Leather: how to reduce your impact.
Good quality leather looks great. It can be considered a luxury fabric, yet is used across a wide variety of garments and accessories. Despite tough economic conditions for many consumers and the often incredible expense, at least a couple of leather goods can be found in many people’s wardrobes, and demand appears to be growing. Over recent seasons everyone from Mulberry to Margiela have featured new silhouettes in their collections- including wide legged leather pants which inevitably filters down to the far reaching likes of Topshop, Zara and H&M.
You could be forgiven for thinking that purchasing a leather garment falls quite easily into the ‘Buy less, buy better’ category. However the high price point of good quality leather presents a dilemma: spend big and get something great, or get a comparable look for less? Many high street chains offer cheaper (albeit not as nice) versions of any leather garment you may want, which encourages multiple or more regular purchase behaviour.
But many consumers will be unaware of the processes that go into making leather products and the harsh effects it can have on the environment. With mass-consumption and lower price points comes mass-production, and unfortunately this rarely goes hand-in-hand with sustainable and responsible practices in industry.
Examples of small garment factories in Dharavi -Mumbai.
As leather is generally a by-product of the food industry, it seems efficient to use the skins generated. On the surface it seems better to follow the nose-to-tail principle of using the whole animal. (It’s worth considering the environmental impact of raising cattle for food versus it’s yield before even reaching the fashion industry, but that’s another discussion).
As much as the by-product story makes the idea more palatable there are a few other elements that should be considered. Cow hide represents 65% of the leather industry. Sheep, pigs and goats mostly make up the rest, with the odd ostrich and crocodile in the mix too. 20% of the income from a cow comes from its hide, whereas for an ostrich 80% of the income comes from the hide and 20% comes from the meat. This means an ostrich likely met it’s end in order to produce the lovely wallet you had your eye on, rather than because someone was hungry.
The process of slaughter has many horror stories surrounding it, which are out there should you feel inclined to search. The majority of Indian states have laws against the sale and slaughter of cows so it seems unusual that India is one of the biggest exporters of leather. Cows are smuggled across the border into Bangladesh where they fetch a significantly higher price but also suffer horribly on the journey or they can end up in illegal slaughterhouses in India.
The next —crucial— step in leather production is the tanning process, where the skin is turned into useable material for creating garments. The most widely-used process is Chromium tanning, which is used on 90% of all leather produced. To start with the hide is soaked in lime to get rid of the hair and fat then placed in acid salt and finally in Chromium sulphate along with selection of other where it comes out a light blue colour known as“ wet blue”. The particularly nice part of this chemical processing is that its often done by hand by people with very little protection from the effects. They suffer with horrible skin conditions and other illnesses in an effort to get a decent salary.
Chromium tanning is massively chemically intensive and has carcinogenic components. Although it is strictly regulated in Europe there are few controls at the point of production elsewhere. For example, tanneries in the Hazaribag of Dhaka in Bangladesh (one of the top 10 most polluted places on Earth) can be pumping over 22,000 cubic litres of toxic waste water into the river where people fish, drink and bathe every day. Chromium tanning is very water and chemical intensive and has resulted in areas around tanneries offering residents a life expectancy of around 50 years.
Bloomberg Business week- waste dumped in Buriganga River // Vice News- Toxic Tanneries.
As unpleasant as all of this sounds its important be clear that there are alternatives out there. Vegetable tanning uses tannins found in trees and plants taking 3-5 weeks but is much safer to dispose of and does not have the same carcinogenic effects. Vegetable tanned leather is also easily recyclable.
Fashion Vortex- a trip to a vegetable leather tannery.
After years of growth there’s an awful lot of leather out there. Upcycling is a great way to take advantage of this pre-prepared resource, London/ Copehagen based brand PeleCheCoco really make the most of this and rework old jackets, skirts and coats into affordable styles which are on trend while being respectful to the planet. They also work with recycled fabrics from Himalyan tribes which adds variety and depth to the accessories in the range.
PeleCheCoco upcycled leather range and Beyond Retro upcycled leather shopper.
It’s important to check where the leather you’re about to buy came from, and how it was produced. If you’re buying new, consider seeking out vegetable tanned leather. As decent leather is hardy stuff, keep an eye out for second-hand or vintage as it’s cheaper than new and you’re avoiding adding to the chromium tanned nightmare. Places like Beyond Retro have a really great selection of leather accessories and garments which have been repurposed to have a new lease of life.
Some good leather options-
Some interesting articles-