The Fashion Industry’s love for leather

  • by Vivienne Austin

The issue with leather

Fashion's love of leather is a leading cause of the Amazon's rainforest destruction, alongside beef and soya. The level of destruction that's happening is beyond comprehension: every minute, an area equivalent to a football and a half of the so-called lungs of the Earth - the Amazon forest - is being burnt down.

While LVMH, the world's top luxury goods firm, pledged €10m to fight the Amazon burn back in 2019, this was not enough. The industry should have acted far earlier to combat climate change by reducing their contribution to the issue. For years, the fashion industry has been tacitly driving destruction, despite the causes being far away from the actual forest.

In 2009, Greenpeace published Slaughtering the Amazon, which concluded that the demand for leather was fueling the destruction of the Amazon in its own right, not just accidentally as a by-product of beef. The report found that cattle ranchers were illegally clearing rainforest, with one hectare of rainforest lost to ranches every 18 seconds.



It’s not just about climate change though. Every year, clothing and accessories cost billions of animals their lives. Leather is made from animals' skin, birds are forced to give up their feathers, and small animals are caged and killed for their fur. Sheep and goats are beaten and mutilated for their wool, cashmere and mohair. Regardless of the material or its origin, animal-based production involves shocking cruelty.


This year, PETA's message hit Fashion Week's catwalks worldwide as animal rights activists protested Coach's use of leather. Two PETA demonstrators interrupted the show, holding up signs and wearing only body paint to deliver a powerful message. PETA's advertising and demonstrations are infamous for their striking and provocative nature, encouraging action and changing attitudes.


Why does fashion keep choosing animal-derived leather?

While "alternative leathers" continue to generate substantial investments, some designers are raising concerns about the overlooked sustainability of traditional leather. The emergence of plant and mushroom-based leathers has attracted attention, but the use of synthetic polymers in many of these "leather alternatives" has raised questions regarding their environmental impact and sustainability compared to animal leather.



Collagen, the "super" protein found in hides and skins, gives animal leather its remarkable durability and strength. However, the leather-making process also involves tanning with a variety of chemicals, which can vary in toxicity. Synthetic polymers are often applied as a thin coating to enhance water resistance and durability. Some designers argue that the sustainability focus should be on the finishing of the material rather than its animal origin.

The #LeatherTruthfully campaign, supported by leather-based furniture designer Bill Amberg and handbag designer Anya Hindmarch, aims to counter misinformation about the leather-making process and its alternatives. The campaign stresses that if hides and skins were not transformed into leather, they would need to be disposed of in some way. Converting hides and skins into leather is one of the earliest forms of recycling, saving approximately 10 million tonnes from ending up in global landfills, which could contribute to greenhouse emissions. Furthermore, the campaign wants to promote a more transparent leather industry that aims at a chemical-free material. For example, The Leather Working Group is a non-profit committed to building a sustainable future with responsible leather and has all the information brands need in order to find a responsible leather supplier, wherever they are based.


As the push for sustainable fashion continues, the debate over the merits and drawbacks of traditional and alternative leathers will likely persist.


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