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A Closer Look at Leather: Part 1

With green fashion firmly in the rear view mirror, we wanted to take a closer look at something used in apparel (and furniture, luggage, accessories and more) that’s always generated controversy: leather. Whether it’s animal right’s activists who think we shouldn’t harvest the hides of our bovine friends, or those who think we should use them all and make the most of the bi-product of the food industry, or hardcore greenies who don’t want to mess with the heavy metals and other nasties used to tan leather, there’s no shortage of opinions when it comes to what part leather can play in an eco-friendly lifestyle.

Before launching in to this, there’s one thing to keep in mind. It’s true: from a TreeHugger’s standpoint, it’s best if leather is simply avoided; but by the same token, it’s best if beef is avoided, too, and, for a lot of folks, that’s just not going to happen (but that’s another post). So, why should leather be avoided? First of all, it’s dead animal skin, which means that animal has to be raised: fed, watered, pastured, and eventually slaughtered. Most leather (about 66% of it) comes from cows, and it takes 8 acres of land, 12,000 pounds of forage, 125 gallons of gasoline & other petroleum derivatives for fertilizer, 2,500 pounds of corn, 350 pounds of soybeans, 1.2 million gallons of water & 1.5 acres of farmland (to grow the crops for feed), plus various insecticides, herbicides, antibiotics & hormones to grow one cow from an 80 pound calf to its full size, when it can be slaughtered and the hide harvested. Something like bison, on the other hand, takes less land and less water, and they’re primarily pasture-raised, meaning they aren’t stuck in feedlots getting fat for half their natural lives. Since they’re on the pasture, and their hooves are smaller and sharper, they help till and fertilize the soil (with their waste as fertilizer), and though they require more feed per pound, they aren’t picky about where the food comes from; it can be prairie grass or whatever they happen across. Regardless, the point remains: it takes a ton of resources to grow cows.

Once the animal skin becomes available (usually as a byproduct of the beef industry), it doesn’t get much prettier. Before tanning, the skins are unhaired, degreased, desalted and soaked in water over a period of 6 hours to 2 days. To prevent damage of the skin by bacterial growth during the soaking period, biocides, such as pentachlorophenol (a synthetic fungicide that is toxic to humans), are used. Hides are then either vegetable tanned or mineral tanned. Vegetable tanning employs tannin, from which tanning gets it name, which occurs naturally in tree bark; the primary barks used these days are chestnut, oak, tanoak, hemlock, quebracho, mangrove, wattle, and myrobalan. Hides are stretched on frames and immersed for several weeks in vats of increasing concentrations of tannin. Vegetable tanned hide is flexible and is used for luggage and furniture; Q Collection, one of TreeHugger’s favorite sustainable designers [www.treehugger.com] featured here [www.sundance.tv] on this blog, uses vegetable-tanned leathers in their furniture (this gorgeous chair [www.qcollection.com] is an example).

This is the tip of the iceberg; later this week, we’ll delve into some of the other ways to tan leather that are more harmful, and come to some more final conclusions about the implications for its use. Stay tuned!