We’re not sustainability experts, but we do think and care about our environmental footprint and ethics in our business choices. We use exclusively full grain vegetable-tanned cowhide in our business, and we believe this is the most sustainable choice.

In this post we’ll discuss why we believe this is a sustainable choice, and explore what other sustainability considerations customers have with leather.

Animal ethics

There are several ethical considerations in choosing the animal or substance leather comes from.

As a first, obvious ethical (and legal) choice, any leather from endangered animal species on the CITES list should be avoided at all cost.

As a second, it makes sense to us to only select leather from animals that are not raised in captivity solely for their hide or fur.

So, while we’re not vegetarians or vegans, we opt to choose animal hides that are a byproduct of the meat industry. “Byproduct” means that even a high quality hide represents 5% or less of the value of a steer. We consider it a measure of respect to use the whole animal, including the hide.

Some argue that leather sales subsidize meat prices, but according to the tannery we spoke with, in practice at this point, the vast consumption of meat far outweighs the demand for leather. As evidence, the tannery pointed to the fact that the price of hides has both doubled and halved over the years, with no change in the number of cattle grown or the supply of hides. In other words, if the hides were not used for leather, they would be landfilled.

For those that do not agree with this choice, the other options for a leather alternative include plastic and vegetable leathers, which are discussed further in our post about kinds of leathers. Both plastic and vegetable leathers are not working solutions for our workshop – at this point – because they don’t have the same combination of structural rigidity and flexibility.

Environmental footprint of tanning

We care about our environmental footprint for the sake of all animals (including humans), and this is one major reason why we choose to work with vegetable-tanned leather.

Vegetable-tanned leather has a low environmental footprint: it uses natural, biodegradable and ancient substances in the tanning process, and as a result the leather itself is also the most biodegradable among leathers when finished.

Mineral-tanned leathers use salts and metals in tanning, which creates wastewater pollution problems.

Where leather is tanned makes a big difference in environmental impact. Not only does leather tanned outside the country require more oil and gas for shipping back and forth (in many cases, the hides are sent from the US to developing countries for tanning, and then sent back to the US as tanned hides) – but in those developing countries, one of the reasons the tanning is cheaper is because they have less environmental laws, allowing them to pollute more at lower cost. (They also have lower labor costs, which may challenge the ethics of social justice as well.)

Some have argued that bonded leather is “good” for the environment because it makes use of the leather dust – but it requires adding a bunch of toxic glues and polymers in the process of doing so. We’re not buying it.

Plastic leathers – while inexpensive and the alternative of choice for animal rights concerns – is one of the least environmentally sustainable choices for leather.

Vegetable leathers, like mushroom leather or pineapple fiber leather, show real promise but are still in the development stage.

Product lifecycle / landfills

One of the easiest environmental choices a customer can make is to choose to buy durable, repairable, long-lasting goods with a long lifecycle.

Vegetable-tanned leather gets more beautiful with use and age, while mineral-tanned, garment, and plastic leathers wear out, fade, and deteriorate rapidly.

Companies that care

There are many other daily, small choices that people at companies have to make, whether it’s noticed or not. It’s important to choose to buy products from companies and brands that you trust to share your sustainability and ethical values.

Consumer choice can have unimaginable ripple effects – just look at all the good a company like Patagonia can do with a strong and dedicated customer base, from national park advocacy to sustainable food marketing.

Leather certification programs

  • There is no such thing as “organic leather.” There is no tracking program for organically-raised beef hides, nor separation of organic and non-organic hides in the tanneries. The only way to support organically-raised agriculture is to buy organic food.
  • When considering exotic leathers, avoid endangered species on the CITES list or only purchase if it has a CITES certificate (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora).
  • The Leather Working Group is a stakeholder group of brands, manufacturers, suppliers, NGOs and end users working together to improve the environmental impacts of leather – in practice, they are focused on mineral- or chrome-tanned leathers, like garment leather, because vegetable-tanned leathers don’t present a significant problem (90% of leather tanned worldwide is mineral-tanned). The group is led by fashion and footwear brands, like Nike. The Leather Working Group sets minimum standards for members, so theoretically one could check to see if a particular tannery is on this list… if it is in the tannery’s interest to do so, because like LEED certification, the process is onerous and expensive. If a tannery’s customers aren’t demanding it, they are unlikely to volunteer for it.

Next Lesson

We take our commitment to sustainability seriously and lay it out transparently in our Sustainability Declaration.

But what happens when you’re out in the wild, in a store or shopping online? How can you tell what kind of leather a product is made of, or if it’s any good?

In the next post, we’ll share tips and tricks for spotting craftsmanship details and leather quality out in the wild.


We’re writing a leather learning series, and this is the seventh of ten posts. In the series, we go through the different kinds of leather and the different ways it is tanned and finished, then talk about how leather as a raw material is turned into products, how to tell good leather products in the store, how those products should be maintained, and what ethical leather choices are.

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About walnutstudiolo

Founded in 2009 by Geoffrey Franklin, Walnut combines thoughtful modern design with old-world craft. Everything we make is hand-built to work beautifully and age gracefully in our workshop on the gorgeous Oregon Coast. See our work at walnutstudiolo.com. Learn more about us with this short maker video: http://vimeo.com/cineastas/walnut

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Leather - About, Leather Learning Series, Sustainability

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