The Trouble with Leather

Recently, we wrote about several plant-based, non-toxic vegan leather alternatives in our article Better Leather. But what’s so bad about leather anyway?

Leather might be a popular status symbol, but it is very problematic. Leather is produced from the tanned and treated hides of animals, which immediately raises ethical questions about animal rights. What’s more, livestock farming is a serious contributor to water and land degradation and global warming. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the livestock industry produces 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (a statistic criticized by some environmental groups as being too low). “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation,” says Henning Steinfeld, Chief of FAO’s Livestock Information and Policy Branch. Researchers at Oxford University found that “animal-based products generally have much greater emissions than plant-based products,” and greenhouse gas emissions produced by a meat-eating diet are approximately twice as high as those in vegans. What’s more, meat production consumes much more water than plant foods (with just a few exceptions, such as almonds).

But that’s just half of the problem with leather. Chemicals used in the tanning process, such as aldehydes, acids and high levels of chromium have been found to cause cancer and other debilitating resperitory, skin and eyesight ailments, as well as polluting wastewater. Leather tanning is mostly outsourced to countries with cheaper labour such as India, China and Bangladesh. In these countries, even though better safety practices have been identified, they are often not implemented because it is easier to take advantage of vulnerable workers in poor regions.

The situation in towns like Vaniyambadi and Kanpur, India, are exemplary. ’I have between six and eight patients a week from tanneries with skin diseases or asthma. Tanning can also cause allergies, bronchitia and pneumonia. I estimate 40 per cent of tannery workers have health problems because they are in direct contact with the chemicals,’ says Doctor G. Asokan, who runs a clinic in Vaniyambadi. Worksite deaths because of toxic chemicals have triggered protests and strikes from workers at 45 tanneries in Vaniyambadi and the surrounding area. The tanning neighborhood of Hazaribagh in Dhaka, Bangladesh, has been rated one of the world’s top 10 most polluted sites by the Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross NGOs.

Leather tanners in impoverished countries work in vats of tanning chemicals without adequate safety attire.

Pleather, or synthetic leather made from petrolium products and chemical treatments, pose problems as well. The two main types of pleather come from polyurethane and polyvinyl chloride, or PVC.

PVC is called out by Greenpeace as being the most damaging plastic, releasing bioaccumulating toxins during its manufacture and lifetime that include, but are not limited to dioxins, phthalates, lead and other heavy metals. If ignited, ground or crushed, PVC can release hydrochloric acid and benzene. Because of these concerns Greenpeace is calling for a total ban on this type of plastic. Several types of phthalates are banned in children’s toys in the EU, the US and Canada, based on evidence that they are carcinogenic and a reproductive toxin. And older blinds made from PVC have been shown to be a source of lead contamination.

Although polyurethane is slightly better than PVC, it is still a petrolium-based product, and therefor eligible for the same criticisms as the rest of the petrolium industry: it contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, and does not biodegrade. Concerns have been raised about the use of solvents and flame-retardants in its manufacture. Even with the mandated use of flame-retardants, Polyurethane is highly flammable, and emits extremely toxic vapours when ignited.

So what are your options if you still want the look, feel and fashion of leather without the harmful impacts? It turns out there are a surprisingly large number of plant-based vegan alternatives. Check out our article Better Leather to read about them.

Want to know more? Here are some links for more information:

Environmental impacts of meat and leather
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Pleather toxicity