Does “sustainable” leather actually exist?
Or could genuine leather turn out to be more sustainable than faux leather given that products made with synthetic leather usually have a life span of maybe 2-3 years (depending on use or care), while genuine leather items may last 10-20 years (or longer), thus lowering the rate of discard to landfills, extending the product life cycle, and maximizing its embodied energy?
As a designer for Tala Luna (a brand promoting Philippine handwoven textiles – through shoes, for now), these are just some of the thoughts I’ve been struggling with when it comes to production. We currently use synthetic leather for our shoes, mainly because of pricing concerns – to keep our investments small, and to keep prices lower for customers, since using genuine leather would definitely double our price points.
However, as part of the MUNI community, I definitely take into consideration how long a product will actually last, because conscious consumption largely involves buying quality products that you don’t have to chuck after just a short period of time.
And because genuine leather definitely outlasts synthetic, it was something I was really considering, especially after requests from people I’d meet at pop-up events. I’ve been unable to find any local sources of “sustainable” leather though, and even I did find one that was passable, how sustainable could it really be?
My beef with leather
Now whether or not the leather sourced came from “happy” free-range cows or not, leather is an extremely resource-intensive material, and essentially, the same points I made for why we should eat less meat also follow the same line of thought with the avoidance of genuine leather.
“Most leather (about 66% of it) comes from cows, and it takes 8 acres of land, 12,000 pounds of forage, 125 gallons of gasoline & other petroleum derivatives for fertilizer, 2,500 pounds of corn, 350 pounds of soybeans, 1.2 million gallons of water & 1.5 acres of farmland (to grow the crops for feed), plus various insecticides, herbicides, antibiotics & hormones to grow one cow from an 80 pound calf to its full size, when it can be slaughtered and the hide harvested.” (via Treehugger)
Furthermore, to prevent bacterial growth on the hide during soaking, biocides, such as pentachlorophenol – a synthetic fungicide that is toxic to humans – are used. After which hides are to undergo tanning – either vegetable tanned, which is more eco-friendly than mineral tanned leather. Mineral tanning, which is the preferred method for most commercial leather, is fairly chemical-intensive process, which usually uses chromium, fungicides, bactericides, and chromium salts. 
Studies have shown that inhaled chromium is a human carcinogen and increases the risk of lung cancer, maybe not so much for the end consumer, but for the factory workers directly exposed to these harmful chemicals. 
In defense of genuine leather
In another article though, Pete Lankford, design director for the Timberland Boot company, notes that while the leather-making process raises a lot of environmental concerns, from the resources that go into raising the cows to the industrial processes at tanneries, the products stand the test of time, and that if you can buy a pair of boots that last twice as long as a synthetic alternative, you’ll end up with half the environmental impact in the long run. 
Consider though that is coming from a company known for producing quality leather boots, and it could very well be a justification of existing practices and a possible unwillingness to explore another option apart from that which it has built its name upon.
I can’t help but consider though that even synthetic leather itself uses chemicals in its production process too, and has a much shorter life span, as mentioned at the beginning of this article.
So at the end of the day, what’s the verdict?
I believe that as consumers, at the end of the day, it’s about asking ourselves first whether we truly need to buy something or not. And if we do need to buy something, can we buy something that’s, first, pre-loved? If not, then second, can we buy something that’s locally-made or eco-friendly, and somehow contributes to a better community or planet in other ways?
As producers, choosing the “greener” option is not black and white, and there are many gray areas of contention. At the end of the day, we do the best we can with what we have and what we know. So the challenge is also to really constantly be on the lookout for more sustainable alternatives whenever possible and talk about our concerns with others in hopes of doing business in a better way.
What are your thoughts on genuine vs. synthetic leather? Share your thoughts with us by leaving a comment below or by tweeting to @Muni_PH #MUNIonThis #Leather #ConsciousConsumption
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Check out the MUNI discussion on this article in our Facebook group here.]
JEN HORN (@nomadmanager) is a wanderer, writer, and designer out to build the MUNI community, create a culture of caring for self, others, and the planet, and make choosing better a way of life as MUNI’s Chief Collaborator. She is also a lover of handwoven textiles, and aims to keep weaving traditions alive through the use of Philippine textiles in modern fashion with her side project Tala Luna.