It’s important that the materials we work with the the products we use help keep us safe. Eco leather aims to do just that.
Eco leather is a term used to describe leather produced from an environmentally friendly production process. It relates to the chemicals used, waste products generated, and finishes applied to products. Certifications are available to objectively confirm a tanner is following eco friendly practices.
It’s incredible to think about how some leathers are made. A few changes can result in production that is far better for the tannery workers, and all of the customers that work with and use leather goods.
What is Eco Leather?
Eco leather, also called eco-friendly leather, is leather produced using processes and chemicals that are safer for the environment. These processes also result in a leather that is safer for the user/wearer over time. Some eco leather production standards limit chemical use. Other eco leather production standards specify only the use of natural materials in the production process.
Often, harsh chemicals are used in leather tanning. They produce equally worse wastes after the tanning process. Additionally, these chemicals, and some finishes, will remain in and on the leather after it’s made. When working with leather, or wearing/using leather goods, people can become exposed to these chemicals on a very frequent basis. The most common found include chromium, formaldehyde, azo dyes, and PCPs.
Over time, exposure to these chemicals can become unsafe. So, it is important to be aware the what goes into leather during tanning, what wastes come out, and how leather goods can be made better. That awareness, with proactive changes in how tanneries operate, can lead to positive changes over time.
Common Eco Leather Questions
Is Eco Leather Real Leather?
Yes, eco leather is real leather. Is is termed eco leather based on the production process and chemicals used to produce it. However, the finished product is a real leather product.
Is Eco Leather Vegan?
No, most eco leather is not vegan. Eco leather production aims to ensure a lower impact to the environment and in some cases more natural chemicals used. However, it still related primarily to the production of leather from animal hides.
In some cases, the production of vegan leather might also be improved to be more environmentally friendly. This could be referred to as eco leather, though commonly, eco leather refers to animal leather produced in a more environmentally friendly way.
How Long Does Eco Leather Last?
Eco leather can last for decades or longer if cared for properly. Since it is a natural leather material, with proper conditioning and maintenance, natural leather lasts for a very long time.
What is Made From Eco Leather?
Eco leather is used to make virtually all kinds of leather goods. These can include bags, handbags, shoes, boots, belts, hats, wallets, personal accessories, briefcases, saddlery, and luggage. Generally anything that can be made from leather can be made from eco leather.
Why Was Eco Leather Developed?
So leather has been around for thousands of years, why develop eco leather? There are a few main driving factors. They are ultimately aimed as sustainability and providing products that customers are happy and comfortable with.
The leather production process can be energy intensive and generate lots of wastes that include chemicals and metals. In order to minimize impact on the environment, and actually make things better over time, environmental factors are one the of leading reasons eco leather is being developed.
When industries across the globe can sustain the manufacture goods more naturally it leads to a cleaner, better environment. This cycle over time is generally much preferred.
Manufacturers and product retailers often aim to provide a product that customers are looking for. As more folks are caring about environmental impact, they are looking for goods manufactured in more environmentally friendly ways.
So, as more information is known about leather production, naturally more efforts are being spent to make it a better, less energy-intensive production process. In turn, retailers can speak to the benefits of their leather, creating a competitive advantage. Their leathers are produced in more environmentally friendly ways, and customers want to support that via their purchase.
Some of this manufacturer attention is driven by a belief in sustainability. Others are driven just by the need to remain commercially viable where they’ll have to produce/sell eco leather just to stay competitive. Either way, it leads to better production processes that are more environmentally friendly, and that customers like.
Benefits of Eco Leather
Eco leather provides a few main benefits for the environment and the consumer.
|Fewer Chemicals||Either through limiting the use of harsh chemicals, or stipulating only the use of natural components in the leather production process|
|More Energy Efficient||Production methods optimized to use less energy in the processing and tanning of leathers|
|Natural Components||Some eco leather production utilizes only natural components. This can include dyes/colorants, vegetable products used for tanning, and vegetable based waxes used for conditioning and finishing|
History of Eco Leather
The history of eco leather begins around 1998 in China. China was working to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO is a global organization that focuses on dealing with trade and the rules of trade between nations. China would ultimately be admitted in 2001, though leading up to this they had to demonstrate world-compliant methods across major industries. One of these included leather.
