The leather industry generates an incredible amount of leather and leather goods that are used by millions of people around the world every day. For function and fashion, leather is one of the most popular materials available.

The leather industry has a long history dating back hundreds of years. It is a $100 billion manufacturing sector that produces leather hides and goods all around the world. The most popular hides are from cows, sheep, goats, and pigs. The most popular products are shoes, clothing, and upholstery.

So many people, and so many countries, are involved in the processing and production of leather goods. It’s an amazing world trade that yields products most of us use on a daily basis. Let’s take a closer look.

 

What is the Leather Industry?

Leather Industry - Leather Hides - Liberty Leather Goods
Leather Hides

The leather industry is a global manufacturing sector that produces the raw, processed, and finished materials used to make leather goods. Animal hides are used to produce the leather. The hides are generally the waste product of the food industry. The animals used for hides, when treaded humanely and well-cared for, are a renewable resource. Leather is one of the most traded products globally, with the export value of hides and skins exceeding $5 billion annually.

 

History of the Leather Industry

Leather Worker - The History of Leather and Leather Craft - Liberty Leather Goods
Leather Worker

While leather working has been around for nearly 400,000 years, the formal leather industry is a more recent development, dating from around 1100 CE. During the Middle Ages, leather guilds began to form.

The field of leather craft required a fair amount of knowledge to tan, process, dye, and work with the leather. It also required specialized tools to work with. Thus, it was important to create a way to keep this information within groups, and guilds of leather workers were created. This helped to develop a means by which to pass knowledge on to future generations. It also helped to protect that knowledge and the livelihoods of leather crafters.

Around the 1700’s, global trade routes were well established by the world powers at the time. Mainly, Great Britain, France, and Spain. They would generally drive the leather industry, through production and trade of hides around the world.

When the Industrial Revolution came around in the early 1800’s, the need for leather skyrocketed. The material was needed for footwear and clothing, for belts than ran the many new machines, and for the exponential increase in leather goods made. More leather goods could be made faster, all due to the machines, run by leather belts.

Communities would grow around tanneries. The formal relationships between hide skinners, tanneries, leather workers, and consumers would grow deeper and more defined. The leather industry was a core part of culture and the global way of life.

In modern times, leather has competition from rubbers and plastics. Though, the industry is ever-advancing along with the latest technologies in processing and producing some of the finest materials in the world. The relationships within the industry have evolved as well. Trade associations, similar to the leather guilds of Medieval Times, continue to strengthen the industry. They work to form networks of partners that create and deliver leather all around the world.

 

Key Groups of the Leather Industry

Like any large collaboration of professional organizations in a production sector, the leather industry has it’s key parts. Each plays an important role within the production, processing, and sale of leather hides and leather goods.

 

Leather Industry Farmers/Ranchers

Cattle Drive - Liberty Leather Goods
Cattle Drive

Farmers and ranchers maintain a large count of animals. They most often include cows, pigs, sheep, and goats. The animals are primarily utilized for the food industry, the hides becoming a by-product that then is used as a raw material source of for the leather industry.

For a sense of scale, there are approximately 100 million cattle on average across farms in the United States. Each year, about 12 million will be sent to meat packers for processing into food and other materials.

 

Leather Industry Meatpackers

Meatpacking District in New York City - Liberty Leather Goods
Meatpacking District in New York City

Meatpackers perform the role of processing animals. They will take the animals who have been farm or ranch-raised, and turn them into the various materials that will be used by other industries.

This usually involves separating all of the parts. The most important part for the leather industry is the hide. The hides are removed from the animals, usually by machinery that ensures as even and consistent removal as possible. The hides are then preserved using a number of various techniques, depending on the type of hide and it’s goal intended use.

Once preserved, the hides are sold to the Tanneries for tanning.

 

Leather Industry Tanners

Leather Tanners in Morocco - Liberty Leather Goods
Leather Tanners in Morocco

Tanners purchase hides from the meatpackers. This can be a global trade. For example, tanneries around the world might seek quality hides from a country that grows healthy animals that yield top-notch hides. If an USA meatpacker were to sell hides to an Asian market, special shipping arrangements and conditions would be necessary to ensure the raw hides make it there successfully.

Tanners can also purchase hides locally. For example from nearby states. This happens frequently in the USA where large sources of fresh hides are relatively close to the tanneries. The hotter travel time is a benefit, and certainly makes these relationships in the leather industry more mutually beneficial.

Once they receive the hides, tanners will tan them, turning the raw hides into finished leather. The tanning process is generally 25 steps, among which they can vary greatly in chosen method, chemicals used, and time involved.

Tanned leather can be available in all different thicknesses, colors, textures, and finishes. Once prepared and finished, these leathers can be sold in the marketplace. Usually, it is to large resellers.

