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The Truth About Leather and the Environment

June 25, 2018 4 Comments

The Truth About Leather and the Environment

How many times have you heard the statement “Leather is a by-product of the meat industry”? Have you ever wondered how true this statement is and whether there is more to it? I did. 

I am an accessory designer who specialised in leather goods. My father was in the leather goods export industry throughout my childhood, which is what made me fall in love with accessories, and decide to study it professionally. 

What started off simply from people who didn’t use leather asking me to create something for them led to a massive shift in the way I looked at materials and consumption. I started looking for alternates simply because someone asked me “Why are there no non-leather products that are as amazing in design and quality as the leather products in the market?” I thought that this was a valid point, and looked at it as a challenge.

What are the alternates to leather? Most non-leather brands (especially in India) opt to work with synthetics. But let’s be real. Synthetics are equally damaging to animals as well as the environment because of the fact that they’re essentially plastic, not bio-degradeable, and incredibly polluting. This was not the route I wanted to take. 

The moment I discovered cork and learned more about the material, there was no turning back. 

But let’s step back for a moment. 
  • It is a common misconception that leather is a by-product of the meat industry, when in fact the hide contributes quite a large deal to the overall income made from the animal. The two are therefore co-products both of which contribute to the economic viability of the industry.
  • The leather industry is one of the most polluting in the world, making some communities unliveable. If you have watched The True Cost, you’d know exactly what I’m talking about.
  • Most leather is tanned using Chromium Sulphate. One of the biggest leather industries is in Kanpur, India. Every day, 50 million litres of highly toxic tannery wastewater is generated in Kanpur. Only 20% of this water is treated before being released into the surrounding water bodies like the Ganges. The untreated water is laced with dangerous levels of chromium, lead and arsenic causing many fatal diseases in the inhabitants of the area.
Animals, people and the environment - Each and every day, it becomes more and more important for us to become aware of the impact our choices have on each of them. 

It’s not all bleak, though. With every passing day, material and technological innovations are leading to more options. There are companies all over the world creating fabrics we could never have dreamt of before. Vegan leather is a great route to take - but we must remember that not all vegan leather is great for our planet. They can cause indirect harm to animals as well.

It’s important for us all (brands as well as consumers) to make conscious choices, ask the right questions, and through our purchases, INVEST in a sustainable future. 




4 Responses

Faezal Yunus
Faezal Yunus

July 11, 2018

Thank you for the lovely article. Being an ethical vegan, I do not use leather, but was blissfully unaware about leather processing at tanneries. The reference to “The True Cost” was also revelatory—I’m downloading the documentary as we speak, hence the comment to express my gratitude.

To Hemanth: Presenting facts does not constitute “bashing an industry.” This article beautifully concludes with the note about how vegan leather may not necessarily be sustainable or ethical to the animals. It all boils down to environmental sustainability, and social justice and ethics for the animals. Demand can easily stoke supply, which is the case in the associated fur industry where animals are primarily killed for their skin, not their flesh. And there’s no denying the fact that effluent treatment plants are alien to most Indian tanneries, so it’s laudable that this point has been highlighted. If you (or the industry) can’t be open to criticism, forget instilling reform for any change. No offence, and do explore veganism. Cheers!

Hemanth
Hemanth

June 26, 2018

Hi Arture,

Thank you for the dialogue. I would like to highlight on two points.

There is a difference between finished leather and hide. The cost what you have mentioned is for the finished leather (of Rs 150-1000. Btw this can also go up to as high as even Rs 6000 if you choose leather such as the shell cordovan) and not for the hide. When you say income from an animal please take into account only the hide. It would be unwise to take into account the finished leather as it is does not partake in that part of the supply chain and neither does it contribute to the income of the slaughterhouse. An average hide can never contirbute more than 5% of the income generated from a steer.

I accept that they use developing countries to do the beam house part (The polluting part) of the tanning process largely due to a lower cost base and poor regulatory oversight. But at the same time we cannot discard their quality as they bring their own indigenous hides and take them back to finish, which is actually the toughest part in terms of achieving fine quality (as the caliber of the equipment and skill needed is very tough to find in an average Indian tannery).

Arture
Arture

June 26, 2018

Hi Hemant,

Thank you so much for taking the time out to read our post. We completely respect your views on this topic. Our intention is not at all to bash another industry. We are only presenting our points from the sustainability aspect. It is getting increasingly important for consumers to be aware of what they are investing in and make careful choices.

Also, I would like to point out that a sq. foot of high quality leather costs minimum Rs.150 and can go up to 1000s and hide can contribute to 10% or more of the income. However, again, this is not the point of our post, and we do not mean to offend or bash anyone. :)

Yes, there are numerous tanneries that are more regulated but how much of the world’s production actually comes from there? Many times leathers that are labelled “Made in Italy” are actually from Kanpur, and just finished in Italy. It is only when customers are aware of this, that they can demand transparency, and even if they choose to use leather, choose the most sustainable options. Awareness is key.

Hemanth
Hemanth

June 25, 2018

Hi,

Before I comment on this post, I would like to say that I respect your teams effort in spreading awareness of a more sustainable material and commend your efforts in making a viable business around it as it is not an easy job by any measure.

I am not an expert in the leather or meat industry nor do I make money from any of these industries. But I have been associated with them on a decent level; so I just want to highlight the fact that the hide is indeed only a fraction of the income generated from an average steer.

An average steer produces 220-250kgs of retail meat and around 30-40 Sq Ft of hide. The cost of 1 kilo of beef is around Rs 270-290 and the cost of a Sq. Ft. of its hide is around Rs 65-85. If you do the math, you will see that the hide constitutes only 4% of the total income meaning that the hide/leather is indeed and very much a by product of the meat industry. Moreover, there are numerous studies to suggest that if the hides were not made into leather it would result in an increase in our carbon footprint by a large measure.

There is a lot of merit to your argument that the leather produced in India is a polluting industry, but then again that is also because of the fact that the regulatory pollution control boards of the respective states do not hold the tanneries and units accountable to set up proper ETP’s (Effluent Treatment Plants). There are numerous tanneries in italy which function without polluting the environment by setting up the right treatment plants. If it helps to make a better case for the future, there is a lot of research in the field of tanning where they propose to use natural enzymes to tan the hide there by bypassing the use of chromium bi sulphate.

I urge you to promote your products based on its own merit rather than placing your product in better light by bashing another industry.

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