What Makes Our Leather Sustainable?
When it comes to our purchasing decisions, there are a few things we can take into consideration when choosing where to give our money. Transparency is key, so that you can gain more insight into a brand’s current environmental footprint, the treatment of their employees, and their sustainability goals. You can also consider the environmental impact of the materials being used (renewable vs nonrenewable resources or synthetic vs natural), how long the products are meant to last, and what happens when the product is no longer of use. Luckily for the planet, innovators are focused on improving the fashion industry and helping big brands do better. However, for things to really change, there also needs to be a mindset shift among consumers so that we begin to buy less and buy better.
The production of leather dates back almost as far as humankind, when our ancestors began using the material for clothing, footwear, and shelter, and continues to be a top choice for a variety of goods thanks to its durability and versatility. Nowadays, brands have a long list of materials to choose from, each option with its own pros and cons regarding their environmental impact, making it difficult for consumers wanting to shop sustainably. Real leather offers many positives compared to alternatives. Products can hold up over many years and uses, which is a major difference from synthetic fast-fashion products, and there is no mining required or fossil fuel extraction. Because the demand for leather is significantly lower than that of the meat industry, it reduces the amount of waste produced by animal agriculture, and has few initial emissions that weren’t attributed to meat production.
Of course, sourcing the leather is only one part of its impact. It then has to go through a treatment called tanning, with manufacturers having two options available for this process. About 90% of all leather is treated with chrome tanning, and the other 10% uses a centuries’ old process using plant-based tannins. Chrome tanning relies on chromium salts, which are carcinogenic, meaning they pose a severe threat to the health of workers the longer they are exposed. This process can cause respiratory problems, infertility, birth defects, an increased risk of lung cancer, and more. The impact extends to the environment and even communities near leather plants, as toxic liquid and waste find their way to water sources. It’s estimated that 50% of chromium used will end up in the local environment, where it harms humans, animals, and the whole ecosystem. Until the 18th and 19th centuries vegetable tanning was the only option, but since chrome tanning required both less time and less tannins for producing the same goods, the method was quickly adopted.
As you can probably guess, vegetable tanning is the preferred method for sustainability-focused brands like everymeadow! Rather than using toxic chemicals, our vegetable tanned leather is treated with a substance derived from oak trees. The process can take longer and is more expensive compared to chrome tanning, but this means it’s being handled with care and the leather will hold up for many years to come while developing a rich patina. This method produces leather that is biodegradable, meaning at the end of a product’s life it can break down without releasing harmful chemicals into the soil, while chrome-tanned leather will continue poisoning the environment and cannot be recycled. Additionally, this process is safer for people working in the tanneries and those who rely on nearby water sources.
We buy our leather from two different sources, both of which exclusively use vegetable tannins. The majority of our leather comes from a small family-run Italian tannery which was founded more than 40 years ago by the father of one of the current owners. It is based in the picturesque hills of Tuscany, which helps explain its commitment to preserving the beauty of the surrounding environment, its traditions, and its reputation for quality, authenticity, and transparency. The tan-colored leather we use comes from a tannery based in Pennsylvania, which happens to be one of the only manufacturers of its kind in the USA. All of its leather is a byproduct of animal agriculture, helping to reduce waste produced by one of the state’s largest industries. They also treat all of the water used in manufacturing before it enters back into the Susquehanna River, one of the main watersheds in PA that empties into Chesapeake Bay. As an added bonus, this tannery has been audited for an environmental certification by the Leather Working Group, an international non-profit working to make a more sustainable leather industry by assessing manufacturers and helping them improve their processes.
No matter what material a company uses, mass production of any goods without consideration for the environment will always have consequences. At everymeadow we will always choose quality over quantity, and we pride ourselves on being a slow fashion brand, offering unique products that will only get better with time. The final work is done in Brooklyn, New York, each bag handmade with love, care, and a deep passion for the product and process. You can even check out some behind the scenes videos of our leather working so you can feel good knowing each step in the process is done with sustainability and ethical production in mind.