Stories from AGENdA

Fabric 101: Leather

Fabric 101: Leather

To designers, leather is almost irresistible.

Not only leathers have their distinct luxurious texture, hand, and sheen, but also they last and age beautifully. So it is not surprising that we see the great desire for leather materials in fashion.

But what goes into making them? And is leather sustainable?


Leather is a material made from the skin of an animal. You will see skins from cows often and spot goats, pigs, sheep, ostrich, zebra, elephants, crocodiles… snakes, etc. For the leather from cows, the majority is taken from those who are slaughtered for their meat or those no longer producing enough milk to remain profitable. However, the most luxurious materials are supplied by new-born veal calves and sometimes even unborn calves for their soft and thin skin. Like any industry, leather producers work to meet the demand. So believing all leather is a by-product of the food industry is in some way naïve. It is said that leather accounts for approximately 10% of the animal’s total value, making it the most valuable part.

Wild animals are (often illegally) poached for their skins in many countries. The estimated number of cats and dogs killed for their skin is two millions in China – the leading exporter of leather. Like fur, leather is in the center of animal cruelty issues.

Leather production has a heavy toll on the environment as factory farming is fossil/ fuel intensive practice and generates million tonnes of methane gas as well as other waste that contaminate nature. And once the skin has been obtained from the animal, it goes through a succession of the process that takes so much labor, energy, and chemical.

Once the skin is obtained from animal, remaining flesh and hairs are removed and the skin is salted so that it does not decompose. The skin goes through many more processes and one of them -often discussed in sustainability- is called tanning. It is what makes the skin to leather through preserving the material and halting decomposition. Often tanning solution involves several chemicals and toxins and the pollutants end up released into the air, ground, and water. Where environmental regulations aren't enforced, the negative impacts are severe.

Yet with all those possible consequences, l believe leather is more sustainable than faux leathers which most likely made from petroleum-based plastic and it lasts decades longer. And if possible, choosing vegetable tanned leather could be a better option. If we want to understand sustainability, we need to consider all; where the material comes from, how it is made, and how long it can be with us and what happens when we no longer want it. So cherish what you already have. And if you are in need of something new, make the buying last. That way, YOU are making it more sustainable.