A new infographic shows the environmental costs of synthetics, imitations.
Leather has been a preferred material for millennia because of its durability, versatility, and beauty. But today’s environmentally-conscious consumers have another reason to embrace leather: it is a natural material that is more sustainable than its synthetic imitations. A new infographic from the Leather and Hide Council of America (LHCA) shines a light on the environmental costs of using synthetics, mostly made from plastics and other non-renewable sources, as opposed to real leather in finished consumer goods.
“What is fashionable can also be sustainable,” said LHCA President Stephen Sothmann. “As consumers, retailers, and brands weigh the versatility, beauty, durability, and sustainability of leather compared to its imitations, it’s clear: there’s simply no substitute for real leather.”
Processing hides from livestock into leather is one of the oldest forms of recycling. The U.S. leather industry purchases hides, which are natural by-products of meat and dairy consumption that would otherwise go to waste, and transforms them into durable, versatile and beautiful real leather products. However, the recent rise of synthetics in consumer products, and shift away from real leather, risk disrupting this critical recycling process and causing irreparable environmental damage.
In 2019, for example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture data indicate the U.S. processed more than 33 million head of cattle for food. U.S. export data and industry estimations suggest that approximately 27.5 million of the more than 33 million available U.S. cattle hides were used in domestic and global leather production.
This means nearly 5.5 million hides, or 17 percent of total U.S. hide production, were either destroyed or discarded in landfills – a number that will likely increase if trends continue in the use of synthetics to produce finished goods in place of real leather. Those 5.5 million discarded or destroyed hides could have instead been used to produce leather for approximately 99 million pairs of shoes, 110 million footballs or two million sofas, for instance.
“There is no better, more environmentally-friendly alternative to using hides from animals processed for food than to make real leather,” Sothmann added. “Without the leather industry, nearly two billion pounds of unused cattle hides would be diverted to landfills, placing tremendous pressure on the environment that would be further compounded by the shift to synthetic imitations produced from plastic and other non-renewable sources.”
Not only do products that use real leather last longer, thereby reducing consumer waste, but they are also naturally biodegradable, and may decompose in less than 50 years. Synthetics derived from petrochemicals, however, could take as many as 500 years to break down – a strain too burdensome for the planet as the pace of climate change hastens.