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If Apple is serious about the environment, it needs to ditch leather

Iphone 13 Mini Magsafe Case Sequoia Green Open
Iphone 13 Mini Magsafe Case Sequoia Green Open (Image credit: Joe Wituschek / iMore)

Iphone 13 Environment

Iphone 13 Environment (Image credit: Apple)

Apple is well-known for its lofty environmental goals and wanting to leave the world better than they found it. The company is often praised for its use of renewable energy in its stores, corporate offices, and data centers, as well as its focus on closing the loop when it comes to material used to manufacture its products.

There's no denying that Apple is a leader in this space. The company pays special attention to the environment and its efforts to minimize the environmental impact of its products every time it unveils a new device, something other brands should copy.

Take the recently-released iPhone 13 lineup, for example. The new devices are undoubtedly the best iPhone models ever when it comes to the environment. Apple has ditched plastic from their packaging completely, avoiding the use of 600 metric tons of plastic, and now use 100% recycled tin for the solder of the main logic board and battery management unit plus 100% recycled rare earth elements in magnets like those used for MagSafe.

It's also laudable how Apple is dragging along its suppliers, with 110 of Apple's partners now committing to use 100% clean energy as Apple continues to clamp down on emissions throughout its supply chain.

One aspect of Apple's product lineup no one appears to be looking at, though, is the use of leather. Environmentally, leather is extremely damaging, and it's surprising to me that Apple has not pursued more eco-friendly alternatives.

Apple's leather lineup

Magsafe Wallet

Magsafe Wallet (Image credit: Stephen Warwick / iMore)

Apple has a long history with leather, having made a variety of accessories. Right now, in Apple's product lineup, it has several leather items, including iPhone cases, folios, and sleeves, Apple Watch bands, iPad Smart Covers, MacBook sleeves, MagSafe wallets, and AirTag key rings.

These are all supplementary to its hero products, but they are often sold as add-ons when picking up a new phone or tablet. A good case is usually the first accessory purchase a customer will make to protect or personalize their device, so it makes sense to up-sell your own at the point of purchase. Apple even went into great detail when the Apple Watch first launched about the leather it used for the initial roster of bands.

Of course, it's nigh on impossible to discern what proportion of Apple's $8.8 billion in 'Wearables, Home and Accessories' revenue last quarter were these types of accessories. That whole category made up only 11% of Apple's quarterly revenue for Q3, with iPhone accounting for almost half the revenue, so it's comparatively small fry. But, when we're talking Apple-sized numbers, even a slice of its business can have a considerable effect.

Leather and the environment

Ultimately, leather as a material is at odds with Apple's stated goal of achieving net carbon neutrality by 2030. Raising animals for leather requires a tremendous amount of food production, grazing land, water, and fossil fuels. Animal agriculture also produces methane and nitrous oxide emissions, both of which are leading contributors to climate change.

Contrary to popular belief, leather is not a by-product of the meat industry. As a profitable business in its own right, it is at least a co-product meaning the impact of raising animals for their skin should not be left out of the conversation with some animals being raised for their skin specifically. Turning cowhide into a usable material requires a lot of energy and potentially hazardous chemicals, too.

Leather as a material is at odds with Apple's environmental goals.

According to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, who developed the respected Higg Materials Sustainability Index, cow skin is the third most environmentally impactful fashion material so it's a wonder why Apple hasn't sought alternatives for its products. Apple did not reply to a request for comment on its use of leather and potential plans to replace it with alternative materials.

ECCO, the only leather manufacturer named on Apple's supplier list, has joined the company's Supplier Clean Energy Program (opens in new tab), though it did not respond to request for comment as to what parts of its leather production were covered by the commitment to use 100% renewable energy, i.e., just the cutting and tanning process or the animal's lifespan, too.

Apple does not tend to name other leather manufacturers or tanneries outside of its Hermès Apple Watch band lineup, instead using phrasing like "specially tanned and finished European leather," so it's difficult to assess how much of its leather for accessories is provided by ECCO or other suppliers.

Regardless, leather is one area of Apple's supply chain where the company seems oblivious, at least from the outside, to a material's impact on the environment.

Supply and demand

As with most things in life, it comes down to supply and demand. Apple is less incentivized to change something that people continue to buy, so it's on the consumer to vote with their wallet. If you care about the environment, I'd argue that you need to ditch leather. If enough people do, alternatives will follow.

Apple is far from the only company making leather cases for iPhone, but I'd argue that Apple's pro-environment stance is undermined in part by its continued use of the material.

If Apple released a case of the same quality made from plant-based leather, I'd buy it in an instant. Until then, I'll continue to buy from brands that make more sustainable alternatives.

