The question of whether leather is ethical is a complex one that involves animal welfare concerns, environmental impact, and the manufacturing process. While leather can be sourced exclusively as a by-product of the meat industry, there is a significant economic incentive for raising and killing animals for their skin, making it more of a coproduct of the meat industry. However, the overconsumption demanded by the modern fashion industry has led to leather having a significant place in fast fashion, and it’s not too difficult to find cheap leather by some of the industry’s largest, biggest, and most problematic brands.
The impact of manufacturing is also a significant concern as much of the manufacturing of leather occurs in developing countries, where vulnerable workers and communities deal with large volumes of effluent, toxic compounds that leach into nearby soils and waterways, and the industry’s significant water requirements that threaten their own water security. Tanning just a single ton of rawhide requires around 50 cubic meters of water, and often, these will contain a range of polluting substances at the end of the process.
The manufacturing process can be just as hazardous for workers, with benzene poisoning causing several deaths in the industry. Tannery workers worldwide have been considered to have an increased risk of several types of cancer, and exposed to what’s known as “leather dust,” it’s been estimated that a leather industry worker can inhale more than 40 different chemicals, including dyes, acids, and heavy metals.
Leather’s high environmental costs are another major concern, with roughly 90% of leather produced using chromium tanning, which produces carcinogenic chromium that is so toxic, many tanneries have closed in Europe and the US. Raising animals for any purpose is associated with significant land overuse, water consumption, and deforestation, and runoff from leather-producing farms can also lead to water eutrophication, where increased nitrogen levels from animal manure lead to increased algal blooms.
All in all, when compared to vegan leather, even petroleum-derived polyurethane (PU) leather, cow-derived leather is considered to have an environmental impact nearly three times as high. As a result, many fashion lovers are exploring how to buy ethical leather or leather alternatives, such as mushroom leather, pineapple leather, and mycelium leather.