From our handbags to our shoes to even the trims of our clothes, leather is everywhere in the fashion industry. But how ethical is this animal-based material? Learn more about its impact and the alternatives, and decide for yourself.
So far, we’ve discussed popular fabrics that are woven, grown from plants and made artificially. But, we can’t forget some other important materials we use almost every day – leather! Whether it’s in bags, shoes or outerwear, a lot of us do use leather due to its properties. However, this material’s origins has been a key discussion point for decades amongst ethical activists and vegan fashion lovers alike.
Leather has been around ever since humans started building fires. Its ability to retain heat and age well even after decades of use makes it a smart choice for a seasonless wardrobe staple. However, many find buying this material no different from buying exotic skins or furs, when it comes to animal cruelty.
So, we break down what makes leather such a hot debate point, and answer some burning questions we’ve all had. Is it truly a by-product of the meat industry? Can you produce it in a more eco-friendly and ethical way? And will vegan alternatives pave the way forward? Read on to find out!
What is leather?
Leather comes from animal hides, after undergoing processes such as cleaning and tanning, sometimes dyeing. The most common leathers come from cattle in the meat and dairy industries. Many high-end luxury brands use calf or veal leather for their soft and supple skin too. While leather producers justify its existence by calling it a ‘by-product’ of the meat industry, the truth is the hide makes up 10% of the total cow’s value. This makes it justifiably profitable, to maximise farmers’ revenue as well as minimising waste on their end – as a ‘co-product’ instead.
However, not all leather originate as a means to reduce waste – the demand for certain animal skins outweigh the demand for its meat. For instance, calfskin is more profitable than its meat. The luxury leather good market touts it as super soft and thin, and thus more luxurious. Sometimes, the unborn calf is removed directly from their mothers’ wombs to get the optimum quality of skin. Like the meat and dairy industries, leather production frequently relies on the systematic abuse of mothers and their babies. The same goes for exotic reptile leathers, zebras, and even cats and dogs – the worst part is, you can’t even tell dog leather from cow leather due to mislabelling.
Where does it come from?
Early humans wore animal hides wrapped around their feet and bodies for protection against the elements. They even developed simple drying and curing techniques to make leather for protective garments and shelter for over 7000 years. However, transforming hide to leather to stop it from decomposing has been perfected through civilisations of trial and error.
Eventually, by 400BCE, there are early instances of vegetable tanning, started by the Egyptians and Hebrews, eventually improved on by the Greeks and Arabs. By the end of the 19th century, chrome-tanning overtook vegetable-tanning and became the most common method for leather since the process was cheap and fast. However, this method proved dangerous for the environment and the people making it. Around then, animal rights activism rose with the popularity of PETA fighting against animal slaughter and made manufacturers consider an alternative free from animal cruelty.
While the first faux leather made from paper pulp originated in Germany, it wasn’t until synthetic leather processed from petrochemicals became mainstream. Faux leather is now a 50 billion dollar industry. High-end luxury vegan brands such as Stella McCartney use high-quality synthetic alternatives that are more durable, and cost and labour efficient than other synthetics on the market. But that’s not the end of vegan leather; the rise of plant-based leathers from pineapples (Piñatex), mushrooms (Mylo) and others, highlights the environmental damages of not only synthetic leather production but of the conventional method too.
What kinds of leather are there?
We can categorise leather in two ways – which animal it comes from, and its grain. Now, this does not apply to non-animal options, as synthetic leather producers can recreate various textured options depending on their design.
Cattle, calf, buffalo, goat, sheep, lamb, deer, elk, pig, alligator, crocodile, snake, frog, ostrich, kangaroo, fish, rabbit, lizard and horse leathers are available for commercial use.
Some technical terms
- Full-grain is the highest quality of grain found in leather, often found on the pricier end of the spectrum. This extremely tough hide ages beautifully and can last the entirety of your life (if taken care of). This grain can also indicate the quality of life the animal had, i.e. faced no overcrowding, branding or barbed fences, and ate high-quality feed that nourished their hide. Fun fact: do you know why there’s a buzz around Italian leather? It’s because they use high-quality vegetable-tanned full-grain leather.
- Top grain is the most common grain of leather, only second in quality to full grain. It is durable, high quality and more affordable than full-grain. This type is easier to manipulate into shapes and commonly used to make high-end designer leather goods.
