To buy or not to buy leather? Is it eco friendly? A tough decision...

Leather's natural so it's good, right? No, it's not. It's a dirty business and many industry players still have a very long way to go in terms of cleaning up their act. 

Leather is a by-product of the meat industry, which is the argument most often used in its favour. But the industry as a whole still leaves much to be desired in terms of minimising its impact on the environment. However, companies such as Glasgow-based Andrew Muirhead are investing in cleaner tanning technologies and in the EU and the US, strict environmental legislation ensures effluent does not enter the water system. For more on Scottish leather producers' environmental policies see here

High quality leather is a wonderful material. It is beautiful, smells divine, can be buttery-soft yet hard-wearing, it's sophisticated yet comforting, and generally has a sumptuousness and richness about it. It ages well and can last for many decades.

But as with so many things we prize, a lot of us haven't got a clue about how it's been produced and frankly, it's easier to ask no questions and not look behind the curtain. 

Leather is a by-product of the meat industry (itself subject to growing criticism for the environmental damage it's doing), and man has for millenia been preserving animal skins and putting them to use. Leather is also a sustainble product, given that the animals we use for leather aren't about to become extinct.

However, while the finished product may pleasing, and while progress has been made in the EU at minimising hazardous waste from tanning, in countries such as India and Morocco toxic chemicals are widely used in tanneries. 

 

In Morocco tourists watch workers tread hides in vats of noxious dyes. The colours are pretty but wo
The Eames Lounge Chair from Vitra simply has to be upholstered in fine quality leather www.vitra.com
Leather Elgin three seat sofa, made in Italy for the Conran Shop, £4,400 in sale
Very young children do work in Bangladesh's filthy tanning industry
Joyce sofa in leather from high end Austrian furniture brand Wittmann. Its hides are from European c
Leather can be dyed in myriad colours. Here are a few from Wittmann. www.wittmann.at
Salmon leather is a by-product of salmon farming
US Spinneybeck leather tops this stool from G&T, a collaboration between Bethan Gray and Thomas Turn

Turning raw hides into leather has always been a dirty job; after all, it takes powerful chemicals to stop the natural decomposition process of a dead animal. In the days when people tanned the hides of the animals they had just eaten for dinner, the process was often carried out using dog poo, quick lime and even human waste as well as kindlier vegetable tannins from oak leaves. Nowadays it still often involves the toxic heavy metal chromium that makes it a much faster but more treacherous process.

Human Rights Watch recently published a report on tanneries in Bangladesh, which supply luxury leather to Europe and the US. It found a catalogue of horrors including child labour and workers with chronic skin damage and respiratory diseases from handling chromium, sulphuric acid, formaldehyde and bleach without protective clothing, and a local population suffering similar ailments from drinking water contaminated by chemical-laden effluent. 

Yet at the same time, more leather producers are claiming that their product is a truly green and eco-friendly material – which means that it is down to consumers to try to differentiate between the saints and the sinners. 

Greenpeace campaigner Lorena Pujo is based in Argentina and has seen how pressure from the public and groups like her own can create change. A decade ago Argentinian tanneries were using the highly carcinogenic Chromium 6 and discharging untreated water into the environment, now they have switched to the less toxic Chromium 3 and are beginning to clean up their act, although she says 'it’s still a hard fight'.

Stand up to disingenuousness

Meanwhile, Greenpeace has turned its attention to manufacturing companies, especially those in the fashion industry which are big end users of leather, with its Detox campaign which challenges them to remove toxic chemicals from their production by 2020.

'The key is the supply chain,' says Pujo. 'We are trying to make international brands commit to eliminating toxic chemicals. These big brands have suppliers in developing countries where standards are really low and they rarely consider the discharge of hazardous and persistent chemicals, as happens in Bangladesh. The finished products themselves meet the EU or US standards, but these standards don’t take into account the way the leather in the product has been produced.'

