Nothing speaks luxury like butter-soft leather. It's durable, breathable, easy to clean, and it looks and feels sooo good. Plus it's a natural material, so that means it's green, right?
Well... it's complicated. When evaluating a product's sustainability, you have to consider how it's processed as well as how it's produced. And when it comes to leather, there's a lot to consider. On the one hand, it's a natural resource - and even better, it's a natural by-product of another industry that's never going to go away: food. So in an idealistic sense, it's smart to use leather, to minimize waste by utilizing every part of the noble beast that was slaughtered. A point for leather! On the other hand, cattle farming uses a tremendous amount of resources. Minus one point!
And then there's the processing. Collin Dunn and Blaire Stephens have written excellent articles for Treehugger and Ezine - follow those links for some great information. In short, the tanning process gives environmentalists headaches. There are two basic methods: modern chemical tanning, and old-fashioned vegetable tanning. Chemical tanning is super fast (often only one day), and it's currently the only way to get the ultra-soft leather that we love for gloves, sofa cushions, and those ruched handbags everyone bought last year. But it uses nearly 130 different chemicals, including pentachorophenol (carcinogenic), formaldehyde, (yep) and chromium (a heavy metal that can become toxic - see Erin Brokovich). Wikipedia actually has a fantastic bit on the environmental effects of chemical tanning - you'll find that modern, effecient pollution-abatement systems are successful in reducing the process from being super-insanely toxic to being, well, toxic. You can't help but feel sorry for leather workers in India.
Vegetable tanning, in comparison, is a great example of old-fashioned techniques being inherently green compared to industrialized methods, a phenomenon I mentioned in my last post. In this process, hides are treated with natural tannins found in tree bark. It takes several weeks, however, so it's obviously less popular with many manufacturers. From an interior designer's standpoint, vegetable-tanned leather often isn't as soft as chemically-tanned stuff, but there are still plenty of uses for it. And who wants to snuggle in a sofa full of carcinogenic chemicals?
It's up to you to form your own opinions about leather. Personally, I think that leather is a valuable natural resource to be used judiciously. I try to avoid chemically-tanned leather at all costs, and look for ways to get maximum value out of the vegetable-tanned leather I do use. Also, since leather is so durable, and often gets better with age, recycled leather is truly a viable option.
Edelman Leather is currently my favorite supplier. Their website doesn't do their products justice - be sure to visit one of their stunning showrooms if at all possible. They carry several luxurious vegetable-tanned products, some of which have eye-catching patterns embossed into them. Q Collection also offers a good-looking array of vegetable-tanned leather, though I haven't personally felt a sample yet. It'll be available in San Francisco at the Sloan Miyasato showroom in a couple months. And Organic Leather sells eco-friendly leather wholesale. For recycled leather, check out EcoDomo's leather floor and wall tiles, a vintage belt floor-mat offered by Branch, and cool folding containers from Ply.