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Five Environmental Impacts of the Leather Industry

Five Environmental Impacts of the Leather Industry

Leather has long been a popular and fashionable material for clothing, footwear, and accessories due to its durability and stylish appeal. However, behind the sleek and polished look of leather hides a dark reality of environmental degradation and ethical dilemmas surrounding the leather industry.

From greenhouse gas emissions to deforestation, water use, toxic chemical pollution, and land degradation leather production poses significant environmental threats. In this blog post, we will explore the hidden costs of leather production and shed light on the ethical and environmental consequences of this material. We will also discuss how the solution to these issues is to stop using leather and adopt vegan alternatives, promoting a sustainable and cruelty-free fashion industry. Let us delve deeper into the unseen impacts of the leather industry and understand the importance of making conscious purchasing decisions to protect our environment and animal welfare.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions and the Livestock Sector: The Hidden Cost of Leather

The leather industry is inextricably tied with the livestock sector, as most of the leather globally originates from farmed animals – predominantly cows. This livestock sector is a significant contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, a consequence feared for its acceleration of the global climate crisis.

According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations entitled "Tackling climate change through livestock," the livestock sector contributes 14.5% of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, which is more significant than the transportation sector's emissions from cars, planes, trains, and ships combined globally.

Among the GHGs, methane is a prime concern. Despite being less prevalent in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, methane is 25 times more potent in trapping heat in our Earth's atmosphere over a 100-year period. The kicker? Cattle farming is one of the leading generators of methane, primarily due to enteric fermentation – a natural digestive process in cows.

The numbers are staggering. As per the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change's (UNFCCC) Methane Inventory, enteric fermentation in ruminants contributes a daunting 39% to global methane emissions. That's nearly one-third of all global methane emissions.

And therein lies the dilemma – our fashionable leather boots or trendy leather jackets come at the cost of extensively escalating greenhouse gas emissions. And let's not forget the ethical questions linked with animal welfare and the conditions within cattle farming.

Water Use and Pollution caused by the Leather Industry

The leather industry is incredibly thirsty. The Water Footprint Network reports that producing just one kilogram of processed leather uses around 16,600 litres of water. This figure only considers the water used in raising the livestock and does not include the substantial quantities used in the later stages of hide cleaning and tanning.

Leather tanning, the treatment process that converts raw hides into durable material, is particularly water-intensive. A report by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) estimates that processing one tonne of hide or skin can consume up to 50 cubic meters of water - enough to fill twenty standard-sized above-ground swimming pools.

The scale of this usage is astounding when considering the leather industry's global reach and the ever-increasing demand for leather goods. This high usage contributes to the depletion of freshwater resources, a pressing concern as water scarcity currently affects more than 40% of the global population, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

The Deforestation Impact of the Leather Industry

At a glance, it may not be immediately evident how your leather belt, bag, or boots could have any link to the disappearance of the world's forests. However, the world of fashion and forestry is intrinsically intertwined.

The root of this connection is the livestock sector, particularly cattle rearing, which supplies majority of the raw material for leather. Expanding livestock farms to meet the increasing demand for meat and leather often leads to deforestation as forests are cleared to create pastures and cultivate feed crops.

Data provided by the Global Forest Atlas reveals that approximately 80% of deforestation in the Amazon is due to cattle ranching. Brazil, a key player in the global beef and leather export markets, has lost an area of forest larger than Greece in just two decades—much of this directly linked to cattle ranching.

Furthermore, the World Bank reports that in seven Central American countries, deforestation rates closely tie with increasing meat exports. The impact on biodiversity is significant, as trees, plants, and animal species lose their habitats, leading to a tragic loss of life and ecological balance.

Environmental damage caused by Chemical Use in the Leather Industry

Leather, widely revered for its durability and allure, has a another darker, environmental side. A side hideously marred by hazardous chemicals and their detrimental aftermaths.