 

Leather Industry Resellers

Leather Goods for Sale - Liberty Leather Goods
Leather Goods for Sale

When tanned leather begins to enter the marketplace in the leather industry, it is usually though large resellers. They purchases finished leather hides in bulk from leather tanneries. With large volumes of inventory, they can offer hides for sale to other, smaller resellers.

These resellers might be smaller, regional leather hide resellers who will again sell the hides to larger shops or other industries that require leather in volume. They might also be leather shops that specialize in retail leather hide sales. Smaller shops like this are usually the places that leather workers will get their leather from.

A leather shop can offer a wide range of hides. They might specialize in reselling hides from a particular region. They might also offer a diverse selection of hides from regions around the world. Their offerings can also include hides from different animals, different grades, different finishes, and different qualities. Most anything a leather crafter might want is available for sale.

 

Leather Industry Crafters/Customers

Leather Worker - Liberty Leather Goods
Leather Worker

The leather crafter is often one of the main customers of hides from leather resellers. Other industries that utilize leather as a raw material for their processes also buy in bulk from resellers.

When a leather crafter is planning a project, they’ll usually determine what type of leather is best to use for the specific work they’ll be doing. Having a wide range of options, qualities, and price points available, the crafter can purchase hides or cuts of hides from a reseller.

With leather in hand, they can begin work and craft some incredible leather goods that can last years and years.

 

 

Types of Animal Leather

Leather Hides - Liberty Leather Goods
Leather Hides

Leather can be made from the hides of most any animal large and small. Generally, the animals most commonly used for leather production around the world include cows, goats, sheep, and pigs.

Some of the more common exotic leathers include alligator, buffalo, camel, deer, horse, and snake. Availabilities will often differ by region, and market preference. Volume of exotic hides available along with cost are also usually factors related to availability.

 

Leather Industry Global Production Statistics

Leathers with Different Textured Surfaces - Liberty Leather Goods
Leathers with Different Textured Surfaces

Worldwide leather production and consumption varies considerably by country. Some produce more leather than they consumer, and export it for profit. Others consume more leather and leather goods, serving as large importers of leather hides and leather goods. Let’s check out some of the more broad production counts of production, importing, and exporting.

 

Leather Industry Top Leather Producers

Leather Hides - Liberty Leather Goods
Leather Hides

It is interesting to get an idea of how the leather industry produces around the world. Based on leather production data from 2015 from the International Council of Tanners, we can take a look at the top 10 producers.

Leather Industry Top Leather Producers – 2015

Rank Country Production (mil of sq. ft.) % of All Production
1 China 5,962 24.9 %
2 Brazil 2,260 9.4%
3 Russia 1,652 6.9%
4 India 1,516 6.3%
5 Italy 1,503 6.3%
6 Korea 1,144 4.8%
7 Argentina 804 3.4%
8 United States 719 3.0%
9 Mexico 642 2.7%
10 Turkey 529 2.2%
All Others 7,245 30.2%
World Combined 23,976 100%

 

China, by a significantly large margin, represents about 25% of global leather production. The United States is about 3%. Leather industry production can often represent focuses of regional economies. Increases or decreases over time, often decades, can also reflect changes to environmental, cultural, or economic preferences of leather producing countries.

 

Leather Industry Top Bovine Exporting Countries

Longhorn Cattle - Liberty Leather Goods
Longhorn Cattle

These represent the countries that export the most bovine (cow and bull) hides and skins, by dollar value. Numbers are based on 2014 information from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Leather Industry Top Bovine Exporting Countries

Rank Country Export Value (Million USD) % of Global Export Value
1 United States 1,353.6 26.0%
2 France 446 8.6%
3 Germany 431 8.3%
4 Australia 377.1 7.3%
5 Canada 245.4 4.7%
6 United Kingdom 225.6 4.3%
7 Italy 221 4.3%
8 Spain 186 3.6%
9 Netherlands 179.2 3.4%
10 Ireland 147.6 2.8%
All Others 1,383.9 26.6%
World Combined 5,196.4 100%

 

The United States is a clear leader in the overall exports of leather hides and skins, by a large marking. They make up 26% of the total global export market. The next closest is France, producing over 8% of the global leather exports.

 

Leather Industry Top Bovine Importing Countries

Cow in the Field - Liberty Leather Goods
Cow in the Field

These represent the countries that import the most bovine (cow and bull) hides and skins, by wet-salted weight. Numbers are based on 2014 information from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

 

Leather Industry Top Bovine Importing Countries

Rank Country Volume (thousand tons) % of All Volume
1 China 1,071.1 38.9%
2 Italy 401 14.6%
3 Republic of Korea 136.2 4.9%
4 Germany 111.3 4.0%
5 Mexico 98.1 3.6%
6 Netherlands 92 3.3%
7 Austria 91.2 3.3%
8 Thailand 86 3.1%
9 USA 52.4 1.9%
10 Slovakia 50 1.8%
All Others 564.8 20.5%
World Combined 2,754.1 100%

 

China, by far, imports the most bovine hides and skins in the world. They are also one of the largest finished leather producers in the world. It is clear from looking at these values that China puts a priority on leading the leather industry in leather production.

