Is Leather Sustainable?

Environmental sustainability is the hot topic of 2019 and it’s raised a lot of questions in the leather industry - is leather sustainable? is leather environmentally friendly? and what exactly is “vegan leather”? In this post we’re going to answer some of these questions and explain a bit about the leather we use.

We know that leather isn’t for everyone – it’s an animal product after all, and for some people that puts leather out of the question entirely, despite the fact that it is a bi-product of the meat industry, therefore utilising waste. That aside, leather can largely be considered a sustainable product, depending on how it’s produced. There are two main methods when it comes to leather production: chromium tanning and vegetable tanning.

Chrome tanning is the method generally favoured by the high street – it’s a quicker and cheaper option that uses chemical components to prepare the leather hides, making it popular with fast-fashion retailers. The issue with chrome tanned leather production is the impact it has on both the environment and tannery workers, as the toxic water waste it creates can be carcinogenic, causing serious health implications. This is particularly prevalent in countries like China, India and Bangladesh where the industry isn’t as well-regulated as in Europe. The addition of chemical coatings also means that chrome tanned leather will not biodegrade.

The other option is vegetable tanned (or veg tanned) leather which is much more sustainable and favoured by leather craftsmen. This is a traditional tanning technique that has been used historically for centuries. Rather than chemical components, this method uses natural fibres like bark, roots and leaves to gently tan the leather. It’s a much slower process, typically taking 30 days or more to produce, and has little impact on the environment as water waste can be safely recycled. Being completely natural, veg tanned leather will also biodegrade when it eventually reaches the end of its lifecycle.

At Man Gun Bear we use a combination of both chrome and veg tanned leather, and we are moving towards using only veg tanned leather over the coming months. All our leather is tanned in the UK, thus lowering our carbon emissions by sourcing locally. Our leather is durable, beautiful quality and rich in natural character. Vegetable tanned natural grain leather is treated with waxes and oils to create a distinctive antique look, emphasising the scarring and grain that makes each piece unique. Veg tanned leather also develops a patina over time, meaning it only gets better with age. The durability of leather is what makes it such a sustainable piece. If treated properly it can last for years and years, alleviating the pressure on mass-production and preventing unnecessary waste. In fact, we offer a lifetime guarantee on all our leather wallets, so if there is a problem with your Man Gun Bear item we will do our very best to repair it and give it a new lease of life.

In recent years there has been an increase in conversations around “vegan” leather and faux leather alternatives. While these do not utilise animal products and may be more appealing to some, this doesn’t necessarily make them environmentally sustainable. They are, in short, man-made and synthetic products. The vast majority of leather alternatives tend to be plastics – either polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or, more commonly now, polyurethane (PU) – and we all know how plastics have fallen out of favour in recent years. Similar to chrome tanning, the synthetic nature of PVC and PU production means that harmful chemicals and solvents are released into the atmosphere, and faux leather will not biodegrade either. It is not made to be durable, meaning its life-span is short and will end up in landfill after a relatively short time.

So, the question is, is leather sustainable? The short answer is yes, it can be. Some methods are certainly more sustainable than others, and we believe that there is currently no better option than consciously-produced vegetable tanned leather, like the leather we use across our range. It’s completely natural, low-impact, and made to last a lifetime. We are always looking to learn about alternative options, and the new additions to the vegan market like cork or pineapple leather sound very promising, but at this time their long-term durability is unclear. Traditional leather has proven to be a sustainable option and will always be the favourite to work with at Man Gun Bear.

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