- Bonded leather or reconstituted leather is made from scraps of other types of leather and bonded with latex. It is cheaper and easier to work with, and it prevents hides from going to waste. However, it does not fare well in terms of quality and durability.
- Genuine leather, ironically enough, doesn’t just mean it is real, but it’s the lowest quality of real leather. Goods marked as genuine leather are several layers of low-quality leather bonded together with glue and then painted to look uniform.
What are some properties of leather?
Leather jackets did not become popular amongst bikers and fashionistas for no reason. Here are some reasons why leather has been around for so long – in terms of function and fashion.
- Leather is very versatile. From footwear to upholstery, leather can be used to elevate your everyday experience or give you the ruggedness you need.
- It’s durable, flexible. Most sports or motorcycle gloves are made of leather because of its strength and protectiveness.
- It gets very comfortable over time. That’s why you see high-quality shoes made from leather, as they can stretch just enough to mould your feet.
- Leather regulates your body temperature, retains warmth, keeps moisture away from your body and is windproof – perfect to wear while on the back of a Harley!
- Leather goods can stand the test of time. Just like wine and good cheese, leather gets better with age. The patina, or the texture of the leather as it ages, gives a premium quality to your leather goods, that gets better the more you use it!
- It prevents animal hides from being sent to landfills. While tanning methods other than vegetable-tanned leather still involve harmful chemicals, it pales in comparison to the amount of non-renewable resources used and the amount of air, water and land pollution caused by synthetic leather.
How is it made?
Leather making is a long process involving many manual and automated steps and can be broken down into three general stages – preparing the hide for tanning, transforming hide to leather, and then the various finishings.
Tanning the hide with vegetable oils, chrome or aldehyde stops the skin from decomposing and becomes leather. Vegetable-tanned leather uses tannins from vegetable matter such as bark, leaves or fruit. This leather is stiffer but more malleable, thus can hold its shape when moulded. It takes almost 2 months from start to finish (50 times longer than chrome leather), which also attributes to its higher cost.
Chrome leather is cheaper, faster, softer, more stretchy and versatile in terms of its use cases. It takes a day to complete the entire tanning process. Then the producers can dye the leather in a variety of colours – from simple everyday colours to more eccentric shades. Aldehyde tanned leather bleaches the hide white, and it’s even faster than chrome-tanning. However, how the leather is tanned not only produces different properties but has vastly different impacts on the environment.
Did you know that the vast majority of cow skins come from China, India, Bangladesh and Brazil? These countries have lax regulations when it comes to the toxic chemicals used, how they’re disposed of and even the ways the animal is kept and subsequently skinned. So even if your leather bag says “made in Italy”, it was probably only finished there but the animal was raised and killed elsewhere. Luxury tanneries in Europe have the most regulation for the social and environmental impacts of leather making. However, these countries raise more animals for their skin than their meat.
What is leather’s impact?
On animal welfare
A portion of the leather industry uses by-product hides from slaughtered animals in the meat and dairy industry. However, that doesn’t mean the industry doesn’t slaughter animals just for leather – presently they slaughter 290 million cows every year. As the global middle class rises, so does the demand for leather wallets, handbags and accessories. The industry needs to slaughter 430 million animals annually by 2025 to keep up with this upward trend of demand.
That’s not all, the way leather producers treat these animals before they transform them into the next season’s ‘it’ bag says a lot about the fashion industry’s drive for profitability. In India, one of the largest producers of leather, animal welfare laws are practically non-existent or not enforced. A PETA investigation found that workers break cows’ tails and rub chilli peppers and tobacco into their eyes in order to force them to get up and walk after they collapse from exhaustion on the way to the slaughterhouse, between the two states of Kerala and West Bengal, where the slaughter of cows is legal. Factories hang the cattle by their legs, shoot them in the head with a bolt gun before skinning them. Since up to 400 animals are being processed per hour, the cows are only partially stunned, thus conscious during the skinning process.
On the environment
Leather’s impact is still a bit more complicated than simply minimising the waste of another industry. While leather is still considered “natural”, we know the term doesn’t excuse the detrimental effects on the planet. For every 900kg of animal hides tanned, there’s 300kg of chemicals added – this applies for chrome and aldehyde tanned leathers. Moreso, if you thought only cotton was a thirsty industry, see the stats for leather-making – almost 17,000 litres to produce 1 kg.
