What do celebrities Natalie Portman, Emma Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch have in common? All have been seen wearing items that – to the untrained eye – might look like they're constructed from animal leather, but are actually made using cutting-edge vegan leathers that are beating animal leather on performance, sustainability and fashion credentials.
By Annick Ireland, Founder of Immaculate Vegan
Leather is sometimes described as a by-product of the meat industry, but the reality is very different. It contributes a significant portion of revenues for animal farmers, and in some cases outweighs the revenues generated from the meat (for example in ostrich farming, where the skin is worth four times the meat’s value).
It's certainly a lucrative industry, worth around $400 billion, with over one billion animals killed every year just for leather. Many species are bred and hunted for their skins, including sheep, lambs, goats, pigs, zebras, bison, kangaroos, elephants, crocodiles, alligators, ostriches, lizards and snakes. But the most used and abused animal is the cow, with 290m currently killed every year for their skins, estimated to grow to 430m by 2025.
The numbers sound pretty scary, and it’s clearly a grim picture for all the animals involved – but what’s the real impact of leather production to people and the environment, is there an ethical leather option, and what about vegan leathers?
Where does leather come from?
We buy leather products – bags, shoes, wallets, jackets – without knowing where the skin came from; or anything about how the animals were kept and killed; or how the people involved in their production were treated.
Your beautiful (and expensive) butter-soft leather bag may come with a lovely ‘Italian leather’ tag, but all that means is that the bag was finished in Italy – the skin could have been imported from anywhere. In fact, nearly half of the global leather trade is carried out in developing countries, including China, Brazil and India, where animal rights are almost non-existent, and leather-workers suffer daily exposure to a toxic stew of life-shortening chemicals. Suddenly leather doesn't sound so sexy.
The impact on the environment
Leather is no friend to the environment. A massive study called Pulse of the Fashion Industry (published by Global Fashion Agenda and The Boston Consulting Group) looked at the environmental damage caused by a large range of materials commonly used in fashion, from cradle to grave, and found leather to have the worst environmental impact, more than twice that of PU / polyurethane-based (plastic) leather (see below). In fact, the research showed that 3 of the 4 worst materials for the environment, per kilogram, are derived from animals (leather, silk, inorganic cotton and wool).
Leather production has such a devastating impact on the environment because it hits it from so many angles. Firstly there’s the use of preciously limited resources (water, food, land) that’s required to farm the animals in the first place, and the resulting deforestation and loss of natural habitats.
The recent fires across the Amazon have shone a light on the role that meat and leather production have been having on the destruction of the rainforest in the region. As long ago as 2009 Greenpeace published a report called Slaughtering the Amazon, which stated that the demand for leather specifically was a key contributor of the destruction of the Amazon. As The Guardian reports "Researchers found cattle ranchers were clearing rainforest illegally despite laws protecting it.. One hectare of rainforest was being lost to ranches every 18 seconds. Through a murky supply chain, Brazilian beef companies were then supplying leather to leading global fashion brands and retailers."
Then there’s the waste products from livestock farming, including CO2 emissions (approx. 15% of all human-induced emissions globally), excrement (130 times as much as the entire human population, without the benefit of waste treatment plants) and waste water.
And then of course there is the toxic nature of the tanning process, that's required to turn a raw animal skin into a durable fashion material that doesn't biodegrade while you're wearing it (because no-one wants shoes that rot on their feet). Leather tanning is a highly water-intensive process, and it also creates a large amount of wastewater, with a heavy pollutant load.
A toxic stew of chemicals are used, including mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, lead, dyes and cyanides; and most leather produced in the world today (including in the US) is chrome-tanned, releasing carcinogenic chromium into the water table. As highlighted by PETA, although leather can be tanned used non-toxic vegetable dyes, chrome tanning is faster and produces a more flexible leather that's better for high-end bags and coats, so there's no incentive for factories to switch.
The impact on people
As most leather production occurs in developing countries, most leather workers are not protected by any health and safety legislation or basic worker’s rights; they are usually paid below a minimum living wage; and child labour is common. In addition, they face severe health risks from constant exposure to toxins in completely unregulated conditions.
As reported in The Guardian, within Bangladesh, PETA India “documented workers, including children, performing hazardous tasks such as soaking hides in toxic chemicals and using knives to cut the skins.” In Pakistan, research has shown that “waste discharge from tanneries pollutes the air, soil, and water, causing serious health problems. Exposure … has been seen to culminate in a multiple array of disease processes such as asthma, dermatitis, hepatic and neurological disorders, and various malignancies”. The film The Toxic Price of Leather serves as a disturbing summary of the human cost of the leather industry. Something that everyone in the animal leather industry is very keen you never find out about, as who wants that on their conscience?
The impact on animals
The abusive treatment of animals reared for leather is well documented. As reported in The Guardian, PETA's video Hell for Leather ‘tracks a pathetic caravan of cattle between India and Bangladesh as they are driven along dusty roads for hours and hours, abused and tortured with every mile. Finally the animals are skinned (in front of each other) in the back streets of Dhaka. The skins are processed in makeshift tanneries with workers, including children, knee deep in toxic chemicals.’
In India, a PETA investigation found that workers were breaking cows’ tails and rubbing chili peppers and tobacco into their eyes, in order to force them to get up and walk after they had collapsed from exhaustion on the way to the slaughterhouse. Sadly these examples aren’t anomalies, but rather the reality of where much of the leather found in our high street and even luxury brands comes from. Even in the US, “many of the millions of cows and other animals who are killed for their skin endure the horrors of factory farming – extreme crowding and deprivation as well as castration, branding, and tail-docking – all without any painkillers. At slaughterhouses, animals routinely have their throats cut and some are even skinned and dismembered while they are still conscious.”
