The term “ethical leather” is very subjective, depending on your stance on animal rights, and human consumption of meat. According to the BLC, the biggest issues regarding the environmental impact of leather, concern the chemicals released during the manufacturing process, from farm to finished product, and also how it degrades at the end of it’s life-cycle.
So long as people are eating meat, then most leather, particularly bovine and fish leather, can be considered a by-product of the meat industry. However, similar to the issues surrounding meat, in order for leather to be considered ethical, hides must be traced to the farms where the animals were reared, and to the slaughterhouses where they were killed, to ensure the animals were killed in a humane way. This is very difficult to do, although it is increasingly becoming a requirement.
An estimated 80% of leather is chrome tanned. Chrome tanning is a very toxic, water intensive process. Recent European regulations by REACH, have restricted the use of chrome tanning in the EU, and have regulated how chemicals are disposed of. However, in India and China, who produce the majority of leather globally, tanneries largely go unregulated, with numerous reports of untreated chrome and heavy toxic chemicals contaminating water supplies and causing serious health problems. The safest option is to source vegetable tanned leather from a European tannery, who can trace the source of their hides. Vegetable tanning does not involve the use of harsh chemicals and is therefore much kinder to the environment, and those that are working with it.
Most people are aware of the ethical issues surrounding exotic skins, so two “fish leather” suppliers have been included in this directory as an alternative. Although there are many issues surrounding the sustainability of fish, fish leather can be considered a sustainable alternative so long as suppliers guarantee where it has been sourced from, and that it is a by-product of the food industry, using skins that would otherwise be discarded. Fish leather is particularly strong, has a similar appearance to snake skin, and can be quickly tanned using a non-toxic tanning process. Fish leather has a 100% usable surface so there is no material loss.
Alternative / Vegan Leather:
Many of the “plastic leather” options are petrochemical based such as PVC and therefore large polluters so are not recommended. Polyurethane [PU], is slightly better as it requires less chemicals and some manufacturers are producing PU with plant based ingredients which makes it biodegradable.
Natural leather alternatives such as bark cloth and cork have been included in this directory, and though unusual options, they are the most sustainable of all possibilities!