Additionally, did you know that the leather industry is responsible for deforestation, air and water pollution on a global scale? The Brazilian cattle industry itself (with around 200m head of cattle) was responsible for 14% of the world’s annual deforestation. Regardless of the cattle being reared for meat or leather, the process still remains to be land, water and resource-intensive. They emit a lot of greenhouse gases – especially if animal parts are left to rot in landfills.
With any industry, there is going to be waste. In this case, there’s a lot of animal waste, made by the animal and otherwise. Here’s a not-so-fun fact – animals on factory farms produce 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population, without the benefit of waste treatment plants. 90% of the leather industry produces chrome-tanned leather in countries with little to no regulation on how its waste is disposed of. It leaves behind a slush of chemicals and gases that seeps into local waterways that kills aquatic life. It just makes it a much more difficult and expensive task to obtain clean water for that population. Tanneries use chromium (III), under heat and high pressure, which forms carcinogenic chromium (IV) and even arsenic, contributing to lung cancer. This disproportionately affects the communities and ecosystems dependent on those hazardous waterways for their everyday needs.
On human wellbeing
Most processes in the fashion industry that we perceive are automated, are actually done manually. Leather is no exception. Hundreds of hands work to skin, tan, and produce the final product. Workers, including children, often elbow and knee-deep in large drums of chromium (III), fish out hides or chuck out waste scraps such as tails, ears or hooves. The end result – chemical burns, peeling and blackened skin, and respiratory illnesses that the workers aren’t able to afford treatment for.
Most commercial leather comes from India, China & Bangladesh, where there aren’t any regulations on animal cruelty, and even fewer on human treatment. Some government regulations prevent leather factories from operating within densely populated regions, so workers end up travelling almost 6-hour round-trips daily. Officials estimate that the tanneries of Hazaribagh, Bangladesh pump almost 5.8 million gallons of untreated effluent a day into open canals and generate more than 100 tonnes of solid waste in the form of rawhide scraps, flesh, and fat.
Why is there even a leather industry?
Leather is a hot debate topic for sure – some might believe it reduces waste from the meat and dairy industries, and some don’t. So, let’s get a better understanding of why it may exist.
Animal skins, when not made into leather, are actually thrown away in landfills, buried in the soil, or further processed to make glue or insulation. Even though animal hide is a biodegradable material, it still releases a considerable amount of methane as it decomposes. Now, whether you want to call leather a by-product, co-product or sub-product, it’s, unfortunately, an unavoidable tag-along to the meat industry – for as long as it exists.
Leather boasts itself to be a multi-billion dollar industry. However, it’s the independent local makers who face the brunt of the social embargo led by anti-leather protestors. While luxury brands such as Prada were applauded for dropping exotic skins from their collections, they were under fire by a group of conservationists. Various indigenous communities across the world carefully harvest reptile skins to not only conserve environments, but also receive income from the luxury skin demand, and incentivised to conserve the reptile population.
If that income goes away, the community is forced through their poverty to take up other common forms of rural income, such as logging, slash-and-burn farming, or gold mining. For the Tacana People in Bolivia, for example, the lizard-skin trade has led to better health care and food. These communities don’t just sell these leathers but use them for their own traditional festival costumes and to protect themselves from the harsh winters. However, commercial tanneries negatively affecting the environment threaten the existence of indigenous craft, as it paints an ugly picture of all kinds of leather.
Are there more ethical alternatives to leather?
More consumers are becoming conscious of what materials they find in their closets. This has led to a rise in searches for ethical alternatives, from organic cotton to cruelty-free leather.
Better alternatives do exist; from ethically sourced animal products to synthetic and plant-based versions. The industry generally refers to the latter two as faux, artificial, imitation leather, pleather and now, for green marketing, vegan too. However, vegan doesn’t always mean eco-friendly, especially when it is synthetically made. Its impact on the environment tends to overcast its animal activism.
