What's been under our skin
What the leather industry has been hide-ing
From belts to jackets, leather plays an important role in many wardrobes. Animal hide dates all the way back to early human history, before becoming a sign of affluence and a “cool” fashion icon in the 1960s. And like denim, leather has established itself as a permanent timeless feature in fashion and clothing.
At a Glance
As one of the oldest fabrics ever crafted by humans, leather continues to dominate as a $100B industry. Worn by movie and rock stars, leather quickly gained popularity as a statement piece. Leather is also well known to be tough, naturally insulating material, often used for shoes, furniture, sporting goods, and automobiles.
Despite their longevity and versatility, the leather industry has a lot to hide. Just like the meat and dairy industry, raising livestock at an industrial scale is extremely harmful for the environment. And that doesn’t mean vegan leather is entirely great either, often made up of plastic, or specifically polyester.
There is still hope for leather in the fashion industry, as NGOs and governments come up with new assessment guidelines and international standards for this textile. Future trends also point to improvements in the leather supply that could drastically reduce the costs behind leather and make it more ethical for all.
Most leather today comes from cows, sheep, and goats, often as a byproduct of the meat industry. In 2015, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that over 3.8 billion bovine animals were involved in leather production. One study found that the carbon footprint produced per square meter of leather is around 65 to 150 kg of CO2.
All of these animals participated in an established leather production process:
Obtaining leather raw materials
Preparing the hides and removing unwanted material
Tanning the animal hides into leather
Crusting the leather into the finished leather material
Producing the leather good
The first step of leather production makes up for more than three quarters of the total greenhouse gas emissions. Collecting the hides for leather materials retain the same major issues with growing large herds of livestock — deforestation, overuse of water and land, and increases in greenhouse gas production.
Because of all this, the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, a sustainability insights platform we talked about before, rated leather material an impact of 159. To give context, cotton was rated 98 and polyester is rated 44.
The chemicals used to produce leather are also incredibly toxic to human health and the environment. Because the tanning process requires turning animal hide by alternating the protein structure to make it durable and withstand decomposition. Most tanners use “chrome tanning,” a process that is fast and practical, but produces the highly toxic carcinogen chromium. This bleeds into the surrounding environment and can often infiltrate local waterways.
Most of the leather produced is made in developing countries which have little to no regulation on human welfare. Part of the leather making process involves soaking it in chemicals to prevent decomposition — and this process is done by tannery workers. Since hundreds of chemicals are used with little to no protective equipment, workers commonly suffer health problems like skin disease and respiratory illnesses. In some tannery towns, around 90% of workers die before they reach the age of 50.
And like most exploited workers that we've talked about in previous issues (chocolate, palm oil, denim), workers work long hours without a living wage and illegal child labor (as young as 10) is very common.
It's common to think that leather is derived only from cow hide, but in reality, a huge variety of animals are killed for their hide, including pigs, goats, sheep, deer, emu, crocodiles, sheep, kangaroos, horses, snakes, ostrich, dogs, and cats. In addition, leather isn't necessarily a by-product of the meat industry, or something that would end up being wasted — many animals among the billion killed every year are killed just for their skins.
The conditions and treatment that the animals face is also unsettling:
In Australia, hundreds of thousands of day old "bobby calves" are slaughtered every year. Even unborn calves whose pregnant mothers are killed may also be skinned.
Animals are subject to painful procedures without anesthetics: castration, dehorning, branding, and mulesing.
The animals live in cramped, unnatural conditions and are deprived of living a full life.
In places where animals are considered sacred (like the cows in India), the animals are forced to walk thousands of miles to countries where they are not as "sacred".
Animals are often skinned alive and are likely to be conscious and sensitive to stress and pain for hours after the process.
The Future of Leather
It's quite possible that the future of leather could be faux. In 2019 a poll found that 37% of people in the UK and 23% of people in the US think that "leather is an inappropriate material to use in clothing". Although vegan leather makes only 2% of women's luxury goods, interest is on the rise.
However the future is bright:
Allbirds is investing in plant based leather substitute Natural Fiber Welding
Hermès is launching a new bag made from vegan mushroom leather
Beyond Leather Materials, a Danish startup, raised a seed round last year to disrupt the $70B leather industry.
Leather factories are also approaching improving the leather supply chain by introducing proper development to help produce more efficient and sustainable hides. Some of these include tackling livestock cloud management, technology equipment, and new environmental and sustainability policies. The Leather Working Group, ZDHC Programme, Textile Exchange, Bluesign are all looking to improve non-toxic leather.
Alternatives to Consider
With the rise in concern for environmental, animal, and human cost of producing leather, consumers have been switching to alternatives made from innovative ingredients: fruit, cork, coffee, and cactus to name a few. Turns out consuming vegan leather isn't a fashion faux pas after all. However it is important to point out that some brands use polyurethane and PVC leather which is cheap, non biodegradable and derived from fossil fuels. Although they are vegan, these materials aren't as sustainable.
Here are some brands paving the path for vegan leather alternatives and won't break the bank:
Matt and Nat
What You Can Do
Hopefully you’ve been suede by our piece! Here’s how you can help out:
Consider buying vegan leather alternatives that are not made out of plastics.
Thrift or find sustainable, more ethically friendly sourced leather items.
Learn more about how brands create leather alternatives.
Help your friends out — share this article with them!
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