I’ve wanted to write about leather for quite some time. It’s needless to say that this topic is very controversial. And, when it comes to sustainability in fashion – it’s even more so. Without further ado, here are some facts you should take into consideration when working with or buying leather.

THE WELLBEING OF ANIMALS

Obviously, problem number one with leather is the fact an animal has to die for us to wear its skin. According to PETA, every year, the global leather industry slaughters more than a billion animals and tans their skins and hides.

Some might argue that leather is actually good since the skin is a co-product of the meat industry and would otherwise be thrown away. That’s a fair point but the meat industry is a huge problem for the environment itself and making leftover skins into leather instead of throwing them away isn’t quite environmentally friendly as it might sound. According to PETA, “until the late 1800s, animal skin was air- or salt-dried and tanned with vegetable tannins or oil, but today, animal skin is turned into finished leather with a variety of much more dangerous substances, including formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, mineral salts, and various oils, dyes, and finishes, some of which are cyanide-based.”

These substances are harmful to people who work with them, they make the previously biodegradable skin into a non-biodegradable one and eventually, as Tansy Hosking wrote in her book Stitched Up, they end up in our rivers and pollute our drinking water.

Also, when we talk about skins as co-products of the meat industry, we think of cattle skin. And what about exotic animal skins?

Last year Prada bought 700 young alligators and 26 full-grown alligators to make bags, shoes and other items from their hydes. (The Fashion Law) And that’s just one brand and one type of animal. Snakes, ostriches, kangaroos, yaks, sheep all get slaughtered for their skins or even worse, are skinned alive.

How can we avoid this? Stop buying leather or buy it second hand. But what if you really want a piece that at least looks like its made of leather?

YOU’VE BEEN FOOLED BY VEGAN LEATHER

Going vegan is the number one thing to do today. Everyone’s drinking oat milk, they’ve ditched meat and are promoting so-called vegan leather. But do they even know what vegan leather really is?

When you say something is vegan people will often think it’s also environmentally friendly because, well, vegans love nature and animals and don’t consume anything of animal origin. That might be true but it doesn’t make vegan leather environmentally friendly.

Vegan leather does not harm animals, and that’s a good thing. However, vegan leather is in most cases made of a polyester base with a PVC or polyurethane coating. According to CSIRO honorary research fellow and leather expert Robin Cranston, “they’re usually manufactured from fossil fuels and take a long time to break down once they reach the end of their useful life. (…) So you go from one industry which is traditionally based on skins that come from the meat industry to another industry that’s heavily dependent on petrochemicals.”

Besides being dependent on petrochemicals, the whole process of making PVC or polyurethane leather is also extremely harmful to the environment. British Vogue‘s writer and editor Ellie Pithers wrote about that subject and stated the following: “Both polyurethane and polyvinyl chloride must undergo chemical processes to make them flexible enough to mimic leather: the former involves painting liquified polyurethane onto a fabric backing, which requires a toxic solvent to render it fluid; the latter requires plasticizers such as phthalates, which are also toxic. Both derive from fossil fuels which, when burnt, release materials such as ash, nitrogen, and carbon into the atmosphere, which contribute to acid rain (as well as lots of other horrible things).”

CAN VEGAN LEATHER EVER BE GOOD

Absolutely yes. You can find many amazing alternatives out there that are sustainable, not harmful for the animals, and are biodegradable. There is Mylo, a vegan leather made from mushrooms’ underground structures developed by Bolt Threads. You’ve probably already heard of Piñatex, a vegan leather made from pineapple leaves in Spain by Ananas Anam that even H&M used in their sustainable collections. There is a company in Bolzano, Italy, called Frumat that makes leather from apple skins. And then there is Desserto, a new vegan leather developed this year in Mexico, made from the nopal cactus.

Leather can also be upcycled which is a method that a lot of designers have embraced in their work. Sarah Burton, Vivienne Westwood, Marine Sere and Price On Request (Croatia) are just a few of them. If you know any other leather alternatives, do let me know. And just stop buying leather.

Photo from “Friends/S05E11/The One with All the Resolutions” (1999).