Alternative animal leathers
Ethical animal leathers include those by indigenous tribes, wild-caught and overpopulated animals who have a lower impact on the environment. Go for deer, fish, frog and responsibly sourced exotic leather instead. Since good-quality leather ages well, vintage and secondhand leather goods are also good alternatives as it helps extend the life of preloved clothes. More so, lab-grown leather – just as we have lab-grown meat to combat animal cruelty and to reduce the environmental destruction of cattle rearing – is soon becoming a reality too.
You’ll find popular synthetic leather options such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyurethane (PU) and recycled PET. If you have the choice, avoid PVC at all costs and go for PU or recycled polyester instead. Greenpeace calls PVC “the single most environmentally damaging of all plastics.” However, with any synthetic options, we have the issue of how it was produced and how it will be disposed of.
Manufacturing PVC or even PU involves and releases hazardous chemicals during production, and should be handled with care. This highly affects the environment and the people making the material, as workers inhale these and face various health problems. While PU or PVC doesn’t harm any animals directly, its toxic waste ends up destroying various aquatic ecosystems. Further down the product’s lifespan, it will release microplastics when washed, and end up decomposing in a landfill soon thereafter.
Plant-based leather is gaining traction, including cork, upcycled rubber, mushroom leather, waxed canvas and cotton, leaves, paper, grape leather, apple leather, and pineapple leather, and even all the fruits together in something called Fruit leather. However, they’re not widely available at a commercial level yet. Materials such as cork or even rubber will not look or feel like leather, but have their own appeal. Some fruit leathers are also too fibrous and not strong enough to make everyday products such as wallets or bags.
Ironically, many fruit leathers aren’t 100% plant-based. Apple leather by Frumat contains 50% PU to make it more durable and give it structure. Piñatex, a material made from pineapple leaf fibres, still uses 20% of PLA (polylactic acid). While this vegetable-based plastic material made from corn starch comes from a renewable source, it is not biodegradable. More so, the coating on the pineapple leather is PU resin, which is REACH compliant, but also inevitably petroleum-based.
How do we care for and dispose of leather?
Any material, if taken care of properly, will see many wears and years, and this includes leather. Here’s some tips to extend the life of your leather and what to do when you don’t need it anymore.
- The patina develops with exposure to the natural elements, so don’t be afraid to use it daily. However, when it is not in use, you can store your leather goods in a dust bag, with proper padding. This prevents the item from losing its shape or colour while in storage. Tip: don’t overfill your bags or wallets.
- Remove any dust or dirt with a brush or a damp cloth and let it dry completely before storing.
- Get a leather cleaner and conditioner as this will maintain the appearance of your product.
- If you have suede, patent or exotic skins, use specific products to protect their shape, texture and colour.
- Since leather absorbs moisture, protect it with a stain and water repellent. This is necessary if you live in a tropical climate, or if you’re just clumsy. Remember: you shouldn’t fully immerse leather into water or put it in the washing machine or tumble dryer.
- Pop a few bags of silica gel beads with your bags or shoes to control the humidity and prevent mould from growing.
- Air out the goods every few months.
- Leather ages well, and there’s a huge market for preloved leather goods should you part ways with your leather item.
- If your leather is damaged and beyond repair, you can send them to be recycled or upcycled by brands, individuals or organisations who can make something new with your old pieces, or resell them.
- Only vegetable-tanned leather, that hasn’t used any chemicals during tanning or aftercare, can be composted.
All in all, we don’t think we should demonise leather. All materials have their own impact. There’s no clear cut answer to which is worse for the environment. If you’re deciding whether real or vegan is for you, it’s ultimately up to your own values.
So if you prefer the real deal, buy responsibly sourced leather or even secondhand. While buying leather, it’s also important to note where it’s coming from, and the industry’s implications on that country. For example, Bangladesh’s economy is heavily dependent on the leather industry. So, to boycott them means to put thousands of workers out of work or in debt.
If you value animal and human well being, opt for high-quality faux leather. Stella McCartney uses vegetarian leather for their bags and shoes, made from water-borne and solvent-free polyurethanes that are less energy and water-intensive, and much safer for people to work with. The brand still acknowledges that this material is still synthetic and will release microfibres into the environment. However, they’re working to reduce their impact by using recycled and bio-based materials.
Since leather is not a necessity for most, it becomes a deliberate choice for individuals to make. So choose well, use research to back up your choice, and most importantly, make it last.