 

 

Leather Industry Production of Leather Shoes

Finished Leather Shoes - Liberty Leather Goods
Finished Leather Shoes

These represent the countries that produce the largest number of leather shoes. Shoe and footwear production is the largest global consumer of leather material. Numbers are based on 2014 information from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Leather Industry Production of Leather Shoes

Rank Country Volume (millions of pairs) % of All Volume
1 China 1,847.6 40.5%
2 Italy 302.2 6.6%
3 Mexico 296.4 6.5%
4 India 193.4 4.2%
5 Brazil 190.2 4.2%
6 Indonesia 145 3.2%
7 Vietnam 140.5 3.1%
8 United States 86.6 1.9%
9 Turkey 84.6 1.9%
10 Spain 74.8 1.6%
All Others 1204.5 26.4%
World Combined 4,565.8 100%

China produces the world’s largest number of shoes per year at over 40%. This is by a significant margin. Next is Italy with under 7%. China is positioned as a very strong producer of leather footwear.

 

 

Leather Industry Imports of Leather Shoes

Leather Boots in a Leather Shop - Liberty Leather Goods
Leather Boots in a Leather Shop

These represent the countries that import the largest number of leather shoes. Shoe and footwear production is the largest global consumer of leather material. Numbers are based on 2014 information from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Leather Industry Imports of Leather Shoes

Rank Country Volume (millions of pairs) % of All Volume
1 United States 595.2 26.9%
2 Germany 165.5 7.5%
3 China 163.3 7.4%
4 United Kingdom 152.2 6.9%
5 Italy 129.7 5.9%
6 France 110.4 5.0%
7 Belgium 101.4 4.6%
8 Russian Federation 70.1 3.2%
9 Netherlands 69.7 3.1%
10 Canada 44.3 2.0%
All Others 614.1 27.7%
World Combined 2,216.2 100%

The United States is a very large importer of leather shoes, the largest in the world comprising 26.9% of the market. It is interesting as the US exports the most leather in world, while also importing the most finished shoes.

 

 

Leather Industry Exports of Leather Shoes

Racks of Finished Leather Shoes - Liberty Leather Goods
Racks of Finished Leather Shoes

These represent the countries that export the largest number of leather shoes. Shoe and footwear production is the largest global consumer of leather material. Numbers are based on 2014 information from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Leather Industry Exports of Leather Shoes

Rank Country Volume (millions of pairs) % of All Volume
1 China 1,000.2 46.3%
2 Italy 132.1 6.1%
3 India 118.7 5.5%
4 Vietnam 111.4 5.2%
5 Germany 81.7 3.8%
6 Indonesia 75.8 3.5%
7 Belgium 65.6 3.0%
8 Portugal 59.3 2.7%
9 Spain 49.1 2.3%
10 Turkey 48.7 2.3%
All Others 418.2 19.4%
World Combined 2,160.8 100%

China, along with being the world’s largest exporter of finished leather, is also the world’s largest exporter of leather shoes. They comprise 46.3% of all leather shoe exports globally. The nearest country in volume is Italy, with just over 6%.

 

Leather Industry Leather Produced by Animal Type

Cow in the Pasture - Liberty Leather Goods
Cow in the Pasture

Here is a look into the weight of leather produced by some of the most popular types of animals. This is based on data from the FAO, average from 2012-2014, across the world.

Leather Industry Leather Produced by Animal Type

Animal Type # of Hides (millions) Total Weight (tons)
Bovine & Buffalo 364.3 7,200,186
Sheep & Lamp 550 454,703
Goat & Kid 486.3 380,598
Totals: 1,400.6 8,035,487

Bovine and buffalo hides make up a significant portion of the average annual leather production volume.

 

Leather Industry Leather Produced by Animal Type

Cattle - Liberty Leather Goods
Cattle

Here is a very high level look at the general distribution of animal types across average global leather production. The numbers are based on 2015 data from the International Council of Tanners (ICT).

Leather Industry Leather Produced by Animal Type

Animal Type % of All Leather
Cattle & Buffalo 67%
Sheep/Lamb 12%
Pig 11%
Goat/Kid 10%
Others < 0.5%

Cattle and buffalo leather is by far the most produced, and used, around the world.

