There is a much debated topic out there concerning the use of leather, and as close-knitted as the ethical community is, the subject of leather somehow divides us. On one side, you have those who advocate vegan leather as the only viable option and, on the other, you have those who critique vegan leather as being a source of incredible pollution and who opt for the real thing instead.
So who is right? Are you better off wearing real leather or vegan leather? Which has the worse environmental footprint?
Should you buy real leather for the sole purpose of preventing a by-product of the meat industry (animal skins) from going to waste? Are there other reasons to wear real leather?
Is vegan leather really that bad or are those lies dispersed to create confusion and give a competitive edge to real leather?
Today, we’ll be addressing all those questions and hopefully find an answer that will help you in your purchases.
What is Real Leather and How is it Made?
To understand the impact of the different types of leather on the environment, we need to briefly glaze over how they’re made.
Real leather is made with animal skins. The animal skins can be turned into leather using either chrome-tanning or vegetable tanning.
Most leather is made using chrome-tanning, a process of curing skin that requires the use of a lot of chemicals and is notorious for its toxicity.
It’s damaging to the environment and infiltrates water sources very easily.
One of the most pertinent examples of the disastrous consequences of real leather production is Hazaribagh, a neighbourhood outside Dhaka (the capital of Bangladesh).
Hazaribagh is known for its prolific leather production and for being…ecologically dead. Yes, that’s right, the city is now on the Blacksmith Institute’s list of Top 10 Toxic Places; right along with Chernobyl.
It boggles the mind how our need for fast fashion and trendy accessories has made a town appear on the same list as a nuclear-radiated city.
Hazaribagh is home to about 200 tanneries and there is a forecast of $5 billion in revenue from leather, leather goods, and leather footwear by 2021 but the true profiteers remain the fast fashion brands who get to sell leather products dirt cheap because they didn’t have to pay for safe infrastructures, taxes, employee gear or water treatment and filtration in order to obtain leather goods.
It can take up to 50 different types of chemicals to turn the skin of an animal into what we know as leather and out of that, it is estimated that more than 30% of the chemicals used find their way into surrounding water sources.
As you can imagine, the river that goes through Hazaribagh is dangerously polluted and yet continues to be the main water supply for the residents of Dhaka. It’s the perfect climate for respiratory diseases, cancers and other skin diseases. The people of Dhaka have no choice but to live and work in it.
Proposition 1: “I’ll only buy leather made with vegetable-tanning”
A lot of people think that vegetable tanning was actually developed AFTER chrome tanning in an attempt to combat the disastrous effects of chrome tanning.
The fact is vegetable tanning has been used to turn animal skin into leather for thousands of years, approximately 6000 BC.
However, because the process of vegetable tanning is complex and requires a lot of time, skill and resources, production shifted to a more chemical-intensive one.
Since awareness around chrome tanning has increased, a few brands have adopted this ancient method of curing animals skins.
However, vegetable tanning requires a huge amount of water and other natural resources such as oak and wattle bark. It is, as a result, taxing on Mother Nature.
Vegetable tanning remains a very small percentage of the leather making industry because it requires a high level of craftsmanship and time. For example, it can take up to two months of soaking the animal skin for it to be ready to process.
And even if vegetable tanning is better than chrome-tanning, we haven’t addressed the animal issue yet. Yes, the animal behind the skin.
Proposition 2: “Leather is a by-product of the meat industry, making it acceptable.”
The proponents of real leather affirm that because leather is a by-product of the meat industry, not using animal skin would result in a terrible amount of waste.
Such a proponent is leather expert Robert Cranson who says, “If you didn’t have a leather industry you could have a massive amount of hides basically dumped, creating an enormous problem.”
It’s…true. If we stopped using the skins of the animals we kill, that would be 2.6 million cattle hide being chucked with their carcasses instead of being used per year.
However, the claim that leather is only a by-product of the meat industry is not necessarily true.
‘True2Causes’ puts it so eloquently that I had to quote them: “Leather is not a byproduct, and it isn’t produced in efforts to minimize waste. It’s produced because it is a highly profitable and lucrative business. A cow’s skin is approximately 10 per cent of her total value, making it the most profitable part of her body […] selling skins is very profitable, while meat isn’t always so — not the other way around.”
Moreover, a lot of our leather actually comes from India where it is illegal to kill cows. So how do we obtain leather from them, then?
Leona Lewis’s campaign with PETA “Hell from Leather” reveals the gruelling and torture-filled journey that cattle are subjected to before having their throats cut open in front of each other.
It also shows how leather workshops, often home to extremely toxic chemicals and dangerous machinery, are prone to employing child labour.
