How bad is leather?

Producing 1 square meter of leather from cattle causes about 110kg of CO2e emissions [2,8]. 84% of these come from rearing the animals, with transport and processing contributing a smaller portion, because cattle release methane and require a lot of food to rear [8,9,10].

One alternative to leather is polyurethane [11], which is made from fossil fuels [12]. Yet, it has a much lower average carbon footprint of just 16kg CO2e per square meter [8]!

Some people argue that leather is not responsible for emissions caused by cattle [2], because it can be a “by-product” of the meat industry: it is often made from animals that were raised primarily for meat and dairy production [2,6]. If you don’t count the emissions from animal farming, then real and artificial leather have similar carbon footprints [8].

However, high quality leathers can fetch a high price, and in these cases some people consider meat as the “by-product” and leather as the driver of the industry [5,7]. When this is the case, leather clearly has a higher carbon footprint than alternatives [8].

Whether or not you count leather officially as a by-product of meat, it is logical (according to the theory of supply and demand [4]) that if a farmer can make extra profit from selling leather, then this makes raising animals more profitable than if there was no demand for leather. In this way, buying leather encourages farmers to raise more animals, causing more emissions.

What we haven’t considered so far is how long a material lasts [3]. If you buy fake leather shoes, for example, but they break within a few weeks, you might have been better off getting leather shoes that last several years. The emissions (and financial cost) from buying many fake leather shoes may be higher than buying just one pair of real leather shoes. Of course the best choice is a long-lasting lair of fake leather shoes. As is often the case, the conclusion is to buy less, and reuse things as much as possible!


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