by Natalie Smith

It is true that leather has a controversial history, especially when it comes to sustainability. There are many aspects that need to be taken into consideration when it comes to leather: what was the tanning process? Is it a by-product of the meat industry? Can the hide be traced back to the farm? Does the farm have high ethical farming standards? How much energy and water were used to create that one single hide of leather? Isn’t vegan leather a better choice?

As a designer, who is passionate about sustainability, these are just some of the questions that come up during the design process. We understand that for a customer it is even more difficult to find answers to these pressing questions. When purchasing a bag or pair of shoes one is usually met with confusing information where companies will do their best to hide as much of the true nature of their supply chain as possible – making sure that no bad press comes out of it and profits stay intact.

It is a well-known fact that the meat industry, in its current state, is not even close to being sustainable or ethical and it is one of the largest polluters through huge emissions of greenhouse gases. Currently it accounts for 14.5 percent of global GHG and it is therefore important that consumers really start to question how much meat they are consuming, ask more questions about the source of their meat and how it was farmed. If consumers ate less meat, opted for more plant-based foods and chose their meat and fish from sustainable sources, such as regenerative and organic farms, then this would have a huge positive impact. Supporting regenerative and organic farming practices and avoiding produce from mass agricultural industries that promote intensive farming would already be a big step in the right direction.

Supporting regenerative and organic farming practices and avoiding produce from mass agricultural industries would already be a big step in the right direction.

The leather industry needs to do a huge amount of work to become more sustainable. There are many companies/tanneries in the sector who are dishonest about their supply chain, traceability, and the source of their animal hides. Over the last few decades, the mass production of leather, combined with fast-fashion business models and the desire for ever-slimming margins have resulted in an industry that is massively damaging to the environment and its communities. Ever increasing consumer and shareholder demands have led to the over-use of chromium tanning, the exploitation of tannery workers and an increase in the mass-breeding of cattle and other animals for leather hides over meat. This ultimately lead to a continuous breach of proper farming practices, the depletion of surrounding eco-systems and the maltreatment of animals. It is a business model that focusses on short term, quick results and isn’t sustainable or ethical, with often irreparable damage as an outcome. However, there could be a solution to this. Over the last decade there has been a change in the way some tanneries are creating leather.

A handful of tanneries have changed their practices by only working with local or smaller scale farms that have high ethical farming standards and offer 100 percent traceability to the farm, sometimes even to the animal. In addition they are opting to produce less but much higher quality leather, reducing the amount of water and energy used and creating new and innovative ways to tan the hides. Instead of using chromium salts (which include Sodium Dichromate – a carcinogenic raw material that could cause damage to blood, kidneys, eyes heart and lungs in the process of using it) they opt for vegetable tannins made from by-products of the food industry, e.g. the roots of rhubarb or olive tree leaves. These methods are much kinder to the environment, creating leather with a much more successful biodegradability. The way this leather breaks down stands in stark contrast to chrome tanned leather, and especially ‘faux leather’ alternatives, which comprise plastic and polyurethane and taking hundreds of years to biodegrade. 

But ‘isn’t vegan leather more sustainable?’. The short answer to that is: “not always”. While there are so many incredible developments in plant-based leather alternatives, most of them are created using plant based or waste products that need to be bonded with polymer-based materials (plastic) to make them look and feel like leather, so that they can be substituted and used on products like bags and shoes. 

The well-known Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) can be found in many faux ‘leather alternatives’ and is not biodegradable or degradable. It cannot be recycled easily and is the most toxic of all plastics. Faux ‘leather alternatives’ that have PVC in them will retain their form for decades and will only break down into smaller pieces eventually, resulting in micro plastics. Animals can ingest these toxic small particles which can block their digestive tracts. Greenpeace calls PVC “the single most environmentally damaging of all plastics.” Oceanographers in 2019 estimated that there were between 15 and 51 trillion microplastic particles floating in surface waters worldwide. Microplastics derived from the waste waters of the fashion and textile industry (and consumers washing clothing that contains plastics) are estimated to make up 35% of those microplastics.

Another nasty polymer is Polyurethane (PU), which is also often found in faux ‘leather alternatives’ like PVC. It is produced using a mix of harmful solvents, including dimethylformamide (DMF) which is toxic to humans. After its very short product life, some PU can be recycled but if not, it will take up to 500 years to biodegrade, releasing toxic chemicals into the environment. Furthermore, burning PU releases harmful toxins, including carbon monoxide into the atmosphere. 

At NARU it is our vision to only use materials that have come from sustainable sources, be it cow or plant-based leather, and that do not comprise plastic or polymer-based materials in any way. We will only ever work with leather tanneries that source their hides in Europe and the UK, are 100 percent traceable, focus on working with regenerative and/or organic farms with high ethical farming practices and who breed cattle for meat before leather.

In order to be able to offer a balanced range of materials, we aim to release plant-based iterations of our bags in the new future. It is however crucial that all our plant-based materials come from regenerative sources, contain zero plastics, are 100 percent biodegradable and stand the test of time. At NARU we believe that bags should be for life and not just a season, so material durability is vital. All the leathers we use are of the highest quality and will last a lifetime, if taken care of properly. 

Should any of our bags be discarded of, for any reason, the fact that they are 100 per cent biodegradable means that they will not pollute the environment and return to earth leaving no trace. 

There is no perfect solution for leathers yet, be it animal based or not, but at NARU we believe that progress in the right direction and continually learning about future materials is a responsibility we carry towards our customers and the future of our planet and societies.

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