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How sustainable is leather?

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At Sbri we put sustainability first. It’s always been a huge priority for us and it’s not something we’re willing to compromise on. We’re a leather accessories company that do things differently – from the vegetable tanned leather we use, to the way our products are made and packaged, and the energy used to power our studio.

All our leather is sustainably sourced in the UK and our personalised accessories are made to order in our studio to avoid overproduction and minimise our carbon footprint (you can read more about our sustainability policies here!). But is this the case for the whole leather goods industry? Absolutely not.

We’re not here to Greenwash – we want our customers to make informed choices and feel good about shopping with us, safe in the knowledge that when we say we’re a sustainable option, we mean it. Practise what you preach and all that. So in this post we’re going to be covering just how sustainable leather is, whether real leather is better than faux leather, and if all leather made the same way. Read on and let us know what you think.

Is all leather environmentally friendly?

So to get things started, is leather environmentally friendly? The short answer is, it can be. But ask the question “is all leather environmentally friendly” and you’ll get a very different answer. Not all leather is sustainable. In fact, most of it isn’t.

There are two main methods when it comes to leather production: chromium tanning and vegetable tanning. Chrome tanning accounts for around 80-90% of all leather production worldwide. It’s quicker, cheaper and easier to produce than veg-tanned leather, so it’s favoured by fast fashion retailers and is the kind of leather you’d expect to find on the high street. Veg-tanned leather on the other hand is high quality, hardwearing and made with a slow, traditional technique.

Any guesses which type is better for the planet?

Chrome tanned leather production uses chemical treatments to prepare the leather hides and its toxic impact on both the environment and tannery workers is pretty grim by all accounts. The process creates toxic water waste which can be carcinogenic, causing serious health risks for the people who work in the tanneries or live nearby, and a detrimental impact on the local environment, particularly in countries like India, China and Bangladesh where the industry isn’t well-regulated. Chrome tanned leather is made quickly and cheaply, and often the quality isn’t top notch meaning the accessories won’t always last as long as you’d hope, destined for landfill within a few years. And because of the chemical coatings used on the surface of the leather, it’s not biodegradable either. On the whole, not a great sustainability record.

The alternative is vegetable tanned (or veg tanned) leather which is favoured by traditional leather craftspeople and is what we use at Sbri. Vegetable tanning is a method that’s centuries old and uses natural fibres like bark, roots and leaves to gently tan the leather hides rather than chemical components, making it a much more sustainable option. Veg tanning is a slow process (some leathers take months to tan!) and as it only uses natural fibres there’s no danger to tannery workers. All the water waste can be safely recycled too – win win. Veg tanned leather is the highest quality leather there is, which means its durable, long lasting and it’s biodegradable.

Our leather is a bi-product of the food and drink industry, saving waste material from landfill, but it’s worth noting that not all leather is a bi-product. Cattle farming has a huge impact on the environment, particularly in countries where it isn’t controlled, so when you’re looking at how sustainable a type of leather is, it’s worth considering where the leather came from as well as how it was tanned. Sbri leather is sourced from well-regulated farms in Europe and is tanned here in Britain, minimising our carbon footprint, but that’s not always the case for other retailers. And for customers who don’t want to support the meat industry at all, real leather might not be an option, which brings us nicely onto vegan leathers. 

Is vegan leather good for the planet?

Veganism in the UK has increased rapidly in the last decade, with more people than ever before following vegan diets and vegan lifestyles for personal, environmental and health reasons. As a result there’s been a growing demand for faux or so-called “vegan leathers” – but is vegan leather actually sustainable?

Traditionally, leather would be made from an animal skin, usually cow, which is obviously not on the cards for vegan leather, so when determining whether vegan leather is environmentally friendly you’ve got to ask what material is being used instead. Is it a natural alternative or is it synthetic?

There’s been an interesting shift in the language around faux-leather in the last few years. What used to be referred to as “pleather” (AKA plastic leather) and was seen as a less desirable “knock-off” option has now been reframed as “vegan leather”, with lots of high street brands marketing these products as a “conscious fashion” sustainable option. But the truth is, being animal-free doesn’t automatically make a product environmentally friendly. The majority of faux leathers are made from either PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or PU (polyurethane) which are – spoiler alert! – plastics, and we all know where plastic sits on the sustainability spectrum.

So while PVC and PU leathers are technically vegan because they don’t use animal products, do they morally match up with the vegan lifestyle? Possibly not. Similar to the chrome tanned leather we mentioned earlier, the synthetic nature of PVC and PU production means that harmful chemicals and solvents are released into the atmosphere and the often low quality products produced tend to have a shorter life-span before ending up in landfill.

That’s definitely not to say that all faux leathers are bad for the environment – more and more leather alternatives are becoming available all the time. Pineapple, cork, leaves and mushrooms have all been used to develop new vegan leathers with great success, although many do have synthetic elements. So if you’re not into animal product, there are definitely some eco-conscious leather-style options for you too.

So can leather be sustainable?

Weighing up all sides, it’s pretty clear to see that leather definitely can be sustainable (we wouldn’t use it if it wasn’t!) but it all depends on how the material is sourced, where it’s from and how it’s tanned. Not all animal leather is sustainable and not all faux leather is sustainable either, but whether you’re after a real leather or a vegan leather there will be an environmentally friendly option for you.

For us, consciously produced vegetable tanned leather will always be the best approach – it’s durable, biodegradable, and has minimal impact on our wonderful planet. If animal products aren’t for you we’d advise steering clear of the pleathers and looking for a natural alternative instead, or shopping second hand – recycling preloved leather and giving it a new life is always a brilliant option.

Ultimately, it all comes down to responsible sourcing, following best practices and being able to make an educated choice – we definitely think there should be more transparency about the type of leather brands use so you know exactly what you’re buying. We’d love to see vegetable tanning becoming more popular worldwide and for sustainable leather to become the norm, so in the meantime we’ll continue to lead by example.

Sbri has always been a sustainable leather brand, and we always will be.