How great it is to wear leather? That amazing soft feeling when you touch it is well known to most of us. Not to mention its properties: it’s resistant, easy to shape, healthy, breathable, can be used to produce any sort of fashion item and the older it is the better it looks. To cut a long story short: leather is amazing.
But is it really so?
Among others, it has always been claimed that leather is a great in fashion, that it is much healthier than any other shoe materials as it allows your feet to breath and least but not last that leather production is not a threat to animal welfare but only a byproduct of the meat industry. However in the past few years researches and documentaries have shown that the situation is not as bright as one may think.
Now, let’s first analyze the situation from the fashion point of view. Leather is essential both in haute couture and pret-à-porter. And not only in accessories, but also in jackets, pants, blouses and so on. This is very understandable: leather is extremely adaptable and looks stunning no matter what. However, nowadays several brands have started to produce many of these items from ecological leather, a fancy word for plastic. Centuries ago men needed leather to produce shoes and clothes, there was just no alternative. But way less items were produced every year and way less people needed them. Data from the market intelligence agency Mintel show that in 2015 31% of the UK population bought at least one new handbag. Out of these 20 million bags, I think we can make a good estimate by saying that at least 5 % of them were made of leather. This would mean that last year at least 1 million leather bags were sold only in the UK. As you can see it is a tremendous amount, let alone all the other leather products.
The main problem according to fashion victims is that there aren’t good-enough alternatives out there. This is however not true. If fact, there is more than one. Brands like Bourgeois Boheme gave up leather and other toxic and polluting PVCs to adopt a cotton-backed microfiber PU, textile and other natural materials for their gorgeous and fashionable shoes. The Canadian brand Matt & Nat, on the other hand, only produces accessories out of lining from 100% recycled plastic bottles, which is simply amazing! Another recently discovered leather substitute is muskin, a 100% biodegradable material made of fungi grown in a woven pattern. It looks like suede and it has all the benefits of the well known leather, without being chemically treated. And these are only some alternatives.
This bring us to our next question: is leather really better and healthier than other synthetic materials? It depends on the synthetic material in question. Traditional synthetic leather is either made of Polyurethane (PU) or Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC). Both polymers take a very long time to biodegrade. PVC can take up to 1000 years to fully decompose and has been labeled by Greenpeace as the worst type of plastic ever due to the dioxin it releases during manufacture. PU is better for the environment and needs to be treated with less toxic substances, but it still needs a couple of hundred years to biodegrade. Leather is per se a natural material, which is why people think it is much better for us to work with and wear.
However, documentaries from the past few years have shown that the situation is much worse than we could ever imagine.
First of all, leather is treated with many different toxic substances, chromium III and the more dangerous hexavalent chromium being the most popular. A 2013 article from National Geographic shows the terrible conditions of workers in tanneries in Kanpur, India, where men work without even wearing protective suits. All these tanneries have of course recycling implants for toxic waste, but they all rely on electricity which is often not working. This results in million of gallons of polluted water to be released into the Gange river every day (79 million gallons a day in 2013). Similar situations are seen in other Asian countries, such as Bangladesh and China. Chromium III is less dangerous than hexavalent chromium, but definitely not safe. Among the side effects of the exposure to these agents we find eyesight and skin problems, blood diseases, asthma and death.
Besides the workers’ extremely high risk, we must also face the great environmental threat. As most of the toxic waste is discharged in the local water, the pollution levels rise exponentially and make the ground around the area highly toxic. Unless the leather production slows down, pollution will simply grow and so will diseases and deaths.
This clearly shows us that, even though at first sight leather seems to be more breathable for our feet, in the end it is indeed much worst for the people implied in the production chain as well as for us. In fact that polluted water does not simply disappear into thin air but flows into the Gange river and later streams into the sea, where it indirectly pollutes the tomatoes from your garden and the salmon on your plate. This is not only a remote threat to people in India, this is threat to you as well.
A counterargument that could be raised now is that, if not used to produce bags and shoes, leather would simply be wasted, wouldn’t it? This brings us to our third question, the by- vs main product dichotomy. It does not take much investigation to see that leather hasn’t been a byproduct for a very long time. It’s way more valuable than meat and therefore it’s becoming more and more appealing for farmers to breed animals for their skin rather than their meat. In 2009 Greenpeace published a report, Slaughtering the Amazon, showing that the Brazilian leather production alone is responsible for 14% of the world’s annual deforestation.
Presently 290 million cows are slaughtered every year for leather production, but the demand keeps increasing and within 10 years the amount of animals killed every year for their skin might rise up to 430 million. These numbers are enormous, especially if we think that for the american meat industry 28 million cows are slaughtered every year, almost one tenth of the world’s leather industry. It’s a paradox. Cattle leather is the most popular leather on the market, but in the last decades high end brands have also started producing accessories made of more exotic animal leather, such as ostrich. In these cases the leather is almost only a main product: in ostrich farms in South Africa the skin accounts for about 80% of the total bird value. The same holds for other animals, such as crocodiles, pythons, kangaroos and so on.
All three traditional “myths” about leather seem to be not only untrue but also groundless. Leather is treated with toxic and extremely polluting substances, making it dangerous for the workers and devastating for the environment. It remains a great fashion material, but its exponential growth in the last years transformed it from by- to main product, making it even more unethical and (again) a great threat to the environment. As technology advances, however, so does the search for versatile and quality alternatives, such as recycled PVC and vegetable materials like muskin.
Acknowledging a problem is always the first step towards finding a solution. And the problem here is indeed that shoppers are mostly unaware of what’s the story behind their precious leather jackets. The first step towards a more respectful clothing industry is indeed buyers’ awareness, not only about the industry itself but also about the good alternatives out there.
Perhaps this can be that small step for many of us towards building a better world.