Leather is one of the strongest and most durable natural materials for apparel: soft, flexible and extremely versatile. It’s perfect for all kinds of items and accessories such as coats, belts, bags and shoes.
If on one hand, leather can contribute to the planet-friendly “reduce, reuse, recycle” philosophy, on the other hand, its manufacturing exacts a high environmental impact. The chemical substances used in manufacturing processes to conserve it, along with dyes and other strongly toxic agents like chrome, may in fact contaminate soil, fields, rivers and eventually groundwater. These effects on the environment are not trivial: the production of leather may have very negative health consequences for employees of tanneries, not to mention the communities where these factories are located. Pollutants end up contaminating both the land and the crops, thus entering the food chain. This has been the case in manufacturing countries like India, China or in South America.
In the past years, a study by the Indian Institute of Toxicology has measured how, due to poisonous substances such as chrome, Indian workers are at least twice as likely to contract illnesses and infections. Many of them work in tanks where the leather is dyed and treated without protective boots or gloves. This type of industry produces tons of scraps and uses billions of litres of water, as well as an enormous quantity of energy every year. A piercingly strong smell, coloured foam and water pour into the factories’ drainage systems and the colour of the surrounding vegetation turns from green to yellow to brown or even black. This makes it quite easy to imagine what effects those same substances may have on the human body in cases of prolonged usage and in conditions which disregard the necessary safety parameters.
Some clothing brands have decided not to purchase leather from non-certified manufacturers anymore. Amongst these, with a long history of ties to the leather industry, Timberland heads the list. It was 1973 in the small town of New Market in New Hampshire, when Sidney Swartz, his father and brother made the perfect boot for leisure time and work: resistant, completely waterproof and durable. It was made from leather in the family’s factory, which had been founded by his father in 1952. That boot was named “Timberland” – later Yellow Boot – and has remained almost unchanged since 1978. It was the Timberland Company’s very first success.
Years later, in 2005, Timberland and other brands created the Leather Working Group (LWG), an organisation that develops environmental protocols for leather manufacturers and related supplies. The LWG certification is conferred on tanneries which demonstrably follow best practice and obtain top levels of environmental performance throughout their production chain, including chemical and organic waste disposal, atmospheric emissions and energy use. Another important element is traceability of material origins. The highest certification awards are Silver and Gold. Environmental audits are undertaken approximately every 18 months and generally produce a reduction of energy consumption of 15-20% between the first and subsequent audits. There are currently about 350 certified manufacturers who, thanks to LWG’s work, together save about 12 billion litres of water and 775 megawatts of energy every year.
Everything began with leather, but the research on materials has never halted. In 1995, Active Comfort Technology (ACT) was introduced as part of a product refresh. In 2007, the focus shifted to the production of a shoe that would respect the planet as much as possible, the Earthkeepers Boot. Earthkeepers are made with 50% PET recycled material, used for the lining and laces, 34% recycled rubber for the soles, plus leather from tanneries compliant with quality and sustainability standards.
Since 2008, Timberland – which creates its products in over 300 factories in 30 countries thanks to the work of about 250,000 artisans – publicly adopted the policy of using only leather from tanneries with top LWG certifications for its footwear. Since 2015, this has been extended to leather supplies for apparel and accessories. In 2017, 93.1% of skins for such products were sourced from sustainable tanneries (Silver or Gold certification), and 98.8% for footwear. The goal is to reach 100% by 2020. To establish and measure sustainability goals, Timberland has also set up a Green Index, which provides information on some of its products’ most critical environmental performance indicators. The results are available to the manufacturer, but most importantly, also for the consumer. The perfect recipe for sustainability? Brand awareness and an equally conscious consumer who knows the role their choices play in the safeguarding of our planet.