A Closer Look at Leather: Part 2

On Monday [www.sundance.tv] we started peeking into the production of leather, talking about whether or not it’s a material that gets the TreeHugger stamp of approval. We mentioned vegetable tanning, generally considered to be the least harmful of all leather-tanning methods. Today, we’ll take a closer look at the process known as mineral tanning.

Mineral tanning usually uses chromium and is a fairly chemistry-intensive process. The hides are “pickled,” raising the pH to a high acidity level (about 3) and enabling chromium tannins to enter the hide. For preservation purposes, fungicides and bactericides are also applied (yum). After pickling, when the pH is low, chromium salts are added. To fixate the chromium, the pH is slowly increased through addition of a base of magnesium oxide and more fungicide — sounds like something you’d really want to snuggle up against, no? Chrome tanning is faster than vegetable tanning — less than a day for this part of the process — and produces a stretchable leather which is preferred for use in handbags and garments. Chromium is not very nice stuff for people; studies have clearly established that inhaled chromium is a human carcinogen, resulting in an increased risk of lung cancer. While people aren’t as likely to inhale once it’s been ingrained in the leather hide, it doesn’t bode as well for the people tanning the leather, and, on the whole, isn’t something that will really benefit you by rubbing up against your skin all the time.

For the most part, cow leather is a bi-product of the beef industry; this is a double-edged sword. Cows raised for beef aren’t going anywhere any time soon, so beef-eating TreeHuggers will note that we may as well use as much of the animal as possible, but tanning leather is a dirty, energy-intensive, potentially toxic process. Further, the synthetic “versions” of leather include vinyl and other plastics, which aren’t really very good for anybody either. Unfortunately, there aren’t any regulations or certifications for “organic” or “certified humane raised & handled” leather, as there is with beef and some other leather-producing animal meat (we covered the certification topic here [www.sundance.tv]), so there is no easy way to insure that your leather products came from an ethical and/or planet and animal-healthy environment, short of raising the animal yourself. So, in the end, the best thing is to avoid it altogether; replacing a leather product with a vinyl one won’t be doing anyone any good, so for those who simply must have it, we recommend finding it repurposed or second-hand or otherwise reused, rather than buying a virgin product, and if you absolutely, positively have to have new leather, vegetable-tanned is the only way to go.

What do you think about this? Where do you stand on leather? Would you be willing to give it up to help save the planet? Let us know what you think in the discussion board over on the right.