Once revered as lifelong heirlooms, leather products have become trendy and disposable, which comes at a high cost to workers and the environment.
Leather is new darling of the fashion world. It is trendy and expensive – a perfect combination in the eyes of designers – and, for some reason, is less of a social taboo than fur. Even better for designers and stores, trend-hungry consumers are no longer content to buy one high-quality leather bag that will last for decades, but rather shop for new leather goods on a regular basis, accessorizing their look with handbags, clutches, man-bags, messenger bags, wristlets, wallets, belts, and shoes on a regular basis. Such accessories brought in £1.34 billion in the United Kingdom last year alone. It’s a huge business right now and set to grow even larger.
The problem, however, is that the herds of cattle required to produce leather will need to grow, too, in order to keep up with demand. While leather is often considered a byproduct of beef consumption (something that many people view as unavoidable and, therefore, not unethical to keep the skin from going to waste), it is estimated that the number of cows slaughtered annually will have to increase from 290 million currently to 430 million by 2025, in order to “keep us in wallets, handbags, and shoes.”
“If all the ‘Italian leather’ merchandise was of true provenance you wouldn’t be able to move for cows in that country. They’d be drinking from the Trevi fountain.”
In an article called “Is it time to give up leather?” Lucy Siegle argues that it’s time to move away from leather as a material of choice. The industry is vile and cruel from an ethical standpoint, both to animals and workers, which often include child laborers. It is filthy from an environmental standpoint, when you consider the greenhouse gas emissions from such massive herds of cattle and the toxic chemicals required for tanning. People in leather-producing communities in countries like India suffer from birth defects, skin discoloration, and other physical deformities from the chemicals that leach into the ground and waterways, as portrayed sickeningly in documentary film The True Cost.
“Nearly half of the global leather trade is carried out in developing countries – from Ethiopia to Cambodia and Vietnam – where, despite a backdrop of exploitation of animals and humans and the extraordinary level of pollution caused by unregulated tanneries and processors, the pressure is on to produce more.”
If you’re feeling reassured by a ‘Made in Italy’ stamp, Siegle points out that it only means the leather has been finished there. She writes, “If all the ‘Italian leather’ merchandise was of true provenance you wouldn’t be able to move for cows in that country. They’d be drinking from the Trevi fountain.”
Siegle makes a case for eco-pragmatism. If you insist on buying leather, then buy a high-quality, ethically-sourced product and make it last for the rest of your life. A few designers do make a genuine effort to explore their supply chain and learn exactly what goes into preparing hides, but it is not the norm. Better yet is to go the vegan route, which is becoming more popular. Synthetic materials have evolved to the point where leather is unnecessary and you can buy bags and other accessories that are gorgeous, with that delightful patina that so appeals, without traces of cruelty.
For leather-free bags, shoes, and other accessories, visit some of these designers:
Matt & Nat - Vegan leather accessories
Up-Fuse - Bags made from upcycled materials
Bourgeois Boheme - Vegan Shoes
Sew Much Style - Bags made from old suits
reWrap Tree Bags
15 Vegan Leather Accessories - Flare magazine