Sustainable Leather: Exploring Types, Production, and Traceability for Eco-Friendly Fashion Choices

Leather's sustainability hinges on factors like type, production, and traceability. Not all leather is equal; its environmental impact varies. Let's explore why leather can be sustainable when chosen wisely.

Reasons Why Leather Can Be Sustainable

1. By-product

99.9% of leather is a by-product of the meat industry. If we do not use leather, the skins of the animals will have to be incinerated, which would create a significant carbon footprint. If we had to raise a cow just for its leather, the cost of the material would be at least 10 times more expensive, comparable to crocodile leather. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that worldwide meat consumption will increase by 20% by 2050. We will need to use leather to avoid burning the skins of these animals. In the last 10 years, meat consumption has increased more than leather consumption, which is why the price of leather has not seen significant price growth, as the demand is lower than the availability.

The missing 0.1% (approximately) of leather is coming from reptile leather and is not a by-product of the meat industry. However, there are some best practices in this area, such as the state of Louisiana, which developed a recovery plan for the alligator in 1972. The plan included measures to protect alligator habitat, reduce hunting pressure, and monitor the alligator population. One of the key components of the LDWF's alligator management program is a statewide alligator harvest program. This program allows hunters to harvest alligators under a permit system. The revenue from the alligator harvest program is used to fund alligator research and management activities.

Since the plan was implemented, the alligator population in Louisiana has grown from 100,000 to 2 million individuals.

2. Durability

Leather is considered a durable product because it is made from the skin of animals, which is a strong and resilient material made up of some different layers, each of which has a specific function:

  • The outermost layer of the skin, the epidermis, is made up of dead skin cells that are constantly being shed and replaced.
  • The next layer of the skin, the dermis, is responsible for the strength and elasticity of the skin. It also contains collagen, which is a protein that helps to keep the skin firm and youthful.
  • The innermost layer of the skin, the hypodermis, is made up of fat cells.

The different layers of the skin work together to create a strong and resilient material that protects the body from the environment and helps to maintain a constant body temperature. Good leather, if treated well, can last for decades. This means that the environmental impact of producing the leather is diluted over the life of the product, making it much smaller compared to materials that may only last for one year.

3. Reparability:

Leather products are repairable. For minor damage, such as scratches and scuffs, a leather repair kit may be all that is needed. These kits typically include a cleaner, conditioner, and colourant. The cleaner is used to remove dirt and debris from the leather, the conditioner is used to moisturize and protect the leather, and the colourant is used to match the original colour of the leather. For more serious damage, such as holes and tears, a professional leather repair specialist will be able to fix it with specific professional tools. A shoe with a leather sole can be easily resoled. A product that can be repaired will have a longer life, reducing the overall impact on the environment.

4. Biodegradability

Leather can be a biodegradable material but not all leathers are:

  • Depends on the tanning method: vegetable tanning (EcotanOliven leder tanningvera pelle italiana conciata al vegetale consortium) or some synthetic tanning like Zeology and the right leather finishing, make the leather easily biodegradable. Vegetable-tanned leather is tanned using natural materials, such as tree bark and leaves, while chrome-tanned leather is tanned using chromium salts. Chromium-tanned leathers are more durable and water-resistant, but they can also make it less biodegradable.
  • The environmental conditions in which leather is disposed of also affect its biodegradability. Leather that is disposed of in a landfill will take longer to biodegrade than leather that is disposed of in a compost pile because microorganisms need oxygen to break down organic materials.

If you want to claim that a leather is biodegradable, it is important to test it first, as many factors in the production process can affect biodegradability. The 2 main tests applicable for leather biodegradability are CEN/TR 17537:2021 and ISO 17082:2012. In some cases like Ecotan and Zeology the compost generated by the leather is used as organic fertiliser of type A. All of this reduces the environmental impact making leather a circular material.

5. Additional Qualities

  • Breathability: leather has lots of tiny little openings called pores. These pores are small enough to keep water escaping but large enough to let air pass through.
  • Versatility: means that we can use the leather in several strong mechanical procedures without braking and allowing a good and strong manufacturing product.
  • Patina: the propriety to become more and more beautiful with time, make a leather product luxury extending his desirability and lifespan.

Per se, those characteristics are not strictly related to a lower impact on the environment. However, they identify leather as a good quality, durable and pleasant product to wear in different weather conditions, isolating the human condition of atmospheric events. 

Key Considerations for Low-Impact Leather

  1. Ensure traceability of raw material origin country and adherence to the highest international standards.
  2. Choose a vertical process tannery that offers visibility from rawhide to finished leather.
  3. Examine the tanning method applied to the leather. Chrome tanning is the most efficient but may have a heavier environmental impact.
  4. Pay attention to dyeing and finishing processes for a balance of patina and uniformity.


Prioritize sustainability by choosing leather wisely. The more natural the leather, the more sustainable it is, but it also tends to be more expensive. Educating your customers about these factors is essential to promote sustainable leather choices. 

Published: 03/01/2024


Nicolò Giusti
Nicolò Giusti
BIO: Nicolò is an innovative and sustainable material specialist working in the fashion industry for more than 15 years. His passion for traditional materials but also for innovative solutions brought him to create the Sustainable Academy, a community that supports students, entrepreneurs and fashion companies to be more sustainable and avoid greenwashing.
"I really believe in the power of collaboration. Sharing and learning is the only way we can get to the next level. Why waste time protecting ourselves when we can use it to improve?"