In preparation, China wanted to help display their intention to be a global leader. In 1998, they officially introduced the concept of the “Genuine Leather Mark Eco-Leather”. Along with it, factoring in global standards, they developed baseline measurements for and limits on the use of some of the chemicals used in leather production. Primarily, these were chromium, formaldehyde, azo dyes, and PCPs.
After global input, refinement of the proposal and criteria, and final establishment of baselines and measures, the final specification for “Genuine Leather Mark Eco-Leather” was published in 2001. So here began the first referenced to eco leather.
Since then, other countries and organizations have developed various standards aimed to measure, promote, and certify eco leather.
Eco Leather Certifications & Standards
There are several organizations across the globe that aim to set standards for eco leather. This helps create a baseline that can be measured against to ensure that something referred to as “eco leather” means generally the same things around the world.
With that in mind, however, these standards for eco leather are set differently across the organizations. Some focus on limiting harsh chemicals and metals, while others focus solely on the use of all natural components.
Thus, it’s important to know what organization has certified the eco leather, to know what type of eco leather you’re buying. Like many environmentally friendly terms, such as “green”, eco leather can be used rather loosely. So, it can be helpful to ask any leather retailer if they can provide information on who certified their eco leather, and what standards it is measured to.
Here are some of the leading certifications for eco leather in a chart. Below it are more details about each organization.
|ICEC||Institute of Quality Certification for the Leather Sector||ICEC was established in 1994 and is based in Milan, Italy. It is the only global certification institute specific to the leather industry.||Website Link|
|OEKO-TEX||OEKO-TEX||OEKO-TEX, founded in 1992, is a union of 18 independent research and test institutes in the field of textile and leather ecology in Europe and Japan with contact offices in more than 60 countries.||Website Link|
|IVN||The International Association of Natural Textiles||IVN is an association of over 100 companies from all stages of leather and textile manufacturing that stand for ecological and socially responsible production. It was founded in 1989.||Website Link|
|Blue Angel||Blue Angel||The Blue Angel is an environmental label organized by the federal government of Germany for the protection of people and the environment.||Website Link|
|LWG Protocol||The Leather Working Group||The group was formed in 2005. It seeks to improve the leather manufacturing industry by creating alignment across organizations.||Website Link|
Institute of Quality Certification for the Leather Sector (ICEC)
ICEC was established in 1994 and is based in Milan, Italy. It is the only global certification institute specific to the leather industry.
ICEC is accredited by ACCREDIA to issue certifications of quality management system (ISO 9001), environmental management system (ISO 14001), EMAS, occupational health and safety management system (OHSAS 18001), leather and leather products (according to UNI standards or manufacturer’s specifications) and origin denomination of leather (EN 16484)
OEKO-TEX, founded in 1992, is a union of 18 independent research and test institutes in the field of textile and leather ecology in Europe and Japan with contact offices in more than 60 countries.
LEATHER STANDARD by OEKO-TEX® is an internationally standardized testing and certification system for leather and leather goods at all production levels, including accessory materials. The certification supports companies along the supply chain with the implementation of high human-ecological product safety. The certification serves as legally binding verification of successful product certification in all business processes in accordance with LEATHER STANDARD.
The International Association of Natural Textiles (IVN)
IVN is an association of over 100 companies from all stages of leather and textile manufacturing that stand for ecological and socially responsible production. It was founded in 1989.
Their quality seals, NATURTEXTIL BEST, Global Organic Textile Standard and NATURLEDER are based on strict and detailed definitions of ecological and social standards.
Blue Angel – The German Ecolabel
The Blue Angel is an environmental label organized by the federal government of Germany for the protection of people and the environment. It sets very exacting standards, is independent and has proven itself over more than 40 years as a guide for selecting environmentally-friendly products (started in 1978).
The Leather Working Group (LWG Protocol)
The group was formed in 2005. It seeks to improve the leather manufacturing industry by creating alignment on environmental priorities, bringing visibility to best practices, and providing suggested guidelines for continual improvement.
Factors Measured in Eco Leather Production
The eco leather production process is a relatively complex series of steps that involves significant amounts of elements, energy, and water. Each step can be controlled such that the amount of the inputs and wastes can be optimized. This can help reduce the overall amount of materials and energy used in producing leather. It also can help reduce the amount of wastes that are generated, and downstream impacts to the environment.
