I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I was a vegetarian for about five years before I gave even the slightest thought to the issue of leather.
Some of my vegetarian friends had long shunned leather, but not me. After all, I’d heard somewhere that it was just an unfortunate byproduct of the meat industry, so what could I do about that? Besides, as a fashion lover, I secretly considered buying leather as necessary to my life as air. I thought leather equaled luxury.
It wasn’t until I started studying fashion design at Parsons that I became deeply fascinated with textiles and the stories behind them. I began reading a lot about sustainable fashion, environmental issues in the industry and about how different fabrics and materials were created—especially those from animals. That’s when the doubts about my commitment to leather started creeping into my mind, fact by unsavory fact.
I remember buying some leather booties and having my first real, rather excruciating moral dilemma about it. The more I learned about leather—about the ethical as well as environmental devastation it involved—the more gloomy my purchases left me feeling. I haven’t bought any new leather in about seven years now, and after learning the whole truth about the nasty business of the leather industry, I have no regrets.
However, I’ve been noticing a new trend. For people who were once turned off by the environmental implications of leather, there’s a new savior mercifully relieving everyone of their worry and guilt: vegetable-dyed leather.
“Veg-dyed,” “veg-tanned,” “eco-leather”—whatever it may be called—independent as well as mainstream brands that have been trying to appeal to eco-conscious consumers have dived headfirst into this thing, with wild abandon.
Vegetable-dyed leather is suddenly everywhere. At craft fairs. At hip boutiques that sell ceramic mugs and minimalist jumpsuits. On the labels of larger retailers like Eileen Fisher and Bergdorf Goodman. You hear, “But it’s vegetable-dyed”—and your mind goes, “Oh, okay! So this is good for the environment! This is the good leather.” It might even conjure up images of some ye olde tannery, where skins are delicately soaked in berry juice (organic, of course). “Vegetable-dyed leather” conveys an aura of natural purity—and no one, it seems, is immune to its appeal.
But is this new godsend of an eco-friendly leather as glorious as it sounds? Let’s explore the reality…
The truth: Leather isn’t natural to begin with.
No matter how many arguments are made about the pros and cons of leather, one belief seems to trump them all: that leather is natural, and therefore, needing to own leather products is a fact of life. True, it is skin, but once the animal dies, the skin immediately starts to naturally break down and decompose. And it takes a whole lot of chemicals to get it to not rot away.
Leather is known for lasting forever. But untreated animal skin certainly doesn’t. In truth, leather lasts so long because of the 250 chemicals used—many of them extremely toxic, such as formaldehyde, arsenic, cyanide, ammonium chloride, sulphuric acid and chromium—which cause the skin to become a stable product that actually won’t biodegrade. So it would be more accurate to say that leather once was a natural product, but not so much anymore. Finishing leather goes through about 13 steps including de-hairing, trimming, fleshing, pickling, tanning, shaving and fat-liquoring—and each step involves multiple chemicals. This ain’t your great grandpa’s backyard tannery.
Leather comes from non-glamorous, non-eco sources.
No matter how clean and minimal the hang tag on that new veg-dyed leather bag looks, its original source was not clean, pure or eco-friendly in any sense of the words. Leather primarily comes from China, India and Brazil, the world’s top three suppliers. In China and India there are no real enforced environmental or animal-welfare regulations, and cattle ranches in Brazil are directly responsible for about 80 percent of Amazon rainforest deforestation. Though people often repeat that “leather is just a byproduct” of the meat industry, sales of leather hides make up a significant portion of profits. These polluting and destructive industries profit directly from the demand for leather.
Let’s also look at the devastating environmental damage caused by leather tanneries. Today the vast majority of the world’s tanneries are located in poverty-stricken countries, Bangladesh being especially popular because of its dirt-cheap labor. Hazaribagh, a filthy, poverty-stricken neighborhood in Bangladesh’s capital city of Dhaka, has more than 200 tanneries and not a single septic system.
There is no protection for the workers and no safe waste-disposal systems. The poisonous chemicals and waste material (flesh, hair, etc.) are dumped directly into rivers near the factories. As a result, the entire region is suffocated by disease, death and poverty. Ninety percent of the villagers will die before age 50. There is also a tremendous amount of water wasted (an average 20,000 gallons per ton of hides processed) and air pollution output that occurs during leather tanning. And here’s another surprising fact: In the end, 70 percent of each hide ends up as chemical-laden solid waste.
Vegetable tanning is just as bad as conventional tanning.
For many people, the vegetable-dyed leather thing sounds like a godsend. Vegetable dyeing means that the tannins from bark and other plant parts were used in the dyeing process, instead of the usual chromium. But as I mentioned earlier, tanning leather isn’t a one-step operation, it’s a long and deeply involved process of around 13 steps with multiple deadly chemicals per step. So removing one chemical when there are almost 250 others used makes hardly any difference.
I’ve heard vegetable-dyed leather described as “chemical free,” but this is simply not true. If it were chemical free, the skin would be decomposing before your eyes. In 2008, the BLC Leather Technology Centre Ltd. commissioned a study to see whether chrome or vegetable tanning was safer for the environment and found no significant difference between them. They both have an environmental impact, just in different ways. Also, vegetable-dyed leather tends to be more brittle and unstable when wet, meaning veg-dyed leather goods are likely to end up in a landfill sooner. So this is a classic example of greenwashing—making something sound more eco than it is. The bottom line is that there is no such thing as environmentally-friendly leather.
Even if you manage to do your research and find legitimate vegetable-dyed leather from a U.S. tannery, what about the treatment of the animal used for its skin? Did the hide come from the U.S. or from overseas? (Note: the origin of the hide is not required to be labeled.) What about the chemicals used to prep and stabilize the hide? What about the unavoidable water waste and chemical-laden solid waste? How and where was the toxic waste disposed? I would urge you to be able to confidently answer these questions before buying leather new.
But a more eco-friendly choice would be to buy leather secondhand, or to support innovative companies that sell leather alternatives, many of whom use eco-friendly and recycled materials. As for shoes, Matt and Nat, Bhava, Nicora Shoes, Olsenhaus and Novacas are some of my favorite vegan companies. Bionic Yarn, a new material made from recycled marine plastic, is being used by companies like Adidas and Timberland. And Pinatex is a leather alternative made from sustainably harvested pineapple materials and used by companies like Veja and Puma.
With a bit of research, we can all choose truly sustainable products, and leave the suffering and pollution in the past, where it should be.
Author: Kendall Wilson
Image: Instagram @lexiesale
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina