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  • Writer's pictureMichaela A de Guire

Are leather products sustainable?

Updated: Apr 16, 2023

As I continue on my journey of seeking a sustainable lifestyle I found myself wondering if my leather oxfords and Chelsea boots were actually sustainable. I knew before I sought genuine leather shoes that leather itself was a repairable good, and therefore I found two cobblers in my area before committing to the purchase. I also knew that leather goods lasted longer than anything made of faux leather, I did not know why, only that it was so.

Oxford genuine leather shoes

Upon further research into the leather industry I learned that leather, genuine leather, is indeed one of the most sustainable goods available to man. There are a number of reasons, but it all boils down to a few things,

  1. Leather is actually a by-product from the food industry, thus less waste for that industry.

  2. Leather is a natural product, thus, it is biodegradable.

  3. The leather industry has already in place global standards and regulations.

  4. The leather industry is working on creating a closed-loop process (chemicals never leave the facility and thus, are recycled within.


With all that being said, shall we break it down a little further?


Real leather is defined as:

“hide or skin with its original fibrous structure more or less intact, tanned to be imputrescible, where the hair or wool may or may not have been removed…” (IOS.org, number 3.52).

Upon further reflection of the definition of leather, ‘vegan leather’ cannot exist because leather is a product derived from an animal. Thus, any material that is not derived from an animal is ‘vegan’. However, vegan does not mean natural. ‘Vegan leather’ is a miss leading term, as it is actually a look alike made using oil.


The rawhide or material is renewable, it is also a by-product of the food industry, as a finished product it is repairable, and with all the regulations that are in place for tanners it is typically made responsibly. So, the answer is yes, leather is sustainable. Due to its high versatility, leather can be made into shoes, bags, belts, coats, jackets, and so many more things.


As stated above leather is a by-product of another industry. If leather were not made into a usable end product, I believe the by-product would end up in the landfills, thus causing disease and danger to nearby wildlife and the homes of people. Thus, by putting to use a by-product of another industry we are using the whole being, or as much as possible and thus, eliminating waste.

A leather tanner in his atelier

If authentic leather is sustainable, is faux leather too? No. Faux leather is actually what many call (albeit wrongly) “vegan leather”, which is actually PU leather and synthetic leather. All of which are artificial leather-a-look materials made using oil. In terms of sustainability, recyclability and end-of-life disposal, faux leather does not meet the same standards of authentic leather goods. Faux leather is manufactured with polyester and nylon, that are coated with PVC or PU. Thus, synthetic leather is not as durable and thus, more likely to land in landfills, as they cannot be recycled.


True leather, derived from the rawhide, can be repaired, refurbished, repurposed and recycled into a leather fiber board. The fiber board is used in footwear. Other ways the leather is recycled is through the boxing punch bags, the leather is turned into ground up trimmings to be stuffed into the bags. However, there is a lot of research and development taking place as I write to expand the application for recycled leather.


Of course because leather is a natural product it is biodegradable. So yes, you can bury your beloved oxford shoes. It usually takes 10-50 years to fully decompose. However, if you were to bury faux leather it would take well over 500+ years to decompose.


Large leather producing countries such as Italy and Brazil have implemented sustainability certifications such as The Leather Working Group (LWG), which is a global standard for environmental stewardship for leather manufacturers. This includes good governance in chemicals and water usage, social responsibility, and environmental and good sourcing administration.

Leather is recycled is through the boxing punch bags, the leather is turned into ground up trimmings to be stuffed into the bags.

Much like the linen, cotton, and other organic and sustainable clothing companies you want to look for 3rd party certification when seeking quality leather products. A few certifications to look out for include the Institute of Quality Certification for the Leather Sector (I.CE.C), which operates in Italy and the Sustainability Certification from Brazil, and the Leather Working Group (LWG). With these 3rd party programs comes transparency from the tanners. Another program you can look for, although this is a non-governmental program, is ZDHC (Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals).


All tanners either have their own wastewater treatment plant or they send their wastewater into a municipal run wastewater treatment plant. Either way they do not just toss it out onto the streets. As for the solid wastes, tanners are working to create a circular waste system that will provide one or two things or perhaps both, either new materials with their solid waste or new energy sources.


All tanners use what is known as Chromium III, this is a natural element found in nature in rocks, animals, plants, soil, volcanic dust and gases. Chromium III is an important nutrient that our human body needs to process certain sugars, proteins, and fats. Thus, consumption of Chromium III in small doses does not harm you. However, Chromium VI is dangerous and can be fatal. Proper processing eliminates the risk of any chromium VI formation during the leather tanning process.


Tanners no longer use toxic solvents. Solvents were originally used for degreasing and finishing or coating the leather. Today these have been switched over to water-based technologies. The workforce behind the scenes of leather are highly trained individuals, with safety gear. UNIDO also offers an online safety awareness training program with video demonstrations regarding safe chemical handling used in tanneries.


So you see, the leather industry has come a long way over the years and is most likely the one industry, in the whole fashion industry, that has improved in leaps and bounds to create a more sustainable system in regards to production. Leather (genuine leather) is now on the list of most sustainable fabrics (or rather textiles).


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