The stakes in the debate over leather are escalating. At the heart of this issue is the question of whether or not leather can be considered a sustainable material. Given that leather requires animal hides in order to create products,  it can be argued that growing animals for the purposes of extracting their skin and turning it into leather doesn't align with our current understanding of what sustainability means.

However, there are also many people who argue that leather can actually be considered a sustainable material. They point to the fact that hides represent a waste product for farmers and livestock producers, making the use of this by-product an efficient way to utilize resources.

Given that there are so many opinions and perspectives on this topic, it can be difficult to know what the facts and evidence actually say about leather. To begin answering these questions, it is important that we take a deep dive into the industry and explore each issue in depth before coming to a conclusion about the sustainability of leather.

The Leather Industry: An Overview

The leather industry is an important manufacturing sector

The leather industry is an important manufacturing sector that utilizes a waste product from animal slaughter to produce a variety of products that we encounter in our daily lives. This process involves several stages, including tanning, wet-end treatment, and finishing, which are necessary to create high-quality leather products such as shoes, handbags, watches, belts, and other accessories.

With its versatile applications, the leather industry is a vital part of modern society. From 2020 to 2021, leather-related products are among the most widely traded and popular products in the global market. With more than 566,321 metric tons of these goods being produced and consumed that year, footwear is the top product in this category, accounting for over 47% of all leather goods sales. Other popular leather products include apparel, handbags, and other accessories.

Furthermore, the global leather goods market is set to grow significantly in the coming years, with an estimated value of USD 394.12 billion in 2020 and projected to reach USD 624.08 billion by 2028. This growth can be attributed to a number of factors, including increasing demand for luxury products, rising disposable incomes in emerging economies, and the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on the global economy.

Sustainable Leather: The Debate

To analyse whether leather is more or less sustainable than other materials, there are a lot of different factors to consider.

In order to learn whether or not leather is sustainable, we first need to take a closer look at the sustainability criteria, lifecycle, alternatives, and social responsibility issues inherent in this industry.

A Closer Look at The Sustainability Indicators:

The sustainability of leather is an important issue that has been widely studied by environmental experts. Some proponents suggest that sustainability indicators should be holistic in nature, measuring the sufficiency of well-being for all, as well as the sustainability of natural resources and the efficiency of converting resources to universal well-being. They argue that complex systems like leather require multiple viewpoints to adequately assess the needs of all individuals involved.

For leather to be truly sustainable, it must adhere to a number of principles throughout every stage of production. This includes using renewable raw materials, recycling, and waste reduction as well as maintaining adaptive capability and fostering opportunities for development. Despite its poor reputation in many cultures around the world, the production of leather requires far less water than other common materials, such as blue jeans. As such, it is essential that the tanning industry take steps to ensure its sustainability moving forward.

Leather Sustainability Criteria 

This focus is reflected in UNIDO's 2019 Framework for Sustainable Leather Manufacture, which highlights several key areas that need to be considered when considering sustainability in leather production.

These include:

  1. The preservation and use of hides and skins, the use of chemicals and other resources such as water and energy,
  2. the generation of emissions during production,
  3. the quality and durability of leather products,
  4. and their end-of-life use or disposal.

Leather as a By-Product 

What is By-product?

First, let's understand the meaning of By-Product. By-Product means, the products generated with the use of an already existing product. For example, sawdust at a sawmill, offal from a meatpacking plant, etc. Thus these materials have their own utility value as well which can be used to produce other things. By-product generation is an important aspect of sustainable business practices that can have a positive impact on the environment and society.

Leather on this end is also a by-product of the meat industry. This means that animals are reared for their meat and the leather industry uses the hides of those animals to produce different types of leather products. There are many economic factors that drive this industry, such as the availability and value of cattle, as well as fluctuations in market demand.

 For example, according to recent research, the hide of a cow historically represented around 3% of the total value of an individual cow in Europe, while estimates in the US are closer to 1% for high-quality hides. In some cases, however, the market value of raw hides can actually be zero if there is more supply than demand for leather. This could result in these raw hides being disposed of in landfills, which has a negative impact on the environment.

Leather Substitutes: Vegan or Eco-Leather: Are They Really Sustainable?

While organic leather is a natural, renewable, and biodegradable product made by animals, synthetic leather, or "vegan leather", is made from non-renewable resources and can be a significant source of pollution. Therefore, it should not be considered a sustainable alternative to traditional leathers.

The question at hand is not simply which product is better, faux leather or otherwise. Rather, we must ask ourselves: which product uses fewer non-renewable resources, such as oil and petroleum?

While some vegan leather products may claim to be eco-friendly or biodegradable, this is often based on misleading or false marketing claims. For example, synthetic leather is typically made using a toxic chemical called polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which can have serious health and environmental impacts when produced or disposed of improperly.

Petroleum-based leather alternatives, such as polyurethane or nylon, may also be considered to be less sustainable than traditional leathers. These materials are typically produced using chemical processes that generate harmful by-products and waste streams.

In fact, between 18% and 30% of hides are being landfilled or otherwise disposed of due to the decrease in demand for leather as petroleum-based substitute products (vegan leather) have grown in popularity. The percentage varies as demand for meat has fluctuated especially during COVID, but averages around 25%.

Leather substitutes are often created in a chemical-heavy process that can release pollutants and use harmful chemicals, like phthalates. Phthalate plasticizers have been considered dangerous chemicals based on various reports centering around their toxic effects, like bioaccumulation ability, endocrine disruption, carcinogenicity, and developmental defects. they're not biodegradable and can last for centuries in landfills or oceans. 

Unlike real leather which biodegrades in landfills in under 50 years and does not break down into micro-particles harmful to marine life.

