In the past few decades, the use of animal fur made the headlines until all the big luxury fashion houses decided to ditch it, while the use of animal leather didn’t. Nowadays, that the focus of the fashion industry is finally on sustainability, we’re all starting to see a lot of talk around this subject and how ‘leather-free fashion’ can be the future for the industry. What was once a synonym of luxury, it’s now perceived as bad for the environment and the animals. Made primarily from the hide of cows, leather goes into millions of shoes, bags, and coats every year, not to mention car interiors and furniture. In fact, the leather industry is worth over $94.7 billion worldwide.
The environmental damage
Although leather is a byproduct of the farming industry, this one has a lot of attendant evils such as the greenhouse gas emissions, public health problems, and animal cruelty, which cannot be blamed entirely on the demand for meat. On top of that, the tanning process that is involved when converting raw hide into leather is a resource-intensive, toxic waste-producing, environmental mess.
Tanning involves soaking, hair-removal, de-liming, bleaching, tanning, crusting, and something called fatliquoring, which is the process of introducing oil into the skin before the leather is dried. An amount of 661 pounds of chemicals are used to produce one ton of tanned leather and in the mix are aluminium, formaldehyde, heavy oils, and, worst of all, chromium sulphate, which stabilises collagen fibres in the animal skin.
Another cost of tanning is the amount of water used. Just over 9,200 gallons of wastewater is produced per ton of raw hide. This wastewater contains preservatives, lime and ammonium salts, sulphides, dye, solvent chemicals, polyphenolic compounds, and chromium sulphate. Most of it then washes into groundwater, rivers, and oceans.
The leather industry remains huge, but an increasing number of consumers are spurning shoes made of cow hide for more sustainable alternatives.
Responsible leather. This refers to leather that is produced by responsible manufacturers as their practices should aim to reduce the amount of energy, water and chemicals used during production as well as reducing the amount of solid waste, wastewater, and air emissions. The standard for LWG Leather Manufacturer Audit Protocol (LMAP) is continuously evolving and developing to become a holistic standard for assessing all elements of Environment, Social responsibility, and Governance. This way could be the only way to keep using this byproduct, whilst looking and reducing our waste of resources, just like Mulberry is doing with Leather Working Group since 2012, sourcing leather from tanneries who have undertaken an environmental audit.
When it comes to UK based sustainable leather suppliers, we look at the work that Grady + Robinson are doing as they really are pioneers in the industry. They have created a traceable supply chain to produce leather entirely from British livestock that is reared according to the principles of regenerative farming.
Leather made from recycled material. Many modern fabrics are made from recycled industrial waste or plastics. Repreve, Lorica, and Waste2Wear are among the companies using these fabrics for apparel, packaging, and shoes.
Cork. Cork is a naturally water-resistant, durable, organic material that is easily recycled. It’s also harvested from the bark of the trees, meaning the trees get to keep living and cleaning the air. These days you can easily shop for cork bags, wallets, and shoes.
Plant leather. Apple pulp, pineapple leaves, banana skins, mushrooms: they’re all being used to make bags, shoes, clothing, and other accessories. Piñatex is a textile made from pineapple leaf fibres, MuSkin is another eco-conscious company, which is turning portobello mushrooms into a suede-like, water-resistant material, Thamon is turning fallen tree leaves into totes and accessories and MIRUM which uses plant matter and ‘upcycled’ agricultural products and turns them into a leather-like material.
Lab-grown leather. Modern Meadow, a biotech company based in New Jersey, is growing leather using yeast cells to mimic collagen. While still in its infancy, the animal-free leather product, called Zoa, is expected to make its debut soon.
While the above are examples of plant-based leather alternatives materials out there being explored and used, some of these are only partly plant-based and still blended with synthetics, which makes the material no longer fully biodegradable.
In fact, the answer to the question of whether it is better to invest in real leather, plant based leather or synthetic leather is not black or white as there are strong arguments on both sides. The best option so far is to do your research as thoroughly as possible on a case by case basis. If you are thinking of buying plant based leather, look into what alternatives the brand is using and be aware of the detrimental effects of plastic-based products. If you are opting for synthetic leather, read up on the brand’s processes to find how they create their pieces and be aware of their ethical processes. Likewise, if you decide to use animal leather, then use due diligence to only buy from companies that are consistently improving their supply chain and circularity.
[information sourced on harpersbazaar.com, leatherworkinggroup.com and stonepierpress.org
All images sourced on canva.com]