What is Sustainable Leather?

With growing demand for more environmentally friendly products and services, more businesses turn to sustainable leather made by responsible manufacturers.

Today’s consumers are more mindful than ever before, and they expect the brands they purchase from to provide more —they want environmentally friendly products from ethical, transparent brands. And this trend doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. 

As a result, the leather industry has been wrestling with the impact of leather production on the environment and how to address the challenges faced by most global supply chains in the modern age. But this isn’t a new consideration – global brands and environmental certifications have been driving these changes for some time. 

But first, what is Sustainability? 

The 1987 ‘Our Common Future’ report, published by the World Commission on Environment and Development, defines sustainable development as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations. Whilst this definition has been widely adopted, there is no standard definition or framework for sustainability that can be applied to all countries or systems. 

Leather Sustainability Criteria 

In terms of what that means for the leather industry, UNIDO’s 2019 Framework for Sustainable Leather Manufacture’ report  defines the following areas of focus when considering leather sustainability: 

  • Resources (hides/skins, chemicals, water, energy) 

  • Emissions generated during the production process (solid, liquid and gaseous wastes) 

  • Quality and appeal of the final product, durability 

  • Product use after end-of life 

Leather as a By-Product 

Leather derived from bovine, ovine, caprine and porcine sources is a by-product of the meat industry — meaning animals are reared by the agricultural sector for the food sector, and the leather industry exists to process a by-product of the meat industry. To understand this further, it helps to look at the economic indicators to identify the drivers of this industry.

The economic value of cattle varies depending on multiple factors, such as region, type, and demand. According to the 2018 EU leather PEFCR, the hide historically represented around 3% of the total value of an individual cow in Europe, with more recent estimates in the USA being closer to 1% for the best quality hides. The value of a hide can even be as low as zero, depending on fluctuations in the market – where the availability of hides far exceeds the demand for leather, which could result in raw hides going straight to landfill or being diverted to gelatine production.

Responsible Manufacturing 

As with most global industries, leather manufacturers must contend with the potential impact of their production on the environment. Responsible manufacturing practices should aim to reduce the amount of energy, water and chemicals used during production, as well as reducing the amount of solid waste, wastewater, and air emissions.

Responsible leather manufacturers often turn to certifications such as the LWG Leather Manufacturer Audit Protocol  (LMAP) to demonstrate their commitment to sustainable leather manufacturing to customers. LWG’s flagship certification has been assessing leather manufacturing facilities based on the environmental impact of their manufacturing processes for over 15 years.

The LWG’s audit standard covers many elements of leather manufacturing, including water use, energy consumption, chemical management, disposal of solid waste, effluent treatment, and management of air and noise emissions. And the standard is continuously developing and evolving to become a holistic standard for assessing all elements of Environment, Social responsibility, and Governance (ESG). Most recently, the LWG introduced additional requirements for traceability and social auditing with the launch of Protocol 7 in 2021, in response to growing demand for additional transparency within the supply chain.

Whether using renewable energy, treating wastewater effectively, being socially responsible, or swapping to safer chemistry, there are many actions leather manufacturers can take to reduce their impact and demonstrate responsible, more sustainable leather manufacturing.

Leather Durability and Product Life

Leather is one of the oldest known materials, used by humans for at least 5000 years, with the oldest leather shoe dating back to around 3,500 B.C. Whilst the manufacturing methods may have evolved over time, and the scale of production increased, the material — and its prevalence in our everyday life— remains much the same.

The resources needed to produce the material is only part of the story — the durability and lifespan of a material have an important part to play. Good quality leather is an important material in the footwear, leather goods, furniture, and automotive industries, due to its specific durable characteristics and suitability for these applications.

Companies like Farfetch, Longchamp, and Mulberry have even launched after sales services that allow older, pre-owned leather products to be refurbished and repaired, giving them multiple product lifetimes of use.

Quality and durability of leather products are important factors when considering product life, since a long-lasting product will help those who are environmentally conscious to reduce the number of items they need, and re-use them many times.