By Beatrice Tridimas
Earlier this month, California became the first state to ban the selling and manufacturing of fur. California is not the first, however, with the likes of Serbia, Luxembourg and Norway already on the way to a fur-free future. Motivated by animal rights activism, California’s bill, somehow, excludes the ban of leather. It seems leather is subject to a much more complex debate.
Unlike fur, leather is no longer the symbol of a luxury item. Now a seasonal staple in high demand, more and more brands are seeking to sell leather products. There is a distinct attempt to develop a sustainable practice of using real leather. This is fuelled by a concern over plastic-based leather alternatives and the conviction that leather is a by-product of the meat industry that would otherwise go to waste.
Legitimising the use of real animal skins, however, remains controversial. Considering that leather and fur share many of the negatives of animal farming, can we really continue to justify the use of real leather in the face of fur’s unpopularity?
A Case Against Leather
The use of animal hides is inevitable whilst the meat and dairy industry exist, most leather being bought as a ‘by-product’. However, labelling leather a mere ‘by-product’ exonerates its contribution to the perpetuation of animal farming and its environmental consequences.
Leather is the most economically valuable part of the animal. In 2015, the international trade value of raw animal hides was 6.92 billion dollars. It’s incorrect to think that leather is a mere ‘by-product’ when it generates so much income. Buying leather pours money into the farming industry, becoming a primary motivation for animal slaughtering and bad farming practices.
Even though there will always be a market for leather whilst we continue to eat meat and dairy, we ought not underplay the economic contribution leather makes to the farming industry. Reducing the amount of leather we buy will have some impact on the success of the farming industry and its production rates.
Regardless of being a by-product or primary product, leather production inevitably shares in the environmental harms of animal farming. Thus, whilst we continue to use leather, we continue to have a negative effect on the environment.
PETA declares that the leather industry has ‘the greatest impact on eutrophication’, from the combination of its animal wastes and tanning wastes. Tanning processes use significant amounts of energy and heavy chemicals, whilst research suggests that exposure to chemicals is related to an increased risk of cancer.
Inextricably bound with the meat and dairy industry, leather production shares in the environmental impacts of animal farming, contributing further damage from tanning processes.
A saving grace for leather?
Speaking with Jacqueline Flaggiello, an advocate of sustainable leather and founder of Jolie Laide, it is clear that the leather industry doesn’t have to be this way. ‘The system only exists,’ she says, ‘because there is a demand.’ As consumers, we seek to buy cheap leather, so cheap leather is produced. It is the cheapest leather that has the worst effect on the environment. Manufacturers can force five pieces of leather out of one skin, by splitting it finely and coating each sheet in chemicals. Lower-quality leather won’t last as long and is more likely to end up in landfill.
Flaggiello combines style, quality and sustainability in her conscious production of leather accessories. She uses only leather that is a by-product, and dyes it using vegetable tanning. Chemical dying took over the leather industry when companies wanted to produce faster and cheaper, ‘mass consumerism’ to blame.
There will always be a market for leather whilst the meat and dairy industry continue to thrive. ‘If you want people to stop using leather,’ Flaggiello points out, ‘then we need to stop eating that much meat. They are directly correlated.’ Whilst this is perhaps an ultimate aim of some sort, for the time being, we can use the excess of animal hides wisely and tailor the market so that less and less come into production.
Despite the perpetuation of the leather industry, there are a number of faux leathers on the market. So, what are they and how do they fare in the eyes of sustainability?
Many faux leathers are plastic based. Unlike straws, take-away cups and packaging, our pleather pieces aren’t single use plastics (I’d hope anyway). Yet, as consumerism accelerates and our wardrobe turnover quickens, much of our clothing ends up in landfill. For the same reason that paper straws replace plastic ones in most establishments, and Gatwick airport let customers borrow cups this summer instead of providing reusable ones, we ought to resist buying and wearing plastics, no matter how many uses we get from them.
If you like piña coladas…
There are, however, many more sustainable alternatives in development. Piñatex, a fusion material, based on a fibre made from pineapple leaves, is gaining popularity due to its use by high profile brands, such as Hugo Boss.
Whilst the end result might not be perfect, its manufacturing process is pretty clean, as the key-component is a genuine by-product of pineapple farming. Furthermore, any waste from the leaf is turned into a biofuel and returned to farming communities.
Whilst Piñatex are doing their best to develop a 100% biodegradable, sustainable leather, it’s important to note that, according to this 2015 study carried out by the GPA, bio-plastics aren’t completely biodegradable in water and thus continue to contribute to sea-pollution.
Plastic-based leather alternatives might seem to simply substitute one set of environmental consequences for another, although we cannot ignore the efforts made to make the entire process more sustainable.
Fear not faux
Not every faux leather contains plastic. There are some really exciting alternatives in development, including Modern Meadow’s Zoa, a leather-like material created in a lab from collagen protein. Otherwise brands like Veja or Been London are using recycled materials, like plastic bottles, corn waste and recycled leather to create new clothing.
Not so conscious consumerism
What underlies the problems of both real leather and sustainable leather is not just what we are buying, but how we buy. Flaggiello intends with her products to invoke a more conscious consumerism, encouraging her buyers to give up fast-fashion. She designs products that we buy for life, ‘I really try to stay away from trends in design […] try to make it so that any age group can wear it, any season: seasonless, ageless, timeless.’
Obsessive consumerism defines 21st century culture. The more that the consumer wants, the more the market can provide, Flaggiello reminds us, ‘people won’t say no to making money, we’re not in that world.’
Slowly, as we change our buying habits, the markets will transform, and those industries that pose a threat to the environment, to the future of our planet, those will, eventually, shut down.
What do we want from a ‘sustainable’ leather?
Sustainability is not just about finding a material that is biodegradable, or durable, or organic. It’s the whole process, it’s where the material is from, it’s how the product is made, it’s how you treat the product. Sustainability is both buying products that last you a lifetime and buying products that are ethically produced and will biodegrade when you’re done.
Creating a truly sustainable future is a long and slow process and involves taking down entire industries. But taking the smallest action can begin to make a change.
Slowly, we can eliminate those materials that are the worst, and pave our way to a more sustainable future.