What is the Real Cost of Leather on This Planet?
What is the History Behind Leather Production?
The leather industry is one of the oldest industries in production as it is a versatile, durable textile. Pre-industrialization animal skins were used to provide warmth, protection via armour and seating. Today, we all interact or wear leather in some way, shape or form from the interiors of a car to the shoes on our feet, to the interiors of our homes.
In the European Union alone footwear is the largest product of leather consumption accounting for 41% of the outcome of leather. When deciding to include or exclude leather from your lifestyle, other aspects to consider are as follows. Some social issues that arise from leather production include waste management, environmental issues and animal rights. This blog’s focus is to highlight some of the discoveries of the leather industry and to evoke discussion and awareness to some of the issues caused by the result of the leather industry. We will also explore alternatives to enjoy leather more ethically and highlight a few ethically minded designers.
Leather is one of the top rated materials used when creating products that need be long lasting, durable and resilient. It is because of these same qualities that a large portion of consumers’ desire beautifully crafted designer handbags, shoes, or coats. But at what cost? The rise in fast fashion has created a large demand for leather goods. We as consumers are led to believe that the leather used to produce those items we enjoy is a by-product of the meat and dairy industry. Which without the leather process these rest of the animal would be sent to landfill or the incinerator.
It could be argued that animal farmers are doing the planet a good service by assisting with reducing the waste that is caused as a result of farming animals for meat; this efficient use of the whole animal should be applauded. The leather industry is comfortably a multi-billion dollar industry, hardly an industry that is suffering. This makes the animal just as valuable for its skin, as it is for its meat. Leather and meat are equally in demand and leather is not merely a by-product of the animal. This creates concerns about the treatment of animals at the farming stage in some of the largest producing countries of leather such as China, where regulations for treatment of animals are often not challenged.
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Another issue associated with the leather industry is Tanning. Tanning is the making and dying process of leather. This process produces many harmful chemicals which are dumped into our water system causing diseases which can affect vital organs in the human body including death and destroy natural wildlife. To keep up with the high demand, 95% of leather is typically tanned using the carcinogenic, chromium (VI) method favoured for its speedy process. Large amounts of this harmful pesticide are sprayed onto hides to preserve the skin and make it flexible for end use. The toxic residue is then washed away into our water system left to destroy the environment. Although this practice is less common in Europe and the US it is a practice used in China. As mentioned previously with little regulations in countries such as China designers of high-end bags, shoes, and other accessories are attracted to these low regulated factories due to the speed in which leather can be produced and the flexibility given to the leather skin which is well suited to these high-end products.
Aside from the concerns of treatment of the animals and environmental issues in the supply chain of the leather industry. There is also the issue of the harmful and hazardous working conditions of the tannery workers working in the factories and living nearby. The exposure to the chemicals used in the tanning process leaves workers exposed to fatal diseases and poor conditions.
How can You Make an Impact on the Leather Industry?
Where you stand on the leather industry will depend on your core values and your lifestyle choices. Whether you lead a vegan, vegetarian or a carnivorous lifestyle there are sustainable options to continue to enjoy leather or leather alternatives in a way which are less harmful on the environment, animals and humankind. Sustainable and ethical leather companies are emerging at a growing rate. Some ecologically minded companies include Matt and Nat, Oak Shoes, Timberland, and Studio Nelle. Matt and Nat are a wonderful stylish accessories company providing bags, purses, and wallets free of leather or any other animal based materials using recycled materials such as cardboard, rubber, and cork. For the shoe lover, Oat Shoes “makes shoes that bloom”. Their shoes are totally biodegradable and once they have reached the end of their use can be planted in the ground which will eventually bloom into flowers. Brands such as Timberland place significant value on human rights. In my own brand Studio Nelle I source my leather accessories from the by-product of pre-consumer waste and recycled leather items. You can learn more in my next post which looks at leather waste.
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