any other material, make sure to ask them what their sources are. We can’t allow ourselves to be involved in the spread of misinformation in fashion.
By Emma Hakansson
Emma is an activist, passionate about anti-speciesism and collective liberation more broadly.
She is a writer of both articles and books (How Veganism Can Save Us printed by Hardie Grant will be released mid 2022), a creative director, an ethics consultant, and the founding director of non-for-profit Collective Fashion Justice. Her first short film, Willow and Claude has been selected for international film festivals, and won Best Documentary at Fashion Film Festival Amsterdam. She also runs ethical content production agency Willow Creative Co.
She believes it is never wrong to be kind, and that the prettiest things are kind things. You can read more about her here.
Cover image of Emma Hakansson