Vegetable-tanned leather underlies a lot of everyday accessories: belts, wallets, bags, shoes, purses—you name it. In fact, many companies advertise and market vegetable-tanned leather as an eco-friendly solution to traditional chemical tanning.
But in reality, tanned leather’s primary ingredient is tree bark, one of the most critical resources in combatting climate change. As more leather companies are beginning to shift to vegetable tanning, which could be watching a significant rise in deforestation.
The history of vegetable-tanned leather
Vegetable-tanned leather has been vital in every part of society ranging from warfare to industry uses dating back to 500 B.C. People developed this tanning process to combat bacteria eating away at rawhides. But as horse-based transport declined and rubber and plastic increased, vegetable-tanned leather soon became out of style.
In the 21st century, however, there’s been a resurgence of consumer demand for vegetable-tanned leather goods due to its long lifespan and “natural” tone and smell. Yet the environmental consequences are bigger than what many companies would care to admit.
How exactly does vegetable-tanned leather affect our environment?
As the leather market continues to grow, its sustainability has become a rising concern. Not only are cows, goats, kangaroos, and other animals senselessly killed, but around 80% of the leather industry tans with chrome—a highly toxic chemical released into waterways and harms workers.
What’s problematic is that many leather companies advertise vegetable-tanning as a natural process. This misleads consumers because it actually requires trees to be stripped of their bark in order to extracts tannins—a necessary chemical for leather treatment. And it comes as no surprise that this method of stripping bark essentially kills the tree.
Companies hiding behind consumer ignorance, claiming sustainability when they’re secretly perpetuating environmental issues like deforestation shouldn’t go unnoticed. Especially as there are viable fashion alternatives that actually are sustainable.
Sustainable alternatives to vegetable tanning
With the evident side effects of the leather process, many companies have found ways to create more sustainable leather while keeping aesthetics.
MycoWorks, for example, is a startup determined to make a more eco-friendly leather alternative. So, MycoWorks developed technology that converts fungi into a completely biodegradable faux leather.
But the problem doesn’t solely lie with the latter – it’s with textiles too. Sustainable brands like Evrnu attempt to fill the 21 billion pound gap of disregarded recycled clothes by recycling them into new textile materials.
These are just some examples of the endless possibilities new biotechnology companies can create. And with the growing awareness of the fashion industry’s environmental impact, consumers need to start looking for sustainable alternatives.
Jalen Xing is a Writer at theRising and the co-founder of Students For Hospitals. You can pitch him stories at jalen.xing [at] gmail [dot] com.