Skinning Out the Leather Industry

Funky Tee

The commercial leather industry is a pollutive, toxic and unjust, environmental hazard that can only change by awareness, choice and demand.

Leather is a controversial topic that has turned into a material often avoided by those who want to lead sustainable lifestyles and make conscious consumption choices. But most of us use leather on a daily basis, even if we don’t immediately recognize it. Leather is used in shoes, bags, wallets, garments (even as detailing), gloves, jewelry, books (in covers and binding), iPod or laptop sleeves, furniture, car interiors and even sports equipment. Leather is undoubtedly an amazing material that can provide numerous uses and can act as a sustainable resource to utilize once an animal passes, but the current leather industry is a far cry from an environmentally sound and just trade.

Most of the leather used in the products mentioned above is a by-product of the tremendously destructive beef industry. Cowhide accounts for 66 percent of annual leather production, and is harvested from the more than one billion cows that are slaughtered each year. These cows are often raised as beef or dairy cattle, while other types of leather come from pigs, sheep, goats and horses.

Commercial beef farming can be considered one of the most environmentally dangerous forms of agriculture that our country, and the rest of the world, is heavily invested in. It is incredibly resource-consuming, releases immense amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, generates tons of waste that ends up contaminating precious groundwater and soil. It eats up far too much of the world’s grain and water, and requires fossil fuels for fertilization and transportation.  And that doesn’t even cover the issue of animal treatment, which is not a sunny story.


After slaughtering, the hides of these animals are sold to tanneries for leather production. Tanning is another dirty business, which has been disdained as one of the filthiest jobs in our history. Brain tanning is the traditional method for achieving the softest leather, but both brains and animal feces were used in a very unsanitary way in the tanneries until the early 20th century. This caused tannery workers to be considered so foul that they were excluded from society and banished to the outskirts of town and cities.

Modern tanning methods use substantial amounts of noxious chemicals that leach into waterways, soils and the air. Chromium, which is linked to cancer, eye damage, ulcerations and facial sores,  is the most commonly used tanning material and employed in 90 percent of tanneries worldwide. Chromium tanning one hide only takes about a day to complete, providing producers with a quick, low cost and effective method of leather manufacturing.


The chromium tanning process involves an initial pickling soak, which contains acids and salts (that kill beneficial organisms and bacteria in soil and waterways) and then a chromium sulphate bath, which softens the hide and protects it from decay and moisture. After these soaks the hides must be wrung out, creating copious amounts of waste water containing toxic mixtures of chemicals solvents, sulphites, heavy metals and salts. Added to the debris are animal hairs, hide scraps, skins and excess fat, causing solid waste to make up over 70 percent of the wet weight of raw hides. All of this untreated waste carries pathogens in it, posing a great risk for both environmental and human health.


According to the EPA there are approximately 111 tanneries in the U.S. that are subject to environmental and animal protections standards, although 90 percent of these tanneries do use chromium tanning processes. However, most of the world’s leather comes from South Asia, Central and South America, where tanneries are informal, unregulated and don’t have proper waste water treatment facilities. For example, the tanning center of Hazaribagh in Bangladesh has over 200 separate tanneries, which produce a total of over 2 million gallons of wastewater and 88 million tons of solid waste per year. Due to the health hazards of tanning processes, the Worst Polluted Project estimates that 1.8 million lives are at severe risk because of chromium pollution.


The Luhu Envelope Sleeve by Looptworks is made entirely out of recycled leather.

Leaving leather and meat out of our purchases has become the solution for some, but is not the only answer to preventing this destructive activity. There are labels that source their leather responsibly, such as Calleen Cordero, Jypsea Leathergoods and larger brands partnering with the Leather Working Group to change the leather industry.  Some leatherworkers produce their own handmade leather, using traditional brain tan or completely natural vegetable tanning processes, if you make your own leather goods. Etsy is a particularly good platform for finding hand worked leather items and responsibly tanned leather material. A fantastic choice is reclaimed and upcycled leather; check out Poketo’s and reMade USA’s beautiful bags made from leather jackets, Looptworks’ amazing iPad sleeve made from recycled leather, Olga Road’s rockin, upcycled leather jackets and Platinum Dirt’s chic clutches made from car interiors. You don’t have to give up leather, just kick the chromium and animal cruelty out of the equation!

Images: Funky Teekrebsmaus07Chrissy Olson, }{enryLooptworks