 

 

Leather Industry Commercial End Uses – Global Leather Market

Leather Upholstered Stool - Liberty Leather Goods
Leather Upholstered Stool

Here is a very high level look at the general distribution of the products that leather is used in production for. The numbers are based on 2015 data from the International Council of Tanners (ICT).

Leather Industry Commercial End Uses – Global Leather Market

Product % of All Leather
Shoes/Footwear 47%
Automobile Upholstery 17%
Furniture Upholstery 10%
Clothing 10%
Gloves 4%
Other Leather Goods 12%

Each year, shoes and footwear comprise the products that use the most leather worldwide.

 

 

 

Leather Industry Association and Trade Groups

Finished Leather Bags - Liberty Leather Goods
Finished Leather Bags

There are many trade groups and industry associations around the world that are established to help serve and grow the leather industry. Some are regional or country-specific, while others are overarching associations of associations that help guide more global initiatives. Here are some of the most popular ones.

Leather Industry Association and Trade Groups

Abbrev. Name Description Country Website
AHSLEA Australian Hide, Skin and Leather Exporters’ Association A voluntary trade Association whose membership comprises the major exporters of Australian cattle hides, calf skins, sheep and lamb skins, kangaroo skins and goat skins. Australia http://www.ahslea.com.au/
BTA Bangladesh Tanners Association Bangladesh Tanners Association (BTA) is a non-profit Association of Leather Industry in Bangladesh. Bangladesh http://www.tannersbd.com/
CLE Council for Leather Exports An autonomous non-profit company registered under the Indian Companies Act, 1956 entrusted with export promotion activities and development of the Indian leather industry. India http://leatherindia.org/
CNC Conseil National du Cuir A professional organization of leather producers and users in France. France https://conseilnationalducuir.org/
COTANCE Confederation of National Associations of Tanners and Dressers of the European Community The representative body of the European Leather Industry. It is a non-profit organization established in order to promote the interests of the European tanning industry at international level. Belgium https://www.euroleather.com/
ICHSLTA International Council of Hide, Skin & Leather Traders Associations To promote the use of hides and skins products to the global leather industry. The Council sets out guidelines and gives advice on production, grading and marketing to improve reliability and understanding throughout the world. Hong Kong http://www.ichslta.com/
ICT International Council of Tanners ICT is the membership organisation of the world’s leather trade associations. It meets regularly to discuss relevant topics affecting or influencing the global leather industry. United Kingdom https://leathercouncil.org/
IULTCS International Union of Leather Technologists and Chemists Societies Establishing and maintaining a network of global contacts within the leather industry that have a legitimate interest in and an authoritative platform to express opinions on issues affecting the industry. United Kingdom http://www.iultcs.org/
LIA Leather Industries of America A leather trade association that serves its members by providing environmental, technical, education, statistical
and marketing services — all at the direction of its membership and to the benefit of the leather industry.
United States https://www.leatherusa.com
LWG Leather Working Group To develop and maintain protocols that assess the environmental compliance and performance capabilities of leather manufacturers and to promote sustainable and appropriate environmental business practices within the leather industry. United Kingdom https://www.leatherworkinggroup.com/
PTA Pakistan Tanners Association An association that represents the leather industry in Pakistan, at the Federal level. Pakistan http://www.pakistantanners.org/
SLTC The Society of Leather Technologists and Chemists A non-profit International Society serving the leather sector and dedicated to the future of the leather industry. United Kingdom http://www.sltc.org/
UNIDO Leather and Leather Products Industry Panel A global forum for technical assistance programmes dealing with the leather-based industry sector. Austria https://leatherpanel.org/
USHSLA U.S. Hide, Skin and Leather Association A full service industry trade organization devoted to the U.S. hides, skins and wet blue leather products industry. United States https://www.ushsla.org/

 

 

The Future of the Leather Industry

According to a 2010 report from the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), leather goods and trade products have any estimated global trade value of over $100 Billion.

The industry has grown smaller in recent decades due to the growing popularity of synthetic products such as plastic and rubber. Over time, tanneries have gone from small, localized operations to larger, regional tanning production facilities. also, the volume of tanneries has consolidated into fewer, larger companies.

Production processes continue to advance with technology. This allows for faster creation of higher-quality leathers and leather goods. The main markets for leather goods continue to be shoes, clothing, and upholstery. Also, fine leather is an incredibly versatile and cantonal material for small leather goods and accessories. There will likely always be a demand for finally crafted, high-quality leather goods.

 

 

Related Questions:

How much is the leather industry worth?

The leather industry is worth about $5 billion annually in the value of hides and skins. It it worth about $100 billion annually when considering the global trade of all leather goods and related trade products.

Is leather a by product of the meat industry?

Yes, leather is generally a by product of the meat industry. About 12 million cattle are processed annually in the USA for food production. The hides, unused for food, are a primary resource for the leather industry and leather production.

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