Leather Durability And Product Life

Durability and longevity are key tenants of leather

Leather is an important material for a wide range of industries, due to its unique characteristics of durability and longevity. Whether it's used in footwear, furniture, or automotive manufacturing, high-quality leather products offer long-lasting performance that can be appreciated by those who are conscious of the environment. Leather typically lasts 4-5 times longer than polyurethane-based substitutes like Vegan leather, decreasing the source and use of surface materials.

Many companies have recognized the benefits of leather products, and have launched after-sales services that allow consumers to get the most out of their leather goods by repairing and refurbishing them. This allows for multiple lifetimes of use from a single item, reducing waste and helping people to be more environmentally conscious in their purchasing decisions. FarFecth and Mulberry are just a few of the companies that offer these services, making high-quality leather a truly sustainable choice.

Leather production is a sustainable choice when it is produced responsibly and used to produce durable, high-quality products. To ensure that leather remains an environmentally-friendly material choice, we must consider the entire life cycle of its production and consumption. 

Cortina: Sustainable leather production

Saving approximately 96,000 hides annually from the landfill, by producing leather.

About Cortina:

Cortina is a world leader in the production of sustainable leather, using only the finest quality materials to create high-performance products that last.

With over 100 years of experience, Cortina has built a reputation for excellence and innovation in the design and manufacturing of premium leather goods. From hospitality design and workspace to furniture and automotive upholstery, Cortina prides itself on using sustainable materials and processes that produce durable, high-quality products.

What Makes Cortina Different?

Unlike other leather producers that rely on a high level of chemical treatments, Cortina uses a special tanning process that retains the natural qualities of leather and maximizes its durability. And because they take sustainability seriously, their production facilities also include environmental initiatives for reducing waste and ensuring responsible materials management.

To ensure the long-term sustainability of its operations, Cortina has implemented several measures to reduce its environmental impact. 

  • Water-based, solvent-free chemicals, which emit less than 10% of the permissible EPA VOC’s + HAPs: These low-VOC chemicals are not only better for our health and the environment, but they also produce less waste than traditional chemical formulations.
  • Pioneered the use of chrome-free leathers in the U.S.: Chrome-free means no chemical process that is highly toxic. This means less pollution, reduced waste, and harmful chemicals in the environment.
  • Scrap leather is sent to companies to produce small leather goods, eliminating leather waste: By partnering with other sustainability-minded companies, Cortina is able to turn leftover leather scraps into useful products that are then disposed of properly.
  • Re-use the heat from manufacturing equipment to heat the manufacturing facility: Reducing its carbon footprint and decreasing energy use.
  • Recycle all paper, plastics, and packaging materials. Use recycled content shipping materials where possible.

Cortina Commitments:

Cortina has been recognized as a leader in sustainable leather production, demonstrating a deep commitment to reducing its environmental impact and promoting responsible consumption practices. Here are a few of their achievements and goals for the future.

  • Certified by the International Organization for Standardization, which means that it meets strict industry and environmental standards.
  • Rated Gold by the Leather Working Group. The LWG is an independent non-profit organization that evaluates and ranks leather manufacturers based on their environmental performance. Cortina has been given a Gold rating, the highest honor in the industry, for its sustainable production practices.
  • Compliant with European Union's REACH. Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) is a European Union law that requires manufacturers and importers to gather information on the toxicity and exposure levels of their products. Cortina's full compliance with REACH demonstrates its long-term commitment to sustainable production practices.
  • Free of Conflict Materials. No tantalum, tin, tungsten, or gold is used in the production of Cortina's leather goods.
  • Low-VOC Gold Certified: Cortina leathers have low-VOC emissions that follow many building rating systems including LEED v4, BREEAM, WELL Building, and Living Building Challenge.

As one of the leading producers of sustainable leather goods, Cortina is committed to setting industry standards and promoting responsible consumption. With its stringent environmental policies and innovative production methods, Cortina is helping to create a more sustainable future for ourselves, our communities, and the planet as a whole.

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Things We’ve Learned So Far:

Going back to the question of whether or not leather is truly a sustainable material, we've learned that many different factors affect its sustainability but the most important one is responsible manufacturing.

The role of manufacturing practices and corporate responsibility is central to whether leather production can be considered truly sustainable. Responsible manufacturing means using methods that minimize the environmental impact of leather production, while also ensuring that workers are treated fairly and workers' rights are respected.

Other factors include the role hides play as waste from the meat and dairy industries, the potential development of artificial collagen and new materials, biodegradability and recyclability of leather products, globalization and increasing demand for leather goods, luxury appeal vs. negative connotations such as malpractice or illegal harvesting practices, and finally the role fashion plays in shaping public opinion surrounding leather.

At Cortina, we've seen how they have implemented sustainable practices throughout their production process, from using recycled leather scraps to power the plant's equipment, to changing the way they source materials like tanning chemicals. These measures have helped reduce waste, lower energy use and carbon emissions, and promote more responsible consumer practices.

The future of Leather: Looking Ahead

The GLCC (Global Leather Co-ordinating Committee ) is always keeping tabs on which programs are working to measure the environmental footprint of leather. The priority is making sure that these guidelines are practical, not repetitive, and that they understand the specific needs of the leather industry.

As we look ahead to the future of leather, it is clear that there are both challenges and opportunities. While there may be a lower demand for leather over time as new materials come onto the market, this must not lead to complacency or reduced investment in sustainable production practices. 

In order to continue protecting our environment, promoting responsible consumer behavior, and ensuring ethical manufacturing standards, we must continue to work together to make leather production a more sustainable industry. And that means supporting the brands and companies that are taking these issues seriously, like Cortina.

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