Leather is not an obvious choice for sustainable fashion. Wearing animal skin seems to be the antithesis of eco-friendly fashion, but when you look at the entire life cycle of leather goods, it is evident that leather has a huge potential to reduce the carbon footprint of apparel. Reducing water usage, chemical inputs and waste in textile manufacturing are the key challenges in making textiles more sustainable. Animal skins are a byproduct of food production; using them as raw material in other industries produces almost zero waste with no impact on water consumption or chemical use. There are several environmental benefits of leather from working conditions and pollution perspectives as well. Let’s take a closer look at how leather can be produced sustainably and how it compares to other textiles from an environmental perspective.
The Water Footprint of Textiles
The water footprint is a measure of how much water is used in the production of goods and services. The water footprint of the fashion industry is enormous. Fashion is the world's most water-intensive industry, consuming 9% of the world's freshwater. The textile industry accounts for 80% of the water footprint of the fashion industry. The key factors are the massive amount of water needed for washing cotton and other synthetic fibers and the water needed for dying fabrics. Cotton accounts for approximately one third of the world’s textile production. Synthetic fabrics such as polyester, acrylic, modal and viscose are also major components of the global fiber market. The water footprint of cotton is enormous. The steps in the production chain from seed selection to spinning and weaving, dyeing and finishing, and then to the end product all require water.
Chemical Usage in Textile Manufacturing
The chemicals used in the synthetic fiber industry are often toxic, whereas the chemicals used for dying natural fibers such as wool and cotton are usually less toxic or even nontoxic. The chemicals used in the dying process are responsible for most of the environmental impact of the textile industry. The most common chemical is sulphuric acid, which is used for the black and navy blue color of cotton and wool fabrics, and also in the dyeing of many synthetic fibers. Acid dyes are widely used in the dying industry despite the fact that they are toxic and that some are carcinogenic. The dyes are mostly used for synthetic fibers, as natural fibers such as wool and cotton require less intense coloring. The choice of pigments used in the dying process is also important. Chromium salts are used in the dying of navy blue fabrics, as well as in reds, oranges, yellows, greens, and some other colors. The environmental impact of chromium is high. The dying of acrylic fabrics is the most toxic since it is usually done with heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, and mercury.
Environmental Impact of Dyeing Processes
The environmental impact of the dying process is increased by the fact that the fabrics are dyed before they are woven or knitted, as opposed to dyeing them after they are woven. This means that more water is used in the process, and the wastewater from dying is discharged into the river or lake. In the dying process, large amounts of water and chemicals are needed for the coloring of the fabric. The most toxic dyes are those that are used for acrylic fabrics. Dyes from plants can be used for cotton and wool, and they are less harmful to the environment than synthetic dyes. All-natural fabrics such as cotton, wool, and linen are available in the market too, but they cost more than synthetic fabrics.
Leather from an Environmental Perspective
Leather is made from the hides of animals, mainly cattle or sheep. Animal hides are a byproduct of the food industry. The animals are slaughtered for human consumption and the skins are a byproduct of this process. The production of leather is not water intensive, as the hides are tanned with a solvent-based process without water. The solvents used in the tanning process are oils, fats, and some synthetic chemicals. These are mainly used as a solvent and to give the leather its soft and flexible character. The impact on the environment of using these solvents is low. The process of tanning hides is a chemical process that uses toxic chemicals, and this is where the pollution comes from. The most important difference between the leather and textile industries is that the hides are processed before they are used to make leather goods. This means that the material has already been treated and impregnated with chemicals and that it is not necessary to use more chemicals when making the final product.
Working Conditions for Tanneries and Shoe Makers
Tanneries are an important part of the leather industry, but their work is often forgotten. Tanneries are usually located in developing countries, where the work has traditionally been done by hand. Due to the fact that tanning is a labor-intensive process, it has been outsourced to developing countries where labor is cheaper. The tanning process requires chemicals that are polluting, and the tanneries are often located in areas with poor environmental legislation. The traditional methods of tanning, done by hand, are polluting the environment, and the workers are exposed to the chemicals. For example, human urine is sometimes used as a tanning agent, and the workers are exposed to pathogens in the urine.
Concluding Words: Is leather the answer to our environmental problems?
Leather is processed before it is used in other industries, so it is unnecessary to use more chemicals in the production of leather goods. Leather is a byproduct of the food industry, and the production of hides is not water intensive. The pollution in the leather industry comes from the tanning process where harmful chemicals are used. The tanning process is a chemical process, where the hides are impregnated with oils and fats. The pollution in the tanning process can be reduced by using less toxic chemicals in the tanning process. The environmental benefits of leather are that it uses little water, it is not produced in water-intensive ways, and it does not need excessive use of polluting chemicals. The environmental challenges of leather are that it pollutes the tanning process and that it is produced in developing countries where the work is often poorly regulated.