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The environmental impact of leather

The skin of an animal needs to go through many steps before you can buy it in your local store as a leather jacket, a set of boots or a bag. The entire process involves cattle sourcing (raising and slaughtering cattle), leather tanning (turning raw animal hide into leather) and leather processing (turning leather into goods). Our lust for cheap leather has moved a large part of the leather industry to countries that don’t care much about labour rights, the environment and animal welfare. In this series of posts, Elise and I will shine a light on some of the disturbing hidden costs of leather production. In this post specifically, we will discuss the impact of leather on the environment.

This is the second post of this series.
Previous post: “The social impact of leather”
Next post: “The impact of leather on animal welfare

Pollution of the environment

It’s estimated that tanneries in the Hazaribagh neighbourhood of Dhaka, Bangladesh, pump 22 million litres of highly toxic untreated effluent into open canals daily. The discharge of wastewater from Dhaka’s tanneries has been going on for decades. Eventually, it finds its way into groundwater and rivers. The Buriganga River, which is the lifeline for thousands of people, completely turned black after years of neglect. Chemicals have depleted all oxygen from the water, causing local environmental havoc and extreme biodiversity loss. Biodiversity loss due to tannery waste is not only limited to water bodies such as the Buriganga River. Tanning industries are significant contributors to chromium pollution of land, air and water in developing countries. Often, tannery waste is crudely dumped or burned in open spaces. Here, joint efforts of governments and tannery owners are required to set applicable requirements on waste management to avoid further pollution.

Deforestation for cattle ranching

It is not only the lack of tannery waste management that is harming biodiversity. The immense lust for leather is the main driver for the deforestation of the Amazon, Cerrado and Chaco forests. Not only does the production of soy and palm for cattle feed drive deforestation; every 18 seconds, a hectare of forest is lost to cattle ranchers. Brazil’s herd, consisting of roughly 215 million cows, is responsible for 80% of the total deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. Currently, approximately 90% of the deforested land is used for the grazing of Brazil’s herd. More importantly, only 50% of the herd is grazing on legal land.

The Amazon rainforest is home to millions of indigenous people and provides shelter to more than three million different species of plants and animals – some of which entirely rely on the Amazon as its biome. Deforestation leads to a direct loss and the degradation of wildlife habitat. By burning and slashing vegetation – the most common method of deforestation – shelter, breeding habitat and plants that provide food are destroyed. Surviving animals need to compete with other animals over shelter, food and water within the remaining habitat – which has a catastrophic impact on biodiversity.

Releasing greenhouse gases

It is not only plants and animals that we are hurting. The Amazon is one of the largest carbon sinks on our planet and stores about 5% of all carbon dioxide that we emit each year. When destroyed, enormous amounts of stored carbon in the tropical peat soil is released. Peatland requires drainage to make it suitable for the cultivation of grass or crops. This process alone generates an incredible amount of greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming and the degradation of the remaining Amazon forest.

The fact that living beings are being farmed as resources impacts the environment significantly. As mentioned before, cattle sourcing takes up much space, so does their feed production. Since they are living beings, they do not only eat or drink; they also burp, belch, poop, pee and fart, which pollutes the land, water and air when not properly treated.

Greenwashing the leather industry

As stated by Forest 500, the word ‘cattle’ is often synonymised with ‘beef’, which leaves leather to be labelled as a by-product of the meat industry. This way, the environmental impact of leather can be ignored deliberately. However, leather is far from just a by-product of animal slaughter for meat. Selling of skins can certainly be very profitable for farmers – for meat, this is not always the case. By buying leather, we are subsidising the meat industry and contributing to the deforestation of the Amazon, Cerrado and Chaco biomes.

The 2019 Forest 500 Annual Report and the 2021 Rainforest Foundation Norway Report, show that the connection between leather and deforestation is often overlooked by companies that implement environmental regulations to their leather supply chain. According to these reports, 81% of the 64 most influential companies did not commit to source deforestation-free leather and the top five automotive producers are linked to a minimum of 1.1 million hectares of recent Amazon deforestation. It is time that the environmental impact of leather becomes common knowledge. This way, customers can ask for transparency and urge companies to deeply investigate their supply chain.

Go deforestation-free

When the label of a leather jacket states that it is made in Italy, there is a high chance that the leather is not sourced deforestation-free. The environmental destruction of the leather products we buy is not stated on their packaging. If it would, we might reconsider our purchase and go with products that are produced more ethically from an environmental perspective. In the next post, we will discuss some of the materials that do not contribute to deforestation. If you want to learn more about the consequences of the deforestation of the Amazon, check out the video of Vox Atlas below!

Next up: “The impact of leather on animal welfare

PS: if you’re also interested in reading more about the driving deforestation of the palm oil industry, you can read more about that here!

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Elise & Joy

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