One of the international organizations leading the way in measuring production factors is the Leather Working Group. They are a United Kingdom based organization. They work 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.
Click here to view details about their current measurement standards. Below, we’ll dive into some of the more common items measured and evaluated.
Leather Production Chemicals & Metals
Leather production can include the use of various chemicals and metals during the tanning process. Commonly, these are:
- Chromium VI
- APEO (Alkyl pehnol ethoxylate)
- Chlorinated Fungicides (PCP, TeCP, TCP)
It is important to be very aware of how much of each is used during each step of leather production. Limiting these to certified standards helps lessen the impact on the environment. Producing leathers that are more eco friendly also allows for more sustainable production practices for years to come.
In an eco leather aware production process, this area covers how much energy is used to produce each tanned hide, during each each step of the tanning process. This is complex as each tannery operates differently, with different overhead, machinery, and ways of working. According to the Leather Working Group Audit Report, energy consumption:
“…assesses the energy usage per unit area for the specific type of production that is manufactured. It gives energy rewards for renewable energy generated on-site and energy tables and target metrics for the facility to achieve different medal ratings.”
– Leather Working Group Audit Report
The areas of energy use measured include:
- Natural Gas
- Fuel Oil
The overall aim of measurement is to evaluate if there are areas where energy can and should be saved. This helps ensure that as leather is produced, it has fewer impacts on the environment. Generally, a score is given based on the total energy used for a hide that has gone from a raw to a tanned state. The lower the score, the more efficient use of energy.
In an eco leather aware production process, this area covers how much water is used to produce each tanned hide, through each step of the tanning process. Water is a huge component of leather tanning. And while water can be considered a generally inexpensive resource, when used in large volume it’s sourcing and impacts must be considered.
According to the Leather Working Group, the evaluation:
“…assesses the fresh water usage, per unit area, for the specific type of production that is manufactured. It gives rewards for water that is recycled and usage tables and target metrics for the facility to achieve different medal ratings.”
– Leather Working Group
This looks at the end-to-end use of water, from where it is sources to how it is disposed of or recycled. Since many chemicals and metals are introduced into water during the tanning process, it’s important to keep track of where everything goes. Generally, a score is given based on the total water used for a hide that has gone from a raw to a tanned state. The lower the score, the more efficient use of water.
These are the main sources for water used in leather production:
- Municipal Water Systems
- Other Various Sources
Air and Noise Emissions
In an eco leather aware production process, this area covers how much noise pollution is generated, along with how many emissions are released into the air, through each step of the tanning process.
According to the Leather Working Group, the evaluation:
“…assesses the management of a facility’s air and noise emissions to the environment and requires inventories, management and monitoring.”
– Leather Working Group
The main areas measured include:
- Particulates Boilers
- NOx Boilers
- SO2 Boilers
- Particulates Spray Machines
- VOC Spray Machines
- Other Noises and Emissions
Being aware of the levels of each, tanners are able to improve processes over time to reduce the overall impact to the environment.
In an eco leather aware production process, this is one of the largest, and most impactful areas of leather tanning that can improve on impact to the environment. It deals with al of the solid wastes generated during the production of leather. These include not only raw material wastes such as scraps and trimmings from the natural hide. They also include all of the associated wastes of operating a business, those produced by workers, and all associated efforts.
Each step of the leather production process produces waste. When measuring all of these elements, the Leather Working Group advises that one:
“…assesses a facility’s management and control of the solid wastes generated by the site and requires inventories, categorisation of wastes and appropriate storage and disposal.”
– Leather Working Group
The main wastes generated and tracked include:
- WWTP Sludge with Chrome
- WWTP Sludge without Chrome
- Chrome Sludge Waste
- Hide Trimmings
- Lime Fleshings
- Green Trimmings
- Excess Salt
- Lime Splits
- Tanned Split Waste
- Tanned Shavings
- Tanned Trimmings
- Finished Leather
- Buffing Dust
- Solvent Containing Waste
- Waste Aqueous Finish
- Contaminated Packaging
- Waste Chemicals
- Activated Carbon Wastes
- Empty Containers
- Food waste
- Employee/General/Office Waste
- Batteries/Lights/Ink Cartridges
While tracking all of these items might seem like a very laborious task, over time it becomes easier and really helps efforts to improve impacts on the environment. This is who eco leather as a concept, and production practice is really important.
