Sustainable Leather: What it is and why it’s important – Q&A with Deborah Taylor of the Sustainable Leather Foundation

 

Deborah Taylor is the Managing Director of the Sustainable Leather Foundation, a not-for-profit foundation that supports the leather industry in its effort to become more sustainable. Prior to joining the Sustainable Leather Foundation, Taylor managed the Leather Working Group (LWG), an environmental stewardship program that supports the reduction of environmental impacts caused by tannery operations around the world.

Taylor is a council member of the Society of Leather Technologists and Chemists, a practicing member of the Chartered Quality Institute, a consultant for the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, and a certified SA8000 lead auditor.

Why is sustainable leather important?

Animals have always played a vital role in the lives of humans – helping us farm, clothing us, and providing us with sustenance. Today, not much has changed. One needs only to look around to see the many ways that livestock enhances our quality of life. Wool, bone china, and even gummy bear sweets are made with products derived from livestock! Leather, as one of the many everyday items that we use, is durable, long lasting, and can be passed down through generations.

While leather hasn’t always been made sustainably, today's technological and scientific innovations have made leather drastically less impactful on the earth and people, especially when compared to petroleum-made, alternatives to leather. When leather is made sustainably, it ultimately reduces waste, lessens emissions, and plays an important role in providing jobs and contributing to a thriving economy.

What makes leather sustainable, and how does the Sustainable Leather Foundation work with OEKO-TEX® to ensure the oversight of sustainable leather production?

Leather comes from a sustainable, naturally renewable, raw material – the hides and skins of animals. The difference between sustainable and unsustainable leather lies in how the leather is processed.

To be sustainable, brands must consider the input of manufacturing (such as chemistry, water, and energy) against the outputs of manufacturing (such as air emissions, water pollution, carbon emissions, and solid waste production).


Science and technology have come a long way in mitigating the environmental impact of leather. Organizations like OEKO-TEX® and the Sustainable Leather Foundation actively help brands and manufacturers understand their impact on the environment and mitigate outputs through testing, certification, and consultation.

Can you shed some light on the history of the sustainable leather movement and its milestones?

When I started out in the industry, conversations about sustainability were focused on the environment and reducing the pollution from the manufacturing process. However, the leather industry has evolved and now recognizes that a sustainable industry must also consider its social impact and seek fair labor practices.

The industry’s work in sustainability is now both environmentally focused, and socially and economically responsible.

  • We’ve applied our advanced understanding of chemistry to improve leather’s biodegradability, and we’ve updated our machinery to enable better efficiency and lighten human workloads. 
  • We’ve innovated so that our technological processes vastly reduce the amount of water and chemicals used, and we proactively support value chains that seek safe and fair labor practices.

I am proud to say that the Sustainable Leather Foundation and our partners, including OEKO-TEX®, are working pro-actively toward this modern and more comprehensive definition of sustainability.

In your opinion, what does the future of sustainable leather look like?

For some time, there was concern that leather would become a material of the past, but thanks to the accelerating transformation of the leather industry to be more environmentally friendly and socially responsible, the future for sustainable leather is bright.

That said, there’s always room for improvements that will help us protect the planet for future generations. The next big challenge for the industry is to bring these cutting-edge solutions to leathermakers all over the world. The key is to encourage high-producing, low-income countries to adopt more sustainable practices that work within their cultural context.

What does the future hold for the partnership of OEKO-TEX® and Sustainable Leather Foundation?

As you know, OEKO-TEX® is an established and well-respected leader in the certification of products that have been tested for harmful substances. OEKO-TEX® works to ensure that environmental and socially responsible manufacturing is taking place. In particular, I’m impressed that OEKO-TEX® actively monitors legal, NGO, industry, health, scientific and technical information, and updates standards, limit values, and restricted substance lists each year accordingly. It’s for this reason that I see our work with OEKO-TEX® as immensely valuable. By working together, we leverage the best of private, public, NGO, and IGO expertise and resources to make better outcomes.

I look forward to continuing our work with OEKO-TEX® in 2022 and strengthening the positive impact we can deliver.

For more information on Sustainable Leather Foundation, please visit www.sustainableleatherfoundation.com.