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Recycled Leather 101: Is It Really Sustainable?

Last Updated: May 3, 2022

Leather has had our back and kept it warm for quite a while. Linen and cotton have almost always been mainstays for summer, but leather has been a reliable winter fabric for centuries almost regardless of location. 

Today though, we’ve grown into an understanding that other species deserve dignity too, and that commercial leather farming isn’t the best for the planet. 

That means vegan leather is on the rise, but it does have its own problems. The vast majority of it is made of plastic, so it can sometimes feel like you’re made to choose between environmental and animal welfare. But if you could get natural leather that didn’t contribute to the killing of more animals, wouldn’t that be the best of both worlds? 

If you’re asking that question, you’re not alone. Many have espoused the benefits of recycled leather as the solution that is friendly to the environment and the animals in it, but how true is this really and how do you know what you’re getting? You’ll find all those answers in this guide to recycled leather below, so keep reading to learn more.

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What Is Recycled Leather?

We know what you’re thinking, it’s just old leather made into new stuff, right? Well yes, but there are a few distinctions we need to make clear.

The activity of taking a finished product and using its materials for something else is more closely identified as upcycling or repurposing since you don’t actually have to work with any raw materials.

Recycling, on the other hand, refers to taking a finished product, getting it as close as possible back to its raw form, and then reprocessing it into the same or a similar product

This seems rather arbitrary, but it’s an important distinction to make when you’re talking about sustainability. 

Taking apart an old leather couch and sewing the fabric into a jacket is upcycling and requires no new materials. Making a jacket out of recycled leather requires complex processing and a few different (possibly new) materials, all of which factor into the carbon footprint of the final product.

How Is Leather Recycled?

Now that we’re on the same page with what recycled leather is, we’re going to go through how old is made new again.

You can’t reverse the tan on hides, but you can achieve a pretty uniform color and texture from composite leather fabric. This can vary slightly by manufacturer, but generally speaking, there are certain steps leather has to go through in order to be recycled.

First, of course, is the sourcing of the fabric, which is generally done by working directly with manufacturers and buying their offcuts, which are the scraps of fabric leftover from pattern cutting.

After enough is gathered, it’s usually processed through a millstone in order to achieve an even texture, treated with resin, and glued together to make new fabric.

Is Recycled Leather Sustainable?

Technically, yes. But this is highly dependent on exactly where it comes from. Two of the main factors that affect the carbon footprint of recycled leather are the source and the blend, which we talk about below.

The Source

Recycled material is great, but where manufacturers source their offcuts can be an ethical issue, particularly if you don’t want to support the meat industry.

It is true that sourcing leather as a byproduct of the meat industry can cut down on the number of animals that need to be killed for both products. However, even this can present a problem. 

If the offcuts making up recycled leather are sourced directly from leather or beef production, your money is still going into their pocket since those offcuts are hardly donated. 

The Blend

Natural materials are a wonderful thing, but they can be cost-prohibitive. That’s why when we can’t afford gold jewelry, we settle for gold plating on a less expensive metal. There’s nothing wrong with that unless somebody starts advertising gold-plated nickel as the pure stuff, which is where recycled leather companies can get sneaky.

Most often when you find recycled leather fabrics, they’re lined or backed with polyurethane. Always be sure to check the label for backing and lining fabric.

How Can I Tell If It’s Recycled Leather?

The best way to figure out exactly what you’re getting with recycled leather is to find out where a fashion retailer gets their fabrics and what certification processes they go through to make sure you’re getting the real deal. 

Here are some of the most common advertising terms and certifications you’re likely to see:

  1. Post-Consumer Recycled

This isn’t necessarily a certification, but it’s a claim you’re most likely to see. It’s concerned mostly with the sourcing issue that we mentioned earlier.

As opposed to pre-consumer recycled material, which is sourced directly from the materials manufacturers choose not to use, post-consumer recycled material is the stuff that’s gathered up after it’s been used. 

For example, offcuts from a manufacturer of leather gloves would be considered pre-consumer recycled since no one has actually bought and used it other than the recycling company. A leather jacket that has been bought, used for 10 years, and then recycled would be considered post-consumer recycled.

Again this isn’t the certification, but the Federal Trade Commission requires that claims about recycled material be true. There can be some ambiguity with phrases like “made with recycled material” that don’t specify a percentage, but 100% recycled material claims and post-consumer recycled claims are regulated.

  1. RCS and GRS Certified

RCS (Recycled Claims Standard) and GRS (Global Recycled Standard) are two of the main, voluntary standards that you’ll see which guarantee that you’re getting a recycled item, but it doesn’t necessarily mean your product is made of 100% recycled material. 

GRS certifications are more advanced than RCS, and only apply to fabrics that have more than 50% recycled fibers, so you know you’re item contains at least half of recycled material.

Since these standards are voluntary, you can still find recycled leather products without the certifications, it just might be harder to verify the claims.

Bottom Line

You might have been told that you need to give up all leather products if you want to live a sustainable lifestyle, but luckily this isn’t true.

There’s plenty of recycled leather products out there for you to choose from, and those claims about recycling are actually regulated. Even if the leather you’re looking at doesn’t have a third-party certification, claims about recycled material are generally required to be true.

Just make sure you look into the specifics of every material that goes into your garment, including linings and thread and you should be okay.

Also, don’t forget that upcycled and vintage pieces are even better options since they don’t have to be reprocessed!


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