Nothing to Hide


Leather facts

Alternative materials to leather: environmental impacts and cost

About this essay

We published the thirteenth Nothing To Hide essay in its original form in World Leather April-May 2016. It was written by Steven Jesseph, who had been chief executive of Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP) and chair of the judging panel for our Tannery of the Year programme. At that time, a look at materials that presented themselves as being direct competitors of leather inevitably concentrated on polyurethane, polyvinyl chloride and other plastics that manufacturers present as alternatives. In this updated version, we reflect also on more recent developments.

Executive summary

Money should only ever be one factor in measuring cost. Plastic alternatives to leather are made from non-renewable oil-based materials and there is a cost from this to the environment in terms of depleting natural resources, polluting the planet and adding to greenhouse gas emissions.

In the leather industry, meanwhile, there has been remarkable progress in the use of renewable energy and other renewable resources in the tanning industry in recent years. Significant progress has been made in the recovery of chromium (III) for reuse in manufacture, and an increasing number of tanners are moving towards renewable vegetable dyes and renewable tanning chemicals. Starting in 2009, World Leather’s Tannery of the Year programme profiled tanneries based on their commitment to corporate social responsibility and sound environmental practices.

As a judge for the Tannery of the Year competition, the author of this essay can attest that all entrants demonstrated a massive commitment to the reduction of chemicals, water and energy.  In his 40 years in business, and in his travels to 65 countries visiting hundreds of factories across industry categories, he says he has never seen any group of companies, nor any industry as a whole, devote so much time, money and energy to reducing its carbon footprint and becoming a responsible environmental citizen as the leather industry. For the sake of the planet, and for all living on it, leather purchased from responsible manufacturers is the clear choice, he argues.

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