The process of transforming raw animal hides into finished leather is complex, involving numerous stages where toxic chemicals are used abundantly - particularly in the tanning process. Chromium salts, which are prominent in the chrome-tanning method, make the end product more flexible and water-resistant. However, they leave behind a harmful footprint.

Around 80% of leather produced globally undergoes chrome tanning, dumping an estimated 300,000-600,000 tonnes of chromium salts every year, as per reports by the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).

Not only are these chemicals hazardous, but their improper disposal can cause extensive pollution, contaminating water and soil. Over time, these pollutants enter our food chain, leading to serious health problems in humans and animals.

A case in point is the contamination of underground and surface waters near tanning industries, triggering severe health concerns in communities such as Hazaribagh, Bangladesh, and Vellore, India. Research by Pure Earth and Green Cross Switzerland revealed that Hazaribagh houses around 90% of Bangladesh’s leather tanneries and pumps an estimated 22,000 cubic litres of toxic waste into Dhaka’s primary river, the Buriganga, each day.

Land Degradation and the Leather Industry

At the heart of your leather jacket or shoes is a process that leaves tracks – those of overgrazing and mismanaged farmlands. The leather industry's primary raw material comes from livestock, particularly cattle. This ever-increasing demand for cattle has caused over-reliance on our land, pushing it to its limit.

Overgrazing, induced by high livestock numbers to meet the leather demand, is a significant factor. When grasslands are excessively trampled and grazed, the soil structure is disrupted, leading to severe soil erosion. According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 20% of the world's pastures and rangelands, with 73% of rangelands in dry areas, have been degraded to some extent due to overgrazing.

Besides, the impact on soil health is profound. The Organic Consumers Association states that conventional cattle farming practices involve excessive use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and antibiotics, further degrading the soil and making it less productive over time.

Land degradation has long-lasting effects on biodiversity, too. The World Wildlife Foundation reports that many species are losing their habitats due to the exhausting demands on land for livestock farming.


As we come to the end of this blog post look at the five most significant environmental impacts of the leather industry , it is evident that leather production has significant environmental impacts, including greenhouse gas emissions, water use and pollution, deforestation, toxic chemical use and pollution, and land degradation. The animal welfare and ethical concerns surrounding the leather industry are equally disconcerting.

However, there is hope. A shift towards cruelty-free leather alternatives by going vegan can help reduce the environmental footprint of the fashion industry and improve animal welfare. As consumers, we can make informed choices by considering the hidden costs of our purchases and prioritizing sustainability in our buying decisions. By taking collective action, we can create a kinder and more sustainable fashion industry that highlights the importance of environmental protection and animal welfare. Go Vegan.


- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2005). Livestock's long shadow: Environmental issues and options.

- Organic Consumers Association. (n.d.). Clothes: Synthetic v. Natural.

- World Wildlife Foundation. (n.d.). Overgrazing.

- United Nations Industrial Development Organization. (1995). The Future of the Leather and Leather Products Industry.

- Pure Earth, & Green Cross Switzerland. (2013). World's Worst Polluted Places Report.

- Blacksmith Institute. (2013). The Top Six Toxic Threats: A Priority List for Remediation.

- Global Forest Atlas. (n.d.) Amazon Deforestation.

- The World Bank. (2013). Deforestation Trends in the Congo Basin.

- Articulação Nacional das Agroecológicas. (2015). Impact of Cattle Ranching on the Amazon Rainforest.

- United Nations. (n.d.) Goal 15: Life on Land. Sustainable Development Goals.

- Water Footprint Network. (2019). Water Footprint Assessment.

- United Nations Industrial Development Organization. (2010). Assessment of water use in the leather industry in Kanpur and Unnao, India.

- World Wildlife Fund. (n.d.). Water Scarcity.

- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2013). Tackling climate change through livestock.

- United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. (2018). Global Non-CO2 Greenhouse Gas Emission Projections & Mitigation Potential 2015 - 2050.


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