But what about 'ethical leather'?
Also sometimes called eco-leather, ethical leather often refers to practices such as the use of leather off-cuts in making leather products (reducing the use of resources); and the use of plant-based dyes in tanning, which are non-toxic. This is obviously an improvement on the use of chemical and chrome-based dying.
However, as most of the environmental impact occurs before the tanning stage, as a result of livestock farming, this doesn’t address most of the real impact of leather. Ethical leather may also require higher animal welfare standards, but as there is no standard regulation on this, it's very hard to monitor; and there's no getting around the fact that the animals still killed, which makes it hard to call it ethical. Happily, there is a genuinely ethical – and much more fashionable – choice that can be made instead.
The ethical and fashionable choice
These days you don't need to compromise ethics for aesthetics. There is a world of high end and cutting edge fashion brands who are producing beautiful vegan leather shoes, bags and accessories – without using any animal leather. And a wide range of high quality materials on offer. In addition, constant innovation in materials technology is resulting in new, more environmentally-friendly and truly ethical leathers every day, all which are making the fashion news. Here's our low-down on the best vegan leather alternatives.
The most common material used in vegan leathers, this is a plastic polymer, derived from petroleum. It's often bonded with a fabric backing to make vegan leathers. It's much more breathable, flexible and lighter than the well-known PVC (vinyl) plastic, and – whilst PU production isn't entirely non-toxic – it is a much greener alternative. Whereas PVC produces harmful dioxins and uses highly toxic chlorine, PU doesn't need the same chemical plasticizers, and does degrade over time. It's a great alternative to animal leather as it looks and feels very similar, and is known to wrinkle like leather when gathered, stitched, or tufted. Many of our brands who use PU vegan leather – including Blanlac, Ashoka and Taylor + Thomas – manufacture in Europe, where there are also strict emission controls on PU production, making it even more sustainable.
Many brands are now experimenting with using vegetable-based PU, made from plant oils. This decreases many of the chemical hazards associated with making PU, and makes the PU more biodegradable. Good Guys Don't Wear Leather have introduced a zero CO2 emissions vegan leather in their footwear, made from polymers derived from natural renewable sources such as cereals and vegetable seeds; whilst Watson & Wolfe use a PU vegan leather made from over 50% zero carbon plant oils.
Micronappa and Microsuede
Both these fabrics are high quality vegan leathers made from ultra-fine polyester or nylon fibres. Micronappa is similar to nappa leather whilst Microsuede is similar to suede. Both fabrics are breathable, soft to touch, long-lasting, waterproof and easy to clean. Noah and Mesa Shoes are examples of several brands making great use of both fabrics in their collections.
Most of our brands use vegan leathers made from recycled PU and other recycled plastics such as PET (made from plastic bottles) in place of virgin PU and polyester – either in part or completely. These include Hemincuff, Mesa Shoes, and Hozen (over 90% of their 2020 collection is made from recycled materials). Additionally, many brands use recycled plastics for their linings, including Expressions NYC and Osier.
Pinatex is an amazing ethical leather developed by Ananas Anam is made from pineapple leaf fibres, a waste product of the pineapple industry, and provides pineapple farmers with an additional source of income, as well as creating a super-sustainable new leather-like material. Several of our brands are using Pinatex in their collections, including Svala, Hozen and LUXTRA. Check out our Pinatex Edit for more Pinatex shoes, bags and accessories.
Apple Skin Leather
Apple skin leather is another amazing fabric made from a waste product, this time from apples grown for the food industry, from the region of Bolzano in northern Italy (one of the world’s largest apple-producing regions). The recovered apple skin and core waste is dried and reduced to a powder, and sent to a factory in Florence, where it's coagulated with PU and coated onto a cotton and polyester base. The resulting ethical leather contains a minimum of 50% apple fibre, and looks and feels a lot like real leather. Several of our brands have been real pioneers of apple skin leather products, including LUXTRA, Ashoka, Good Guys Don't Wear Leather and Sylven New York. Check out our Apple Leather Edit for more apple leather shoes, bags and accessories.
Also known as cork skin, this is made by harvesting the bark of the cork oak tree, which can renew itself every nine years. Harvested raw cork barks are left to dry for about six months. They're then steamed and boiled to give flexibility, after which they're sliced and pressed into a natural leather. It's waterproof, stain resistant, easy to maintain and very light, so it's a great material for bags in particular. Svala use it for several of their bags.
MulbTex is an innovative vegan leather made from the paper pulp of mulberry tree leaves, which are the staple food of silk worms. MulbTex bypasses the cruelty of killing the worms, and instead extracts the silk protein directly from the leaves. The mulberry leaf pulp is used to coat cotton canvas, and then glazed with tree sap to make it water resistant and weather-proof. This ethical leather has its own silky shine, and is as strong as silk, making it a great alternative to both animal leather and plastic. Gunas New York are using MulbTex in several of their designs, and their Moby bag is the world's first plant-based men's bag made from MulbTex.
Although we're somewhat conditioned to look for vegan materials that look and feel like animal leather, many of our brands also use beautiful fabrics like hemp and cotton to great effect. For example, Via Gioa use organic cotton and hemp for their gorgeous vegan ballet flats, whilst Hurtig Lane uses vegan tweed straps for some of its watch styles.
So if you want to be ahead of the fashion curve, and stand side by side with some of the most stylish and trend-setting people on the planet – ditch the animal leather and opt for the more progressive and sustainable vegan leather alternative. Which is what being Immaculate is all about.
Cover image by Ashoka Paris
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