How Can Leather Be Real & Ethical?

26 comments

Ethical-Leather_openerIllustrated by Ly Ngo.

The fashion industry is one of the largest and most complex in the world. From seed to shirt and animal to handbag, there are an overwhelming number of steps involved in the global production chain that produces the pieces we wear and carry. Sadly, though, the desire for high profit margins has forced social and environmental concerns largely to the sidelines. But, individuals and organizations are trying to address these issues through a movement called “ethical fashion.”

A story we ran several weeks ago titled "8 Rising Stars On The Ethical-Fashion Scene" received a great comment. A reader asked how leather could possibly be considered “ethical fashion.”

Fantastic question.
Ethical-Leather_4Illustrated by Ly Ngo.

The term “ethical fashion” is thorny, and it can often elicit a mountain of questions — namely, “How can fashion be ethical at all?” These queries arise because "ethical fashion" means different things to different people, though it's actually an umbrella label for a movement aimed at improving the fashion industry’s social and environmental impact. So, while some people assume that “ethical fashion” simply means vegan — that is, not wearing fur or leather — that's not necessarily true. Of course, whether or not you agree with killing animals and wearing them is a personal decision. But, it's important to acknowledge that leather is a by-product of the meat industry, which is not going away any time soon. So, making the road from living creature to leather good as humane and environmentally sustainable as possible is the dilemma we seek to address.

As long as there is demand for meat, hides will result. But, should they end up in landfills? “If you’re a meat eater, as I am, it’s almost unethical not to wear leather,” says New York-based ethical-womenswear designer Titania Inglis, who uses both leather and fur in her collections. She sources the fur from animals killed by tribes during hunting. Let's just take a look at practices like this. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, nearly 35 million cattle hides are produced by the U.S. meat industry annually. The United States Environmental Protection Agency notes that untreated cowhides weigh about 65 pounds apiece. So, 35 million hides at 65 pounds apiece — if these were pitched rather than made into leather, imagine the amount of waste!

While we're discussing how hides are acquired, we should note that we're not referring to exotic skins, like ostrich and alligator, when we mention leather. These animals are often killed purely for their valuable skins, and the meat is ultimately tossed. (That said, if an alligator is chasing after you, we fully support self-defense measures!)
Ethical-Leather_1Illustrated by Ly Ngo.

But, what other practices are employed to create "ethical leather"? The term can address various aspects of the production process, like vegetable tanning and the use of dead-stock leather and skins from pasture-fed, locally raised animals. The industrial leather-making process can be pretty toxic, and since the U.S. EPA imposes strict regulations on chemical use and waste disposal, most tanneries operate in countries like India and China, where few or no restrictions exist. But, solutions are available. And, vegetable tanning is one — it's an ancient and eco-friendly process that uses vegetable matter to tan the hide rather than the toxic chromium utilized by industrial tanning.

Some designers also turn to dead-stock leather, or surplus leather. These are runs of leather that were never used and thus become destined for the landfill. This jacket from The Reformation, a sustainable line of clothing, is one beautiful example of this particular practice.

Another option for individuals seeking ethical leather is to buy goods made from locally raised animals, which limits the carbon emissions involved in the chain of transport. It’s important to remember that if you see the label “Made in Italy,” this sometimes means the item was constructed in Italy — not that the leather actually originated there. More often than not, the leather trail goes something like this: Cattle are raised in Brazil, tanned in China, dyed in India, stitched in Italy, and the product is sold as a good in the U.S. Now, that's a whole lot of carbon emissions!
Ethical-Leather_2Illustrated by Ly Ngo.

Still, some leather-goods lines are pushing back against this carbon-heavy system, bringing the process home. Parabellum, for instance, is an L.A.-based line of luxury leather wares that relies on a domestic supply chain for ethical production. Its goods are produced entirely in the States, down to the tanning process, with the exceptionally durable hides from older, pasture-raised bison. Similar to cowhides, bison hides are a direct by-product of the meat industry, and the protein has become increasingly popular as a healthier, leaner alternative to beef. Some ethical advantages to Parabellum’s domestic-production process include supporting the local economy, limiting carbon dioxide emissions through decreased transport, and giving a boost to local leather craftsmen.

The preservation of handcraft and artisanal traditions also falls under the umbrella of ethical fashion. After all, if these practices aren't reinforced economically, they will die out — and, with them, the source of income for the small and specific group of people who perform them. But, labels like Parabellum are passionate about supporting these craftsmen. Mike Feldman and Jason Jones, founders of the company, work with “one of the last masters left. Or, one of a very small room of people, “ says Feldman.
Ethical-Leather_5Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that many leather alternatives can also be ethically problematic in their own ways. “Vegan” materials are often made from plastic, which isn’t biodegradable and has a super-toxic production process. Furthermore, canvas footwear is easily disposable compared to hearty leather shoes that will last a lifetime with re-soling (and, let's admit, become more awesome with age). And, let's not forget that cotton is a hornets' nest of a topic, as this material is one of the most water- and pesticide-intensive crops on the planet.

Shopping with ethical fashion in mind, it’s important to realize there is no such thing as a perfect product. As long as something new is produced, some kind of waste will, in fact, result. But, does that mean we shouldn’t look the processes squarely in the eye and make more educated decisions? Yes, the definition of "ethical fashion" will come down to personal choice, but one thing's certain: You can never go wrong when you buy smarter.