Leather, what’s ethical and what’s not?

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FROM: Ethical Fashion Forum

The SOURCE Intelligence team gets to the bottom of ‘ethical’ leather. SOURCE weighs up options for sustainable and ethical leather and non-animal leather alternatives, including a few key suppliers. Image: Heidi Mottram bag in Poulard

In this article, the SOURCE team reviews the options for sourcing leather ethically and sustainably. We look at some of the most common types of animal leather as well as some more exotic skins and vegan alternatives.

This article includes:

  • Leather as a by-product of the meat industry
  • The problem with poor treatment of animals
  • Chrome verses vegetable tanned leather
  • What’s the deal with patent leather?
  • Alternative ethical leather options – both animal and non-animal
  • Top tips for sourcing ethical leather and leather alternatives

Research compiled by Amber Carter, additional reporting and editing by Sarah Ditty

There are those for whom leather represents a durable, desirable and biodegradable material that can help make a fashion product stand the test of time. For others, particularly vegetarians and vegans, the use of leather is subject to the same philosophical questions surrounding the human consumption of meat and the use of animals in product testing and the entertainment industry – not to mention the animal welfare issues that have become pervasive across much of the industrial meat and animal product manufacture process.

Throughout history, leather has played an important role in securing basic human needs for clothing, shelter and tools. However, as a result of the ever-increasing fast fashion product cycle and societies’ seemingly insatiable appetite for cheaper and cheaper priced goods, the leather industry has become increasingly diluted of environmentally and socially responsible practices.

Leather as a by-product of the meat industry
The majority of people see leather as a by-product of the meat industry, and in many circumstances this is true. Cowhide is the most common material used for leather, making up roughly 65 percent of all leather products made today. PETA estimates that millions of cows are slaughtered for meat each year, of which 20 percent of the income from each cow is for the hide.

Sheep, pigs and goats are other commonly used hides, which are also generally sourced as by-products of the meat industry. And to be fair, if these hides aren’t utilized as such, then we’d be facing another potentially huge waste disposal problem.

However, this brings into question how the animal was treated before its hide is used as leather. At present, it’s very difficult to know – there’s little traceability in this part of the leather industry. We’ll discuss this a bit further below.

If you look to slightly less common leathers such as ostrich, this is completely turned on its head, of which 80 percent of the income from an ostrich is for its hide and just 20 percent for its meat. It is a similar story for other exotic leathers like crocodiles, lizards and snakes, which are farmed and slaughtered almost solely for the their skin.

The problem with poor treatment of animals
When sourcing leathers, one also needs to consider the shocking conditions of animal slaughterhouses, particularly those that deal with meat and hides on a large scale. These conditions are widely known and commonly highlighted by groups such as PETA. These include practices such as animals being skinned alive, extreme crowding, and severe deprivation in slaughterhouses around the world. Even when animals have been raised free-range and organically fed, they are often taken to the same commercial slaughterhouses.

At present, and very unfortunately, it is difficult for suppliers to know which slaughterhouse a hide originates from and if the animal was killed in a humane way. This is a result of how hides are bought and sold today, partially due to lack of consumer awareness or action on this part of the supply chain – as yet.

Chrome verses vegetable tanned leather
It is how the hides are chemically treated and processed that comes into ethical question next. After an animal is slaughtered, its hide still needs to be de-haired, degreased, tanned, dried, softened, recolored, and finished. Most leather treatments and dyeing processes require an mélange of toxic chemicals.

Tanning is the process that transforms the raw animal hide into a material, which will not decompose or putrefy. Chrome tanning is most commonly used – with 85 to 90 percent of all leather products treated this way.

Chrome tanning uses a mixture of chemicals, acid and salts (including chromium sulphate) to dye the hide. It is a very quick process taking only one day.

Chrome tanning is also an incredibly toxic and water intensive process. It produces waste that has a high potential for becoming carcinogenic chromium (Vl), which has been known to contaminate our water supplies.

