Leather-free fashion is on the rise
Fur tends to grab the headlines when it comes to ethical fashion. San Francisco banned sales of fur products last year and the entire state of California may soon make the same move. But for many brands, including Prada, Chanel, Gucci, Armani, and Michael Kors, fur has already gone the way of shoulder pads and a blue ruffled suit. Since 1988, the number of mink farms in the US plummeted from 1,027 to fewer than 300 today.
You certainly can’t say the same about fur’s less fuzzy counterpart—leather. Made primarily from the hide of cows, leather goes into millions of shoes, bags, and coats every year, not to mention car interiors and furniture. The leather industry is worth over $94.7 billion worldwide. So why does fur get called out by animal welfare groups while leather mostly gets a pass?
One reason may be that animals are raised specifically for their fur, while leather is largely a byproduct of the meat industry. (The exception is exotic leathers, like crocodile and ostrich.) The other may be that consumers are largely unaware of how much environmental damage leather does.
new leather shoes come at a cost
Factory farming with all its attendant evils—the greenhouse gas emissions, public health problems, and animal cruelty—cannot be blamed entirely on the demand for leather goods. Instead, look to our appetite for meat, which amounts to 215 pounds per American a year, according to 2016 data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and the Food Agriculture Organization.
Ranchers and farmers typically get very little for skins and the market is flooded (thanks to all that meat we eat). Since 2014, the cost of leather has dropped by almost half, according to US Department of Agriculture.
But to convert raw hide into leather it must be tanned. This makes the process of creating brand new leather shoes a resource-intensive, toxic waste-producing, environmental mess.
Tanning involves soaking, hair-removal, de-liming, bleaching, tanning, crusting, and something called fat liquoring, which is the process of introducing oil into the skin before the leather is dried. A whopping 661 pounds of chemicals are used to produce one ton of tanned leather. In the mix are aluminum, formaldehyde, heavy oils, and, worst of all, chromium sulfate, which stabilizes collagen fibers in the animal skin.
Ninety percent of leather made in the United States uses chromium sulfate, which is considered toxic by the EPA. The United Nations Industrial Development Organization found the chromium sulfate tanning method alone is responsible for 15% of leather’s carbon footprint.
Another cost of tanning is the amount of water used. Just over 9,200 gallons of waste water is produced per ton of raw hide. This waste water contains preservatives, lime and ammonium salts, sulphides, dye, solvent chemicals, polyphenolic compounds, and chromium sulfate. Most of it then washes into groundwater, rivers, and oceans.
Tanneries are based largely in developing countries, which means people with very few resources get hit the hardest. The health risks caused by tanneries are outlined in grim detail in the documentary Hazaribagh Toxic Leather, which spotlights the many tanneries in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Among the health issues suffered by tannery workers: cancer, sores that won’t heal, ulcers, chronic breathing diseases, metabolic disorders, and organ failure.
Kicking Leather to the curb
The leather industry remains huge, but an increasing number of consumers are spurning shoes made of cow hide for alternatives—bad news for an industry dependent on footwear for 55 percent of its revenue.
Why are consumers replacing leather with different materials? Mainly because of the way it looks, according to industry reports.
The growth of leather-free footwear may have its origins in a 2014 drought that forced ranchers to shrink their herds, according to The Maxfield Report. Manufacturers started looking for more affordable options and found them in fabrics, recycled plastic, and other alternatives. Allbirds, which makes its popular shoes from wool, castor oil, recycled plastic bottles, and cardboard, was launched that same year.
The result is that cutting back on leather is easier than ever. One option is to choose products made with Vegetan, cowhide tanned using plant materials instead of toxic chemicals. It involves the animal but is 70 to 80 percent biodegradable. But there are plenty of other alternatives. Note: Don’t fall for the faux leather formerly known as “pleather.” It contains non-biodegradable plastic, or PVC—so not earth-friendly.
Alternatives to leather
Fabric made from recycled material. Many modern fabrics are made from recycled industrial waste or plastics. Repreve, Lorica, and Waste2Wear are among the companies using these fabrics for apparel, packaging, and shoes.
Cork. Cork is a naturally water-resistant, durable, organic material that is easily recycled. It’s also harvested from the bark of the trees, meaning the trees get to keep living and cleaning the air. These days you can easily shop for cork bags, wallets, and shoes.
Plant leather. Apple pulp, pineapple leaves, banana skins, mushrooms—they’re all being used to make bags, shoes, clothing, and other accessories. Piñatex is a textile made from pineapple leaf fibers. It was developed by a leather goods expert after she consulted for the Philippines leather export industry in the 1990’s and saw for herself the environmental cost of mass leather production. MuSkin is another eco-conscious company, which is turning portabella mushrooms into a suede-like, water-resistant material. Thamon is turning fallen tree leaves into totes and accessories.
Lab-grown leather. Modern Meadow, a biotech company based in New Jersey, is growing leather using yeast cells to mimic collagen. While still in its infancy, the animal-free leather product, called Zoa, is expected to make its debut soon. “Our strategy is to innovate with our current partners to bring products that contain our material to market over the next few years,” says the team.
Brands for eco-conscious shoppers
It’s not hard to find so-called vegan fashion. Many brands are experimenting with alternatives because of the growing demand for them. Following is a sampling of the many eco-conscious fashion brands eschewing leather in the making of clothes and furniture.
Rothys - Recycled water bottles and recycled thread.
Natives- Recyclable EVA foam.
Allbirds - Wool, castor oil, plastic bottles, and cardboard.
Matt & Nat - Completely vegan handbag and shoe company. Made from recycled nylon, cardboard, rubber, and cork.
Melie Bianco - Made from PVC-free faux-leather
Bare Boheme - Recycled plastic bottles and polyurethane.
Reformation- Animal-free fashion made from natural and recycled fibers such as TENCEL™
Vegan Design - Made from linens, cottons, polyurethane, and woods.
Ecobalanza. - Made from organic cottons and sustainably sourced woods. No synthetic chemicals.
Made Trade - Made from a variety of ethically and sustainably sourced materials including linens, metals, and woods.
Takeaway: It’s great to have options when it comes to shopping. But the easiest and cheapest way to help the planet is to not buy so much new stuff. Shop for seconds instead. Producing goods on an industrial scale, no matter how sustainably, results in carbon emissions and waste. One good online source for upcycled furniture and vintage clothing is Etsy, a certified B-Corporation. ThredUp is another popular online thrift store, as is Swap and DePop. Have fun swapping.