How sustainable is leather?

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A growing contingent of brands are working to change the negative narrative that surrounds this durable classic.

How sustainable is leather?
Who What Wear recently declared leather “the weirdest trend for summer”. Traditionally reserved for products like satchels, shoes, shelter, sofas and for shielding the body from the cold, the protective hide is no longer season-specific when it comes to style trends. Or confined to the popular biker jacket. Now it’s being fashioned into items like wrap dresses and shirts – and included in must-have lists that are driving demand even higher.

In Vogue

Because leather is back in fashion, Vogue Business said: “A growing contingent of brands and retailers — and the leather industry itself — is working to change the negative narrative that surrounds this durable classic.”

Even though leather is technically a by-product of or co-product from another industry and comes from animals bred for their meat – meaning it doesn’t need any extra land and resources to make it – the tanning process used to treat it can have a huge impact on the environment and our health. They’re asking the hard questions to improve environmental standards – like using responsibly-sourced animal hide and better tanning practices.

What does that look like? It means using natural dyes, choosing recycled leather, only using long-lasting leather, choosing hides that come from cared-for animals and producing on demand to reduce wastage and restricting toxic chemicals.

Farm to fashion

According to the South African Vegan Society, making sure leather doesn’t rot involves a “series of processes – from skin recovery to curing, soaking and unhairing, deliming and bathing, to vegetable or mineral tanning, lubrication and dyeing, and finally to finishing”.

This requires a lot of energy and the chemicals used (like chromium, anthracene, formaldehyde and arsenic), have been said to be “linked to nervous disorders, asthma, premature death, gynaecological disorders, weakness, dizziness, headaches, abdominal pain, nausea, constipation, skin and respiratory infections, cancer and other serious illnesses”.

Like denim, tanneries belong to industrial sectors that use the highest levels of water. It’s said that it takes around 17 000 litres to make 1kg of leather – the equivalent of filling your bath 60 times.

There have been numerous exposés on how toxic leather can be for its workers and the populations that live around the factories and tanneries that turn it into a sellable material. A Pulitzer Center report revealed that Kanpur, with over 300 tanneries in the city, has become India’s leading leather exporter – and one of its biggest polluters. The water used is being dumped into sources of their drinking water, the factory chimneys expel thick smoke and an overflow of untreated effluent “passes through many communities on its way to the Ganges river”.

A conscious cleanup of the industry is already in the works, especially as socially-conscious millennials (also known as Generation Green), are willing to pay more for sustainable products and are putting pressure on brands to be more transparent.

What are the alternatives?

1. Buy secondhand or recycled leather products.

2. Even though there is not much info on whether vegan leather is friendlier to the environment, it helps reduce demand for animal hides that aren’t sourced or treated ethically.

3. Choose labels and brands that are transparent about their manufacturing process and the impact on workers and the environment.

4. Maybe in the longer term, if we ate less meat, it would slow down demand, shrink the number of animals that are bred for it and in turn reduce the hides available for sale.

Where to shop ethical leather goods?

1. Chimpel: They “only use reputable licensed breeding tanneries as suppliers to source [their] ostrich leather and crocodile hides” and say that they “focus on always being environmentally friendly, minimising waste and only using ethically sourced leather.

2. Kat van Duinen: The fashion designer “sources exotic leather from authorised, regulated farms and breeders”. And adds that “every skin used is legally and ethically sourced, with care and respect given to specially-farmed animals”.

3. Belt and Band: This brand hand selects their hides from top ethical leather suppliers in South Africa.

4. Matsidiso: Share that they offer “fair wages that are set above the industry standards”.

5. Veldskoen: Popular with Dragon’s Den Mark Cuban and actor/activist Ashton Kutcher, the shoe brand says they source “full grain reversible suede, which is a sustainably and ethically harvested by-product from the local meat industry”.

6. Wild Leather Co: Their range of “travel, diaper and lifestyle bags are made from ethically sourced leather”.

7. Afrikan Passion Designs Sandal: Founders Nombuso Khanyile and Nisbert Kembo “currently source leather from various stores in Durban but have plans to use vegetable tanned leather – a process in which leather is tanned using plant-based dyes, rather than the harmful chemicals used in conventional tanning”.

8. SAYE: The company, which plants two trees for each pair of SAYE sneakers that are sold, uses recycled and organic materials. Twyg says the sneaker is made from leather collected from offcuts destined for the landfill. Plus, they are packed in recycled boxes and paper.

9. VEJA: Describe their product as “environmentally friendly sneakers, made with raw materials sourced from organic farming and ecological agriculture, without chemicals or polluting processes”.

10. Thalia Strates: The company believes in transparency when it comes to manufacturing and materials used. They “believe in fair wages set by the artisans themselves, materials that are ethically sourced and building long-lasting relationships with local entities and customers alike”. The skins they use are “a by-product of the meat industry, where every part of the animal is used – horns, hooves, fur, feathers, meat etc”. They add that they don’t use skins from animals which are farmed just for their hide.

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