Vegetable tanned leather from Natureally Organic Leather. www.natureally.co.uk
Consumers need to ask where the leather on the products they buy has been made - and walk away if th
Vegetable tanning, as done by UK-based Natureally, takes far longer than using chromium salts. www.n
EU-tanneries work to higher environmental standards than Asian and Far Eastern ones
Luxury Spanish brand Tresserra Collection leathers are in natural shades

What makes it harder for the consumer is that product labelling is often vague – so a leather item labelled 'Made in Italy' means only that the leather had a surface treatment there, or the finished item was made there, not that the leather was actually tanned there, or indeed, that the cows were raised there. This makes it hard for the consumer to avoid giving businesses to tanneries that cause harm to workers or the environment.

Gucci has recently designed a series of bags that come with a 'passport' detailing the life history of the cow that made them, however such traceability is far from the norm.

Organic leather

Ilona Ludewig-Mack, founder of eco-friendly hide company Natureally Organic Leather, feels many brands are downright unethical: 'I found it shocking talking to big British luxury brands and finding out that they prefer using cheap Bangladeshi hides that by going through finishing processes in Italy then can be called Italian leather. It’s very disheartening and deceiving to the public.'

In complete contrast, all the hides she uses come from rare breed cows grown on small organic UK farms and tanned in Scandinavia. 'Rare breeds are typically kept in smaller herds by people who love them, and it shows in the end product,' she says. 'The happier and healthier the animal, the better the leather.

Ludewig-Mack believes it's crucial that consumers realise that most leather is actually a composite of cheap hide with a plastic coating on top. 'Just think about it: if you can wipe down your leather sofa you actually have one that's plastic coated,' she says.

Natureally’s leather is tanned using vegetable products, which is an older, more natural tanning method that's once again finding favour with more eco-conscious consumers. 'The choice of this method was again part of the core concept of Natureally - I wanted to make the most luxurious leather, and managed to do this without damaging workers’ health or the environment. It's harder to do, takes longer and is more expensive, but isn't a higher quality, longer lasting product worth the wait?'

Another small leather business doing things differently is Rowan Gabrielle at Organic Leather, who takes the hides of cattle reared on Exmoor and has them tanned in Devon. 'Our primary focus is on how our leather is tanned, as that is where we can best prevent further toxicity entering our environment and our bodies,' she says. 'Our tanneries only use natural materials such as bark tanninsplant tanninslime or smoke to cure, preserve and tan leather; these are all biodegradable.'

While tanning with chromium can be done in under a week, vegetable tanning takes from five weeks to 12 months, which is a huge difference in terms of cash flow and storage space. Nonetheless, some larger companies are also taking the plunge. At Bridge of Weir around a third of the leather is now tanned using tannins from the bark of the black wattle tree, sustainably farmed in African countries.

Bridge of Weir, along with sister company Andrew Muirhead, are part of Scottish Leather Group, which is at the forefront of a move towards cleaner, more environmentally-friendly tanneries on a large scale. But SLG’s environment director Dr Warren Bowden explains it isn’t necessary to use vegetable tannin to clean up the industry: 'Vegetable tanning extracts principally provide an alternative ‘feel and property’ to the leather. But it's not necessarily driven by health and safety or environmental criteria.”

That's because when chromium is used in the group's tanning process, it's recaptured from the waste water to avoid contamination then re-used. 'We promote the concept of sustainable leather manufacture by considering our waste as a resource,' says Dr Bowden. He explains that Scottish Leather Group runs its own thermal plant run on waste and this makes the companies self-sufficient in energy.

By 2020 the tanneries should have achieved zero waste. 'This is unique and sets us apart from the global leather industry. And despite being one of the lowest water users globally because our processes are so efficient, we have also built an ultrafiltration plant which produces clean effluent, as the first stage in our bid to ‘close the loop’ and recycle water back into production. Our energy use per hide is as little as 1/5th of our competitors published data and our water use is less than half.'