Would you like to see Apple ditch leather, or are you happy with the current crop of Apple accessories? Let me know in the comments.

Adam Oram is a Senior Writer at iMore. He studied Media at Newcastle University and has been writing about technology since 2013. He previously worked as an Apple Genius and as a Deals Editor at Thrifter. His spare time is spent watching football (both kinds), playing Pokémon games, and eating vegan food. Follow him on Twitter at @adamoram.

8 Comments
  • This is laughable. Apple is one of the worst companies for right to repair, so this environmental push is just for show. It also saves them a bucket tonne of money by not using excess packaging and smaller boxes without chargers. But what grinds me most is you pushing your world view on to others. If you don’t like leather and it’s impacts on the environment, vote with your wallet and buy a non-leather case. God knows there are countless non-leather options for you. But why are you trying to ruin it for those who do like leather? Why do you have to try to impose your worldview on others by lobbying Apple to charge to a non-leather alternative, which we all know is a poor imitation? Let those who like leather enjoy their leather. You do you, we’ll do us.
  • To be fair, this IS an opinion piece. However, too many people sincerely think that what THEY believe is what everyone should believe. Or at least, they (insincerely) spout the above drivel publicly in order to APPEAR to be “on the correct side”. To them all I say, “Lighten Up, Francis”. Please allow me - and everyone else - to have my own thoughts and opinions. After all, this is a tech site. A place for all Apple users. I don’t come here to be lectured to about the “evils of leather” by a Pokemon-playing vegan. 🙄 Please reserve your politics and “environmental issues” for other blogs/sites.
  • "It also saves them a bucket tonne of money by not using excess packaging and smaller boxes without chargers." So somehow it is wrong if pro-environment decisions made by a company align with profit goals? Let us not unnecessarily burden ourselves with the moral stricture that only pure motives are acceptable. This is an unattainable requirement. There are NO pure motives in any human action (which includes corporate actions at the direction of human executives). Even the most altruistic acts are partly driven by the selfish motive of wanting to feel good about one's self. Rather than condemn people for having mixed motives, be glad that some good can be accomplished even by 'selfish' acts. Let's be pragmatic and judge actions based more on their outcomes than their motives. We achieve more progress that way.
  • Absolutely ridiculous article. I'm guessing a vegan was behind it, lol. It claims that leather production (mostly cow-skin), is "not a by-product of of the meat industry." When in fact, for the most part ... of course it most definitely is! In the very next sentence this unsupported claim is carefully hedged with "... it's at least a 'co-product' ," which not only completely walks back the first argument, it's not really a thing is it? The article is also full of unsupported and unsupportable vegan nonsense phrases like "Environmentally, leather is extremely damaging." In fact, it *can* be, but isn't always, nor is it *necessarily* so (which the author even backhandedly admits lower down). It also confuses "carbon neutrality" with "sustainability" (not the same thing at all). Finally, a large part of the article goes on and on about how *great* Apple is with environmental concerns like this and also contains a direct admission that the author has no idea at all whether Apples use of leather is actually damaging to the environment. Needless to say this undermines the entire article. In fact, this article is full of so many obvious errors of fact, and great exagerrations as to make it basically completely unpalatable ... at least to anyone who isn't keyed into the vegan ideology. This is an article by someone who just wants meat-eating to be banned and has nothing specifically to do with Apple's use of leather at all.
  • Just... No...
    Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but I think there must be healthier levels of self-awareness in this industry, along with journalism as a whole before these kinds of statements are made.
    Apple, of course, has its ways of greenwashing its image, but calling them out for leather products from a platform that thrives from writing waves of articles fueled by ever-shortening product cycles and bombardment of the planet with unnecessary e-waste, supported by ad dollars of cheap, disposable petrochemical accessory makers... Please spare us.
    Go drink your soy lattes in silence.
  • I logged in just to say LMAO! I live a somewhat "eco friendly" lifestyle, but I draw the line at getting rid of my leather case and watch band. Sorry iMore.
  • vegan wrote this nonsense
  • There is a lot to unpack here… in the comments. Not much to unpack in the article, given its an opinion piece. I disagree with the article. They stop making quality cases, I’ll probably stop buying iPhones. But these commenters… geez. Write an article about a change you believe could improve the environment… you must be some hippy vegan, and I hate you because of your opinion that I must speak hate about. Maybe even in a long and drawn out way that can emphasize my ability to scrutinize your every argument and unnecessarily over articulate… because that shows that I’m smart and thereby, correct. How dumb. If you can’t resist raging on the internet because someone’s opinion differs from yours, get off the internet. If you can’t resist raging because commenters are trolling jerks who need something better to do… I feel your pain… and should probably also get off the internet.