Understanding the Environmental Costs of Leather and its Alternatives
A Look into the Leather Industry in India
The leather industry in India is extremely robust and is also one of its oldest manufacturing Industries. It is known to account for 13% of the world’s leather production of hides/skins and is the second-largest producer of footwear and leather garments in the world. The new wave of eco-fashion that is gaining prominence among large global fashion names has seen many brands adopting to eliminate fur from their products with grand declarations that include words like animal welfare and environmental responsibility. However, these same fashion monoliths are yet to denounce leather. For many, this will come as no surprise considering the long history of leather production and the significant cultural and social value it holds to this day in many parts of the world. Nevertheless, we cannot turn a blind eye anymore to the severe environmental risks that leather and even its supposedly ‘green’ alternatives pose today.
Every step of the production of leather harms the environment in several ways, i.e. its life cycle emissions are extremely damaging to the environment. Leather used to be a byproduct of the meat industry and a common argument of proponents of leather used to be that not using the leftover skin/hides was more harmful to the environment in that it was wasteful. The leather industries of today’s age have come a long way since then. These days, animals are specifically being farmed and brutally slaughtered for their hides/skins. Animal cruelty aside, Cattle farming (bovine hide is the most popular kind of hide used for leather) is an enormous drain on resources such as land, water and fossil fuels. A study regarding the carbon footprint of bovine leather stated that the stage that contributed the most to greenhouse gas emissions was the preliminary raw material extraction stage. Another pressing concern is the pollution released during the tanning process. The tanning of leather uses many harmful chemicals and the resulting wastes that contain chromium, mineral salts, arsenic, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives and various oils, dyes and cyanide-based finishes etc. are extremely hazardous and toxic. Chromium, the chemical that is used to darken leather, in particular, is notorious for being a known carcinogen. Health risks include cancer risks that are 20% to 50% above the expected. The tanning process also greatly affects the biodegradability of natural leather.
Predictably, the release of such effluents into rivers and lands nearby has created many problems for the areas near tanneries. India’s soft enforcement of environmental regulatory laws has only exacerbated the problem leaving major tanneries free to act on their own. The majority of tanneries in India are located in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Notable cities among them including Kanpur, Chennai and Kolkata are all known for their long history of leather production. There have been many research studies connecting the high influx of tannery pollutants in the River Ganga to the 300 or so tanneries that litter its banks in Kanpur. Toxicology reports of the groundwater in the Jajmau region of Kanpur showed high levels of Chromium VI which is carcinogenic. As a result, the health of poor farmers and people living in the region has been compromised. The air pollution from the burning of leather has also been a silent killer of farm crops in this region. A study on the environmental impacts of the tannery process in the Vellore district of Tamil Nadu also reported similar findings. Air, water and soil pollution due to the toxins released had made the groundwater highly polluted and the farmland infertile. In the same study, corruption had been cited as another reason why the waste treatment process and regulatory standards have not taken effect.
The worst of all affected perhaps in all these is the tannery workers at the very bottom. The leather industry for all its awful aspects employs 4.42 million people in India. These small tannery workers are exposed to harmful chemicals without the protection of any safety standards. The vast majorities of these workers are from marginalized sections of society and come from economically weaker backgrounds. With the rise in mechanized slaughterhouses and anti-slaughter laws in India, these workers of whom many come from the Dalit community are already facing issues with employment. The Issues surrounding the leather Industry are constantly evolving and it is important to view its various complexities through different lenses. This is exactly why unlike fur; denouncing leather is much more difficult.
Lately, a popular solution for leather enthusiasts and high fashion houses alike has been faux leather or vegan leather. The name vegan leather might be slightly misleading. Vegan leather is mainly of two types: Polyurethane leather (PU leather) and PVC leather. While this kind of supposedly ‘green’ leather is animal cruelty-free, unfortunately, it is not environmentally friendly. Both PU leather and PVC leather are petroleum products and their usage inevitably leads to micro-plastic pollution. What’s more, synthetic leather that is made from plastic is completely non-biodegradable. The environmental cost of manufacturing these faux leather options is another concern.
There are other alternatives to Petroleum based artificial leather that has been created around the world. These include leather that is made from pineapple, coconut, cork, collagen and other plant-based options. However, none of these alternatives has been made efficient to the point of mass production globally and is mainly niche luxury items for the rich and environmentally conscious. Additionally, issues relating to durability and texture/feel of the leather tend to drive away from major fashion brands and leather enthusiasts from plant-based faux leather alternatives.
Is it time we completely stop buying leather?
For those who want to minimize their carbon footprint but also want to buy and enjoy leather products, this can seem like a real conundrum. Is the answer in buying/thrifting real leather that is much more durable than synthetic leather or is the answer in buying vegan faux leather that is cruelty-free but is toxic to the environment in the long run? Many have decided to reject faux leather options citing concerns about plastic pollution and have opted to rather buy real leather instead. Another inciting new option on the table that has become more popular among big brands like mulberry has been ‘responsible leather’. Responsible leather has been defined as sustainable leather that is sourced as a by-product from raising farm animals and is tanned using vegetables. This eliminates both the concern of animal cruelty and chromium pollution. Responsible leather seeks to reduce the carbon footprint of leather by preserving biodiversity, water and soil health. Some amount of carbon footprint is still associated with this method and there are worries regarding its sourcing process, however, this has become a popular option for many people.
Leather in many parts of the world like India is a status symbol. It is a symbol of luxury. Therefore even though its continued use is harmful to the environment, it is difficult to hope to completely destabilize an industry whose history can be dated back to the middle ages. Perhaps, it is better to restrict the use of leather considering its harmful effects. Maybe we should use responsibly sourced leather considering the amount of animal waste that is produced by the meat industry globally that will just be burned and turned into CO2; if it is not used for leather manufacturing. It can also be argued that the benefits of faux leather (at the cost of micro-plastic pollution) do slightly tip the balance in its favour compared to the cons of producing real leather. Although one thing is for certain; with the current rising rates of global temperatures and GHG emissions and the ecological crises happening in many parts of the world due to plastic pollution, sooner than later the leather problem will come to a head.