The Low-Down on Leather

When you think about eco-friendly materials, leather probably isn’t topping the list … and as an organization committed to reducing our environmental footprint and serving the needs of our consumers, leather presents a real challenge.  We get asked, “why leather?” often enough that we asked the question of our materials and supply chain experts, who had this to share:

Leather is a by-product of the food industry (meaning that cattle are a source of meat, first and foremost – leather is a secondary use).  So when we talk about the environmental impact associated with leather, we’re primarily talking about the tanning process (tanning is the process of preserving the leather so that it doesn’t break down over time).  Tanning is a necessary but resource-intensive process, and that makes leather the most environmentally-impactful material we use. Using a less durable material could mean less short-term environmental impact, but it could also mean that our products would need to be replaced more often, which poses additional environmental problems.

The durability of our footwear is due in large part to the quality leather we source and at present, there is no acceptable synthetic substitute for that quality leather.  We do make some shoes out of non-leather materials and there are high-performance synthetics available, but none currently that mimic the look, feel and durability of genuine leather well enough to satisfy many of our consumers.

Within the leather challenge, we do see opportunity: although no one tanning process is superior overall in reducing the environmental footprint of leather, we work closely with the tanneries we use to encourage sound management and continuous improvement in environmental performance, and several years ago helped to convene a cross-brand, cross-tanner working group (the Leather Working Group) to create a common, streamlined environmental assessment for tanneries for energy use, water quality and reduced waste.  The working group rates tanneries as non-compliant, compliant, Bronze, Silver or Gold; 98% of the leather that Timberland currently uses for our footwear (not including apparel and accessories) is from Silver or Gold-rated tanneries.

We believe that by engaging with like-minded companies and helping to influence improvements in the way it is processed, we can help create real, positive change in the leather industry.

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    This is enlightening. I haven’t really thought that leather is a non-biodegradable product. As mentioned, the tanning process is what makes it not break down easily. BUT leather is something that you use for a long time that in a way in itself is alright since you don’t acquire leather and then throw it away immediately. That in itself is reducing the carbon footprint. Although it is much more better if a method can be devised that will make leather long lasting but easily degradable so as not to harm the environment.

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