Proposition 3: “I’ll only buy leather that is a by-product of the meat industry. Problem solved!”
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.
The fashion industry is notorious for its lack of transparency and tracking the supply chain is difficult because they are so many stages of production in between obtaining raw materials and having a finished good.
The label of your handbag might say “made in Italy” but as Lucy Siegle puts it: “if all the “Italian leather” merchandise was of true provenance you wouldn’t be able to move for cows in that country. They’d be drinking from the Trevi fountain.”
In simple terms, all leather that claims to come from Italy doesn’t actually come from Italy.
This is due to how globalised production is. A pair of shoes or a garment is very rarely entirely made in one country. The fabric could be made in India, the sewing in Cambodia, the embroidery in England, and because the end process was in England, brands have the right to slap a ‘made in England’ label on that piece of garment.
And if the transparency problem doesn’t convince you, maybe this will: The notion of making leather out of animals skins to prevent wastage might seem like an honourable one (when you put it as Robert Cranston does), but is it that honourable to indirectly support an industry that is knee-deep into cruelty?
Yes, I’m talking about the meat industry. PETA has revealed countless videos of animals being slaughtered in the most inhuman and cruel ways possible. If you’re not squirmish, youtube abounds with those videos.
Its cruelty issues aside (can we even put those aside?) a Greenpeace report in 2009, Slaughtering the Amazon, made a direct connection between livestock and the environment. Using satellite imagery, researchers were able to show how the Brazilian cattle industry was responsible for 14% of the world’s annual deforestation.
“According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), livestock accounts for about 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions; putting its environmental impact on par with the transportation industry according to some experts.”
So if we must speak of ecological ‘footprint’, I’d say it’s about the size of a yeti’s.
Proposition 4: “I’ll just wear vegan leather”
So we’ve pretty much ascertained that real leather – chrome tanning or not- is not an ethical option. That leaves only vegan leather as an option right? Well…no. You see, vegan leather can come with disastrous implications too. Let me explain.
Vegan leather can be made from quite a few different materials. We live in exciting times where technology is constantly breaking the limits of what’s possible.
But before we explore the newer versions of vegan, let’s start with the most traditional and readily available form of vegan leather.
The most common form of vegan leather is PVC, Polyvinyl chloride, despite the fact that there are better alternatives to PVC.
PVC is made of a “knitted polyester base with a PVC or polyurethane coating…they’re essentially plastic-based.” And we all know plastic is not the planet’s best friend.
In fact, Greenpeace calls PVC the “single most environmentally damaging type of plastic.”
This means that a lot of the vegan leather out there is actually non-biodegradable and will pollute earth for centuries. Relying on petrochemical products is not the way towards an environmentally friendly earth.
However, there are better alternatives to PVC leather.
After PVC, PU leather is probably the most common type of vegan leather. PU is also a petroleum derivative and requires the use of chemical for its production. But put side by side with PVC, PU is a clear winner. Newer versions of PU can have plant-based oils added to them and can be made using recycled materials. However, their production requires the use of fossil fuels; making them not the most sustainable of options.
The Alternatives that will Blow your Mind
I’m sorry if this article has made you feel despaired. Real leather, PVC and PU leather are not great for the planet. The good news is there are alternatives that are 100% sustainable. However, they come with their own share of shortcomings too.
Pineapple ‘leather’ is one of the latest innovations in the vegan leather industry. Imagine having shoes made of leftover pineapple leaves? In fact, why imagine, Bourgeois Boheme is already selling them. And so is Hugo Boss apparently. Now, that’s what I call making the most of a by-product. Take that meat industry! It’s zero waste, animal-friendly and a lot better for Mother Earth.
We wouldn’t really call them ‘leather’, but they are most certainly an alternative to leather.
Pineapple leather was developed by Dr Carmen Hijosa, the founder of Ananas Anam Ltd also known as Pinatex.
Cork is having a true moment in the limelight and it is no surprise why. The bags and shoes being made with cork are unbelievably stylish and creative. I don’t know why we haven’t been using this great material sooner. Cork is another by-product meaning that it’s sustainable.
Yes, mushroom leather is actually a thing. Known as MuSkin, this brand is revolutionising the leather industry by making leather from fungi. The fungi can be grown into specific shapes and designs; so we won’t be lacking in variety when it comes to mushroom leather bags and shoes.
The main disadvantage with those leather alternatives is that they’re not 100% waterproof meaning that super adverse weather conditions could lead to wet feet.
So what’s the solution? You’ll have to read part 2 to find out: Vegan Leather is Bad, Real Leather is Worse. So what’s the Solution?