Is leather sustainable?

29 November 2016

We will be the first to admit that we love leather. The grain, the smell, the touch and the richness. Its versatility also makes leather one of the best materials to work with. But how sustainable is leather and the process of making it? Let’s break it down.

More Sustainable tanning
Part of the argument against leather, as a sustainable material, stems from the fact that the leather processing requires significant quantities of water and energy. It also involves a wide variety of chemicals. However, thanks to new energy and water-saving technologies, the environmental footprint of leather processing can be reduced dramatically. 

For example; Proviera® - Probiotics for Leather™, is a 100% natural product range made by a fermentation process, which can eliminate the need for surfactants and bacteriacides in the beamhouse step of the tanning process.

Stahl EasyWhite Tan™ a solution in which chemical usage is reduced by one third compared to conventional tanning processes.  Since no additional salt is needed, salt in tanning wastewater is reduced by at least 80%. In addition, up to 40% less water is needed during tanning. Wastewater can be directly re-used for the beamhouse and therefore easily recycled.

Then in the retanning step, a new generation of lightweight polymers and fat liquors has recently been introduced, called Stahlite®, which can reduce the weight of the leather without compromising on volume and tear strength. Finally in the finishing step, Stahl has developed bio-based polyurethanes, like bio-based PolyMatte® which is based on rapeseed oil instead of crude oil derived intermediates.  

The Stahl Neo portfolio includes compliant and sustainable leather finishes. The product line offers products that not only already comply with Zero Discharge Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) Manufacturing Restricted Substances List (MRSL), but even go beyond this standard, targeting an even wider range of chemical substances. The leather finishing product group includes top coats, base coats, and so on.

Just five examples of the technologies available that can reduce the environmental impact at each step in the leather process.

Stahl is also collaborating closely with industry and universities on some innovative ways to recycle and re-use leather waste from the tanneries.

Leather versus Alternatives
As much as we love leather, we also love the innovative spirit of these times in which alternative sustainable materials are created. For instance, materials made from mushrooms, fruit and jellyfish, but also from other organic, natural ingredients. Yet authentic leather outlasts most of these alternative materials: when treated and preserved properly it can last several lifetimes. For instance, have you read about the recent auctioning of Einstein’s leather jacket? 

A good leather jacket will last for ages. And leather never goes out of style. When produced in a responsible way, the inherent durability of leather, makes it one of the most sustainable materials we can work with.

Did you know that leather production uses much less water than denim production?

Animal welfare
Often the question comes up; do we not care about animals? Well, we do care. We think that respect for animals is a top priority, and we should also treat leather with respect. 

Leather is a byproduct of the dairy and meat industries. Animals are held as livestock for milk and food, and once they are either processed for their meat, or die from natural causes, every part from the animal is used. From the meat, to the bones, to the hide which we use to produce leather. If we would not use the hide, we would throw it away and this would be wasteful and disrespectful towards the animal.

This is why we support projects like “Aduu Mal”, which helps Mongolian nomads to process and preserve hides from their animals that have died of natural causes. The hide then becomes a sustainable source of income for the nomad community.

Want to know more? 

With the right treatment and preservation, leather is one of the most durable and sustainable materials to work with. We have learned from history and we are driving our innovation towards new ways of processing leather in ways that minimize the impact on the environment. 

If you would like more information on our technology, or if you have any questions regarding these topics or possible cooperation, please feel free to contact us.

Do you have questions regarding this topic: please don't hesitate to contact us