Is Leather Biodegradable? The Ethics of Leather Explained

We're going through what feels like a little bit of a fashion revolution. Activists everywhere are shining a light on the questionable ethics of fashion. Protests against fur using fashion brands are becoming mainstream, and Canada Goose has announced that they will stop using fur by the end of 2022.

While fur hogs all the limelight, there is the question of leather - and even more ethical concerns and questions arise. While leather is essentially both a by and co-product of the meat industry, it is also an extremely polluting industry. The process of leather tanning involves the usage of heavy metals like chromium which are, often without treatment, discharged into the waterways in the surrounding ecosystem. Ultimately, this polluted water ends up being directly consumed by animals, and indirectly consumed by humans, and causes all kinds of illnesses like eye damage and ulcers.

While alternative forms of leather exist, most are made from synthetic plastics and pose their own challenges to the environment. The question then arises, if natural leather is then truly better than artificially produced leather.

Is Leather Biodegradable?

The short answer is, it depends. Leather can be biodegradable, but this depends majorly on the chemicals used in the tanning process. Natural leather is derived from the hide or skin of animals. This means that unprocessed natural leather is completely organic and easily biodegradable. However, the leather that is used in our clothing, has to go through an extensive alteration process to convert it to a fabric that can be used to make the products we use and wear.

Up until 1958, leather was tanned using a process now referred to as vegetable tanning. This process dates back thousands of years. This is, however, a two-month-long process and is therefore extremely time-consuming. Since vegetable tanning involves the use of naturally occurring tannins, it is non-toxic and completely organic. Leather tanned and manufactured using this method is compostable.

Unfortunately, the slow timeline of tanning leather using this method, led to a demand for innovations in the industry, and the use of chromium was discovered as an alternative to vegetable tanning. Where vegetable tanning takes two months, chrome tanning can be done in less than a day. Because of this, it is used for as much as 90% of all leather tanning around the world. Not only does chrome tanning make the leather entirely nonrecyclable and nonbiodegradable, but using a heavy mineral such as chromium has disastrous consequences on the environment. For one, there is not much regulation around the dumping of waste minerals and materials - especially in low-income countries. The discharge from tanneries enters the surrounding ecosystem. This is consumed by animals and then ultimately ends up inside the human body. The negative health consequences associated with prolonged exposure to and ingestion of chromium include severe respiratory problems, birth defects and infertility.

The ethical and environmental concerns associated with the procurement and manufacturing of leather have resulted in the development of a variety of faux vegan leather alternatives. Often marketed under the guise of being a sustainable alternative to traditional leather, vegan leather may or may not be biodegradable depending on how it is produced.

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Is Vegan Leather Biodegradable?

The biodegradability of vegan leather is dependant entirely on the manufacturing process and the raw materials used. Unfortunately, most vegan leather in circulation today is either made from plastics or PU, both of which are nonbiodegradable and remain in the environment for hundreds of years.

Some plant-based alternatives have also come into the market that promise to be both ethical and eco-friendly at the same time. One of the most popular forms of plant-based leather is made from mycelium cells. This fabric which is made from mushrooms closely resembles leather in its texture.

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Cork Leather of Cork Fabric is another example of a faux leather alternative that in its most natural form, is both biodegradable and recyclable.

Not all plant-based vegan leathers are biodegradable. Some are a combination of plants and plant derivatives (such as pineapple or banana leaves) and other base materials such as polyester. This makes them only partially compostable.

For example, Desserto is an extremely popular cactus leather that is manufactured in Mexico and is being widely adopted by brands such as H&M and Karl Lagerfeld. However, this cactus leather is only partially biodegradable.

It stands to say that while vegan leather is almost always marketed as being both eco-friendly and ethical, more often than not, this is not the case. Almost all new and popular plant-based leathers on the market offer only partial biodegradability since they are always mixed with some kind of synthetic fibers to make them more durable and malleable.