The Leather Industry’s Impact On The Environment
Animal farming, especially the cow farming industry, is a significant and widely-recognized contributor to climate change. Fashion companies often market leather as a worthless and otherwise wasted byproduct of this industry, which leads many to believe it is a sustainable material. The authors of this report argue that this is a common misconception.
Leather is not a worthless by-product, but a valuable co-product of cow farming. Globally, leather accounts for up to 26% of major slaughterhouses’ earnings. The leather industry itself argues that the disposal of hides would create more financial burdens, increasing the cost of meat. This means that the leather industry plays a significant part in the environmental damage caused by animal agriculture, such as land use, deforestation, and water pollution. Furthermore, calculations by CIRCUMFAUNA show that while cow skin releases methane during its rotting process, further processing the skin results in even more environmental harm.
Even without accounting for the damage caused by farming and slaughter practices, processing leather itself has significant environmental impacts. Tanning leather generates a large amount of waste and water pollution. A report supported by the European Commission found that tanning 1kg of leather uses up to 2.5kg of chemical substances and up to 250 liters of water, and generates up to 6.1kg of solid waste.
The leather industry uses greenwashing to promote leather as an eco-friendly material. The report showcases several efforts to market leather as an eco-friendly product and argues that these are often based on misleading claims. For example, fashion brands often use the Leather Working Group (LWG) certificate to present their leather as sustainable. However, this certification does not account for farm-level impacts, which constitute the majority of the negative environmental harm caused by leather.
The report concludes by calling for acknowledgment of these harms and asking fashion brands to commit to reducing and eventually phasing out their leather use and embrace sustainable alternatives. However, from an animal welfare perspective, there is uncertainty as to whether the increased cost of meat and dairy resulting from a decline in the leather industry’s profitability will lead to greater demand for plant-based alternatives, or whether consumers will switch to other animal products, such as chicken, potentially causing more harm.
One thing is clear: because of its environmental impacts during the tanning process and its economic significance for the meat and dairy industry, leather plays a significant yet neglected role in our efforts to mitigate climate change. Advocates can use this information to spread awareness about the environmental impact of leather and call out greenwashing efforts by the industry.