“Whatever leather option you choose, there isn’t one that ticks every box. You have to decide which ethical considerations are most important to your brand and its target customer.Although in America and Europe there are now strict regulations with how to dispose of these waste chemicals, in other countries such as China and India, two leather producing giants in today’s world, environmental laws are more lax and toxic waste is often unceremoniously dumped into rivers, untreated where it can poison water supply and cause serious health problems.

A more environmentally friendly form of tanning, adopted by many ethical and sustainable designers, is an ancient method of vegetable tanning. Instead of using chromium salts, vegetable tanning uses tannin, which is a naturally occurring chemical in many trees and plants.

Although vegetable tanning is a much longer process, taking between 3 and 5 weeks, it does not use the harsh chemicals that chrome tanning does, which means that tanneries cause less environmental harm. When it comes to the end of its lifecyle, leather is easier and safer to recycle or dispose of when it’s been vegetable tanned.

Some exemplary suppliers of veg-tanned leather include:

Koru Organic (France, SOURCE member)
Natureally Leather (UK)
Organic Leather (UK/US, SOURCE member)
Offset Warehouse (Online)

These veg-tanned leather suppliers are industry leaders but cannot be sure of where their hides are sourced – worth checking out:

Dickens Brothers (UK)
Garat Fils (France)
Wickett & Craig (US)
Pelle al Vegetale– a consortium in Italy, which features over 20 suppliers of vegetable tanned leathers, all based in Tuscany and are famous for their special, ancient methods.

It’s important to keep in mind that there’s no way to certify a hide as ‘organic’ at present and no way to track its carbon footprint. Although several of these leather producer do choose to source hides exclusively from organically raised cattle from well-respected farms. The supply chain for leather remains fairly opaque, due in part to its reliance on the industrial meat industry.

What’s the deal with patent leather?
Yes, patent leather is actually leather – or at least it used to be. Now products that appear to be patent leather are actually made of poromeric imitation leather or PVC. You can easily tell by the price tag with a higher cost usually meaning that it’s made from real, high quality leather.

Patent leather is produced using a specialised treatment to achieve its glossy, wet look – which also makes the leather water resistant and easy to be cleaned.

The process for created patent leather used to involve a foundation coat of lampblack mixed with linseed oil. Successive coats of this mixture were applied, the skin being allowed to dry and it’s surface ground down with pumice-stone after each coat, with the process ending in the leather baking in a special over for three days and then dried in the sun for 10 hours.

However, since the invention of plastics, methods for producing patent leather have changed dramatically. Plastic finishes and synthetic resins are able to produce similar effects at a fraction of the cost and time it took using more traditional methods, thus enabling patent leather to be produced on a mass-scale.

The coating used to create modern day patent leather is almost always a mixture of polyurethane and acrylic. This used to be sprayed onto hides that had been hung to dry, but because of air pollution side effects, most patent leather finishing is now done through a liquid application called aqueous dispersion.

Alternative ethical leather options
Now designers and brands are looking towards alternative leather options such as eel, poulard, salmon and snake that are by-products of other industries, the skins of which would normally have been sent to landfill, or other leather-like materials such as bark, cork and Ultrasuede that have a similar look, feel and performance as leather.

Eel Skin
Traditionally, most eel products were made from European and American eels, however these are now both endangered due to overfishing. Today, Conger eels are the most common species of eel used for food, and they are plentiful all over the world.

Most eel skin used in fashion products today use eels that have been farmed specifically for fashion, but now several pioneering designers are sourcing eel skins as a by-product of today’s food and fisheries industries.

Eel skin is very durable – in fact, it’s 150% stronger than cowhide but the same thickness. It is also feather light and becomes softer and suppler with use, making it perfect for daily wear. The numerous fins on an eel give the leather a distinctive pattern with long striated lines that are slightly raised off the surface. It is most commonly used to make shoes and bags.

British/Italian brand Makki were one of the original luxury eel skin handbag specialists using eel skins a by-product of the food sector. SOURCE Fellow, Heidi Mottram is also using this type of eel skin in her award-winning luxury handbags and accessories.
Supplier Rojé Exotics ensures their eel leather is a by-product of the food industry that would have been otherwise discarded.

