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Leather facts

Alternative materials to leather: environmental impacts and cost

About this essay

Steven Jesseph is responsible for client development and operations at US-based apparel and leather sector consultancy firm ICG. He was formerly the president and CEO of the Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP), a non-profit organisation dedicated to the certification of facilities engaged in lawful, humane and ethical manufacturing throughout the world. WRAP is the world’s largest factory certification programme operational in more than 60 countries. Prior to WRAP, Mr Jesseph was vice-president of compliance and risk management at Sara Lee Branded Apparel, where he managed all facets of environment, health, safety, CSR, supply chain compliance, product safety, security and building services for 78,000-employee group.

This essay tackles the following misrepresentations:

MYTH: Plastic is better for the environment than leather
FACT: Almost all plastics are made from non-renewable sources (oil) so are environmentally depleting, while leather is a readily available by-product that would probably otherwise be waste
MYTH: Plastic has a lower cost than leather
FACT: Financial cost is only one element; costs associated with oil extraction include pollution, which is damaging to human and animal health and ecosystems
MYTH: Cotton is less environmentally damaging than leather
FACT: Cotton production uses vast quantities of water while pesticides and fertilisers can pollute water in run-off. Fashion designer Katharine Hamnett has said pesticide in cotton production causes 10,000 deaths a year around the world.

Executive summary

Financial cost is only one measure of cost. Plastic alternatives to leather are made from non-renewable oil-based materials – there is a cost to the environment in terms of depleting a natural resource; polluting the planet which affects human, animal and plant health; and adding to greenhouse gas levels. 

While the tanning industry does use non-renewable materials such as fossil fuels and certain minerals, there has been remarkable progress in the use of renewable energy at the tannery level with some tanners moving towards full renewable energy.  Significant progress has been made in the recovery of chromium for reuse in the process, and an increasing number of tanners are moving towards renewable vegetable dyes and renewable tanning chemicals.  In 2007, the Central Leather Research Institute in India developed a process to reverse-engineer the tanning process and was able to reduce 83% of chemicals used and eliminate 40% of the energy.  Further progress is expected.

Cotton is also not an environmentally sound alternative as one of the heaviest users of water on the planet. Fertilisers have polluted groundwater supplies while the use of pesticides has had a drastic impact on butterflies and honey bees that fertilise our food crops.

Since 2009, World Leather’s Tannery of the Year programme has been profiling tanneries based on their commitment to corporate social responsibility and sound environmental practices. As a judge for the Tannery of the Year competition, the author of this essay can attest that all entrants demonstrated a massive commitment to the reduction of chemicals, water and energy.  In his 40 years in business, and in his travels to 65 countries visiting hundreds of factories across industry categories, from military hardware to paper products, food and footwear, coffee and clothing, he says he has never seen any group of companies, nor any industry as a whole, devote so much time, money and energy to reducing its carbon footprint and becoming a responsible environmental citizen. For the sake of the planet, and for all living on it, leather purchased from responsible manufacturers is the clear choice, he argues.

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