NATIONAL REPORT—“Green leather.” An oxymoron? Or, a viable option for designers interested in specifying environmentally friendly materials? The more one digs into the history of leather and its processing, the more one can be alarmed by its environmental impact—from the growing of grain, to the slaughter of animals, to the processing of hides. Yet, in recent years many leather suppliers have done a better job offering lines of leather that have less environmental impact than ones traditionally sold. That is good news for designers interested in using leather for furniture, walls, floors and other design aspects of a hotel or resort.
What makes leather sustainable is its longevity and the fact that it is a byproduct of the meat industry. If not used for shoes, furniture, automobiles and other items, hides would be sent to a landfill. What can make leather an immediate danger to the environment, however, is how it is tanned. Tanning is typically a chemical-intensive process. The most commonly used tanning material is chromium, which leaves the leather, once tanned, a pale blue color; this product is commonly called “wet blue.” The problem with chromium is that it can cause serious health problems through the air or if released into the water supply—a common event in countries where environmental regulations are lax.
Increasingly, leather manufacturers are using natural alternatives to chromium that have minimal environmental impact. Greensboro, N.C.-based Green Hides, for example, uses natural vegetable tanning recipes combined with water-based materials (no solvents) in the production of its EcoLife leathers. Further measures are taken by using fresh hides sealed in refrigerated containers that arrive weekly to its tannery in order to avoid using salt to treat the hides for storage.
Keith Hill, vice president of Green Hides, says his company’s leathers are sourced from southern Germany and processed in northern Italy at a solar-powered manufacturing facility. Green Hides partnered with Pausubio of Italy to create the EcoLife line that is now available in 27 colors. While not all of the leather sold by Green Hides meets the high standard of EcoLife, Hill says his company’s other lines are also made using low-emission procedures with 35 percent of tanning materials recycled. In line with its waste-minimization philosophy, Green Hides also sells leather scraps that otherwise would go to a landfill to companies that make leather bags and accessories.
When asked what three things designers should consider when weighing the environmental impact of leather, Hills says, “Where the hides are from, where they are tanned and finished, and what kind of environmental standards exist.”
All of the leathers sold by New York-based Cortina Leathers, Inc. are processed with dyes, pigments and topcoats that are water based rather than petroleum based. Cortina Leathers offers Ecco-La, a chrome-free upholstery leather. According to Meryl Siegman, owner and president of the company, Ecco-La leather is processed in Italy where there are strict environmental regulations.
“Over the last 10 years, our tanneries have been looking at different agents to preserve leather,” Siegman says. “They found a white mineral called gluteraldehyde.” She adds that Ecco-La is more expensive to make because tanners have to use separate equipment and hides must come from freshly killed cattle.
Siegman says that in general leather is a renewable resource that requires no toxic chemicals to clean, is very low maintenance, mold resistant, and flame proof.
More Suppliers From Which to Choose
Dallas-based American Leather, a member of the Sustainable Furniture Council, also offers chrome-free leathers for furniture incorporating leather. The company uses water-based solvents and pigments.
At Coast to Coast Leather & Vinyl, Inc., Sayreville, N.J., two different green leather lines are offered: ECO and ECO Earth. ECO is processed using “True Wet White” tanning, which is absent of heavy metals. The ECO line is available in 16 colors and five different finishes. ECO Earth is made using leather scraps left over from upholstery manufacturing. ECO Earth has a 100 percent recycled leather backing, woven polyester center, and 100 percent polyurethane topcoat.
New Milford, Conn.-based Edelman Leather, LLC’s line of leather consists of 750 color ways and more than 70 different types, all of which are GREENGUARD indoor air quality certified. Keleen Leathers, Westchester, Ill., offers chrome-free collections.
The IZIT Leather production facility for Rockford, Ill.-based Willow Tex, Inc., has ISO-14001 certification and has achieved the company target of zero industrial emissions. In accordance with the ISO-14001 green procurement policy, none of Willow Tex’s materials contain PVC, heavy metals, formaldehyde, nitric acid cellulose, organic substances that continue to contaminate the environment, or any other materials that cause concern regarding the potential toxicity after use.
No Government Standard for ‘Green’
While organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency can regulate plants that process leather, Cortina Leathers’ Siegman says there is no government standard for what is “green” leather. “To our knowledge there is no certification,” adds Green Hides’ Hill. Still, there are different green certification organizations that vendors sometimes mention in relationship to their manufacturing processes or products. GREENGUARD, mentioned earlier, involves the degree to which products off-gas harmful emissions. ISO-14001 certification ensures that a company has an environmental management system in place. The European environmental normative CE2000/53 is sometimes mentioned. It concerns the disposal of waste. The OEKO-TEX Standard 100 is a testing and certification system for textile raw materials and is also sometimes cited.
Glenn Hasek can be reached at email@example.com.