The Poulard, or chicken leather, is renowned in the Far East as a luxury product but relatively unknown elsewhere. Heidi Mottram, SOURCE Fellow designer, is pioneering using this skin in designing bags, purses and wallets in the UK.

Poulard has a similar texture and grainy pattern to emu and ostrich leg leather and is very soft and durable. When correctly processed, it performs like any other leather.

Again, this material is a by-product of the food industry, in which chicken skins are rarely used for anything other than eating. It still remains a question as to the treatment of the animals before their skin is sold for leather production.

Salmon Leather
Salmon skins, which are normally discarded by the salmon fishing industry, can be turned into an eco-friendly alternative leather that when tanned and dyed has a delicate scale pattern and looks convincingly like a exotic leather.

Salmon leather is also very strong and flexible (surprisingly, even more so than cowhide), and it has an amazing 3D texture, which has been compared to snake skin leather, except that salmon leather has a softer suede-like feel to it. Other fish skins that are commonly used for leather are Perch and Wolf Fish.

The tanning process for fish skin is much quicker and less toxic then that of mammal skins as scales are easier to remove and can be done by hand compared to hair from mammal skin, which requires some kind of treatment, often chemical.

SOURCE award nominee Sea Leather Wear is a Canadian-based supplier that specialises in salmon leather as well as carp, perch and sea bass skins.

ES Salmon Leather is another leading supplier, based in the Chilean Patagonia region.

Vegan leather options
On the other hand many brands choose not to use animal leather at all opting instead for animal-friendly faux “leather”. However, while these may be a better vegan option, many of these leather alternatives are not environmentally responsible at all.

Today, most faux “leathers” are made from plastic materials such as PVC, which requires hazardous chemicals in its production. Harmful additives used to treat PVC “leather” have been known to release toxic chemicals when incinerated. And it’s simply not biodegradable.

Polyurethane (PU) is a much better option. As it is naturally softer and more flexible, PU does not require the solvents used to soften PVC and leather. Also, it’s biodegradable. Offset Warehouse < http://www.offsetwarehouse.com> supplies ethically friendly faux leathers.

Some pioneering brands are taking a step back from the traditional faux leather materials and looking towards more unusual alternatives, for example:

Cork Leather
Cork “leather” is obtained from thin sheets of cork from the bark of the cork oak tree. It is sustainable as the tree is not cut down and the cork can be harvested from the same tree every nine years.

In terms of durability it wears similar to leather making it perfect for shoes and accessories such as belts.

Jeliek Cork Group is a Canadian based supplier that specialises on Cork materials for fashion.

Bark Cloth
Bark cloth, recently used by ethical designer Phannatiq in her Spring/Summer 2013 collection, comes from trees of the Moraceae family. The inner fibrous bark of these trees is harvested and then beaten into thin sheets to form a fabric with a soft and fine texture. Once used widely across Indonesia and the Pacific Islands, this material can be sourced from BARK CLOTH®.

Ultrasuede ®
Made from 100% recycled microfibres from post-industrial material scrap such as the insides of old televisions, Ultrasuede ® is a technological alternative to suede. It has the same texture as plush suede yet more resistant to sagging and fading. It is perfect for making footwear and well-known brands such as Puma have used Ultrasuede ® in their shoes.

Top tips for sourcing ethical leather and leather alternatives
The one clear conclusion is that whatever leather option you choose, there isn’t one that ticks every box. You have to decide which ethical considerations are most important to your brand and its target customer.

Also, be willing to take a risk with alternative leather materials. You might be surprised how quality and wearable a product you can make with materials such as cork, bark and Ultrasuede ®.

If you are keen to use animal leathers and find that non-animal alternatives aren’t an option, make sure to look for veg-tanned leathers sourced from animals that have been raised free-range and organically. If your product calls for a more exotic look, try to source the leather as a by-product from the food industry that otherwise would discard skins.

To ensure and expand the options for ethical and sustainable leather and leather alternatives, the first port of call is greater transparency across the whole of the supply chain.





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