Our stance on leather and the environment
At BAS, we’re passionate about creating beautiful and functional interiors, furniture and products that will stand the test of time. We’re also proud to hold our practices and those of our partner tanneries and suppliers to the industry’s highest ethical and sustainability standards.
The following provides an overview of our position on the ethical and sustainability considerations we feel should be addressed when choosing to work with leather.
Leather is a by-product of the meat industry
In today’s cultural landscape, people rarely associate animal products with sustainable practices. Consider for a moment though, that all bovine leathers globally are a direct result of the meat industry, and are therefore classified as a non-determining co-product. The same goes for all sheep, pig and goat leathers.
Due to increased meat consumption, supply of animal hides is currently outstripping demand. The choice we are faced with is to use the hides from animals that are raised and killed for their meat, or allow these materials to be burned or sent to landfill.
The value of a hide when leaving an abattoir is negligible (around 3-3.5% of the animal’s monetary value, compared to 93% for meat). The added-value that creates and results in leather as we know it, comes from the skills and techniques used by the tanning industry.
A similar arithmetic can be carried through when considering the carbon footprint of the animal hide used in the leather manufacturing process. Taking cattle as an example, a 2012 EU study found that 88% of a cow’s CO2 was linked to production of milk and 12% to meat. Of this meat, 3.5% was related to the hide, meaning that 0.42% of the environmental impact of CO2 from cattle farming could be attributed to leather*.
*Exact figures on greenhouse gas emissions of various livestock rearing practices vary considerably. As such, the figure of 0.42% is a generalisation but acts to illustrate the point. The carbon footprint of the leather manufacturing process is tiny compared to that which is attributed to livestock rearing.
The value of craftsmanship and provenance is key to our business, so when purchasing materials (both leather and non-leather), we respect the materials that come through our workshops, and look to extract the maximum value possible from them.
In practical terms, this helps us cut down on waste, reduce the environmental impact of our production processes, and to focus our attention on creating products that celebrate function and natural beauty, in place of superfluous design.
Our aim is to create work that lasts and adds value to people’s lives. All our interiors and furniture projects are issued with maintenance instructions and recommendations for keeping the materials looking their best. Wherever possible, we also try to repair and mend products, furniture and bags for customers as required, so our leatherwork can continue to be enjoyed for many more years to come.
Any leather or off-cuts that cannot be re-used, repaired, or upcycled in-house, we offer free to students, artists or trainee leatherworkers for use in their projects or practices. Non-leather waste is recycled, with the minimum possible sent to landfill.
Alternatives to leather
Common alternatives to leather, such as plastics or synthetics from fossil fuel origin (including ‘faux leather’, ‘leatherette’, or ‘faux suede’) are less hardwearing, far harder to repair, and in our opinion, considerably less beautiful. These materials are often characterised by a short working life and hundreds of years in landfill; to say nothing of the environmental impact of their production.
While some plastics will remain vital to modern human existence, we feel strongly that they should be treated as a precious and limited resource; rather than being used to mimic a material that is vastly superior, and a by-product of the food industry.
Animal rights and ethical considerations
Leather manufacturers have always been interested in the husbandry and welfare of animals. The reasoning for this is simple; the better the animal’s welfare, the better the leather, and the higher price it will fetch at market.
This historic involvement with farming communities has helped facilitate improvements in animal welfare, such as the eradication of the European warble fly in the mid 20th Century – largely at the instigation of leather manufacturers. Today, the lack of weevil marks and scars on a hide still act as evidence of the quality of the skin.
Modern abattoirs across the West are stringently audited and regulated by law to ensure good standards of sanitation and hygiene, the prevention of the spread of disease and the minimization of needless animal cruelty. The select tanneries that we work with have long-standing relationships with their farmers and local meat slaughterhouses, which process animals with care; stunning and killing them in as fast and painless a manner as possible.
The environmental impact of tanning
Leather production has been around for more than four thousand years, and it’s widely acknowledged that many of the processes and chemicals used (particularly from the start of the 20th century), would not be categorised as sustainable – or even safe – today.
From the 1970s onwards, much leather production moved to less developed countries, where new factories were built on greenfield sites. This pressurised leather manufacturers in the old economies to innovate to survive. Old plants closed, and the leather manufacturers who remained in the west rebuilt or updated their facilities to work to the highest standards; including environmental, chemical and waste water treatment.
Today, the chemicals and salts used in the leather industry are highly regulated, and are safe when handled properly and in a controlled environment. This is no different from the use of chemicals in the cosmetics, household goods, or food industries, for instance.
No untreated effluent water or chemicals from any type of industry should be allowed to reach the land or water channels, where they would cause significant damage.
It is broadly acknowledged that some areas of the leather industry producing from unregulated plants often in developing nations, remain unacceptable. It would be in the interest of the industry for such plants to be forced to adapt or to cease operations. However, in the absence of policy regulation in some markets, it falls to business to report and otherwise pressurise offending suppliers to adapt or to die.
As a studio, we are proud to work with only the finest quality leathers from a select number of well-established and trusted suppliers and tanneries. They comply with the strictest environmental standards and regulations, embrace transparency and share similar ethical standards to ourselves.
As Mike Redwood states in his 2018 White Paper (link below), sustainability in the leather industry must not be seen as an end goal or destination, but as an ongoing process of learning and improving, albeit with baseline standards achieved.
We believe it’s vital that those working in the leather industry – from craftspeople to tanneries, and everyone in-between – embrace transparent practices and hold themselves and their suppliers accountable. These principles guide our work today, just as they did when Bill started the company some 30 years ago.
There’s a wealth of information available on sustainability in the industry, and we’re always keen to hear of the latest research, to broaden our knowledge. Please get in touch if you’d like to share some findings, or if you have questions about any of the issues raised above.
For further reading, we recommend the following white papers and resources:
Leather Naturally. A White Paper on the sustainability of responsibly made leather
The Shoe Consultant. A short overview of the sustainability of leather
Leather Sustainability. A blog by leather industry consultants, BLC