In an eco leather aware production process, along with chemical and solid wastes, a tremendous amount of water wastes are generated during leather production. Some of these are often filled with chemicals and metals. Rather than dumping this water just anywhere, tanneries are encouraged to clean and refine it as much as possible. When waste water is dumped, it is encouraged that it be done in alignment with measured regulations.
“…assesses a facility’s management of their liquid wastes, either at their own site or at a third-party provider. It requires legal discharge of the waste water and provides higher scores for those that achieve target levels of water quality using a range of appropriate metrics.”
– Leather Working Group
Waste water might include:
- Suspended Solids
- Oil & Grease
- Total Chromium
- Chromium VI
- Ammonia (nitrogen)
- Synthetic Detergents
- Prohibited Contaminants
It is important that the amount of these found in waste water is reduced. In situations where reduction or elimination might not be fully possible, responsible processing and disposal is key.
Eco Leather Care and Maintenance
It is important to properly clean and maintain all leather goods. Since they are natural fibers, keeping the surfaces clean and restoring/conditioning them with oils will help them stay strong and looking great.
One thing to keep in mind: for any step in leather care, generally test on a small area to ensure the cleaner or finish that you are applying will not react poorly with the material. Once you know it’s safe, clean away 🙂
How to Clean Eco Leather
Eco leather can be cleaned generally by rubbing a moist, lint-free cloth over the surface. If the dirt is deeper, it has difficult stains, or you want to thoroughly clean the leather, a dedicated leather cleaner might be a helpful choice.
Saddle soap is a popular choice. It is intended for saddlery and similar leathers that are vegetable tanned. Working it in with a soft cleaning brush can also help, just be sure the bristles are very soft and intended for leather cleaning.
Lexol is another leather cleaner that is formulated to be very gentle on leather while removing dirt and grime.
How to Condition Eco Leather
The ability to condition eco leather with depend primarily on if it has a finish applied. A hard, protective finish might seal in the leather, not really allowing for direct conditioning. For eco leather that is unfinished, conditioning is certainly an option.
Generally, this involves applying a wax, oil, or cream onto the surface and letting the leather absorb it in. When conditioned, the leather is more supple, flexible, resistant to scratches, and feels better in the hand.
Once the surface has been thoroughly cleaned, the conditioner can be applied using an applicator or soft cloth. Conditioner is generally applied in small circles, allowed to soak in, then the excess wiped off with a clean, lint-free cloth.
A protective finish can be applied at this stage, if preferred. The benefit is it will help the leather be a bit more water and scratch resistant. The potential downside is that it will introduce a layer on the leather surface that hides some of the desirable look and feel of the natural leather grain. Protective finishes are usually natural waxes or synthetic waxes/acrylics such as resolene.
How to Store Eco Leather
Eco leather should be stored in a cool, dry, dust-free location. Generally, leather products benefit from low-average humidity environments. Air flow is also beneficial, as it allows the natural fibers of the leather to “breathe”.
If kept in a sealed environment, the humidity might rise and the leather start to deteriorate, and mold. In an environment with too-low humidity, the leather can start to dry and that could lead to cracking and weakening of the fibers.
A good place to store buffalo leather (bison leather) is a dressing room or closet that has an average livable temperature, humidity level, and frequent airflow. Some leather goods come with storage bags. They’re usually a breathable fabric that helps keep cut off. Storing it in one of these can be a great choice if available.
When considering buying a new leather for leather working, or as a finished leather good, it would be great to see if it’s an eco leather. Supporting this type of leather production also supports an overall more environmentally friendly leather industry.
What is eco friendly leather?
Eco friendly leather is leather produced from an environmentally friendly production process. Eco leather aims to reduce the amount of chemicals and energy used, while reducing overall wastes generated. Some eco leather uses only natural products.
Is eco leather faux leather?
Eco leather is not faux leather. Eco leather is produced in a “green” way, however, it generally refers to leather produced from animal hides. Some faux leather might be produced in “green” ways, though eco leather usually refers to animal leather.
Cick here to learn more about faux leather in an article I wrote.