Image: Mia cruelty-free biker jacket by Jarod-Pi Credit: Jarod-Pi
When it comes to leather, the decision between real or faux (and which faux option at that) isn’t always clear. To help you use your purchase power to support your sustainability priorities, our head of sustainable fashion and textiles Charlotte Turner gives some insider insights the two options.
The debate around leather and leather alternatives is complex. For many, the choice to not purchase or use leather comes down to animal welfare concerns, whilst for some it’s a question of the environment. For others, a high-quality leather product is the preferred choice due to its durability, flexibility, and eventual ability to break down back into the natural environment.
All in all, there are many factors that come in to play when we decide what materials to choose for our clothes. Performance, durability and lifecycle are all important things to consider, not to mention how the fabric came into being in the first place. To help with these choices, brands should be sharing information about the materials they use and their provenance, and if your favourite brand isn’t doing this already, you can consider reaching out to ask them. With this in mind, here are some key things to look out for when weighing up the environmental impact of the two materials.
Real leather: the lowdown
Leather is considered the earliest fabric to be used by humans, and it has prevailed for centuries to become a multibillion-dollar industry: the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 3.8 billion cows and other bovine animals are used for leather production annually.
So, when the seminal report by Greenpeace came out in 2009 and linked more than three-quarters of forest clearing to cattle ranching in the Brazilian Amazon – the fashion industry, with its production of leather goods, took notice. Some argued that leather was a by-product of the fashion industry, but many more agreed that it is indeed a co-product.
In 2013, to set a new standard in the fashion industry, Eco-Age partnered with The National Wildlife Federation and the Rainforest Alliance to launch the first zero deforestation certified leather handbags with Gucci. The bags came with a passport detailing the exact history of its chain of supply and set new standards in traceability and ecological certification, ensuring that all Brazilian cow hides used were legally and ethically produced, through a process that ensured that grazing cows had in no way affected the lush (and fast-disappearing) Brazilian landscape – and that the animals themselves had been treated in an ethical way.
Image: The GCC Gucci anti-deforestation handbag collection, released in 2018.
The story goes on, and the debate has only got more intense and more confusing through the years. On the environmental side, there isn’t only the methane issue (if you know, you know) but also the tanning: the process used for preservation and colouring. When Eco-Age’s Livia Firth and Harriet Vocking visited the Amazon ranches and tanning for a project with Marks & Spencer they were pretty shocked about what they saw when visiting a tannery.
Tanning is the most toxic phase in leather processing, typically carried out with heavy metals, which can be polluting to the environment and hazardous to the health of those making it. Metals are chosen in the tanning process to achieve consistent and long-lasting quality for colours and finishes, and approximately 90% of leather is tannedusing chromium salts, a metal which can turn into chromium VI (a more harmful and carcinogenic form of the metal) if not properly managed.
The good news is that when it comes to the future of leather, there are plenty of lower impact tanning options available. Brands have started to use ‘chrome-free’ and ‘metal-free’ tanning processes, which means they can achieve consistent quality and colourfastness results by using chemicals instead of chrome and heavy metals, although these still do need to be managed properly. The luxury market is also seeing a revival of the ancient technique of tanning with plant extracts, also known as ‘vegetable tanning’. Bark, wood, berries, roots and leaves are used to colour and preserve the hides, producing far less harmful waste and a biodegradable leather as a result.
A lot of work is also being done today by the Leather Working Group, a multi-stakeholder initiative involving brands, suppliers, manufacturers, NGOs and end users. The organization has developed an audit system to assess the environmental performance of tanners and promotes sustainable environmental business practices within the leather industry. The LWG estimates that 20 per cent of all footwear leather is covered by their audits, which assess chemical, waste, water management and safety matters relating to tanneries.
The questions to ask and the options you have:
- The best option is always to use materials that already exist, whether it is upcycling existing fabrics and products, or utilising production waste such as offcuts. Remember to buy vintage when you can!
- Fish leather could be an alternative as it is still a co-product of the fish industry (although you could argue that overfishing today is a real problem and there haven’t been seminal studies on this either). Brands such as Osklen use the Pirarucu fish skin which was recently awarded the GCC Brandmark.
- Always check the tanning of the leather. Vegetable tanned leather means that heavy metals and chemicals should not have been used in production, protecting both the environment and workers.
- A growing number of brands are using leather certified by a range of environmental and social standards. Certifications to look out for include Soil Association Organic Standard or Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) for organic certified materials, Naturleder Standard and Ecopelle.
- Try to buy from brands who source leather from signatories the Zero Deforestation Cattle initiative such as Marfrig – and encourage your favourite brands to do so if they haven’t already.
- Lab grown leather has been under development for years, and we will likely soon be seeing it available to buy ourselves. Lab grown leather has the same properties as conventional leather, but without the need for mass land use or even the animals themselves.
Image: Pirarucu fish leather production and Osklen bag. Credit: Osklen.
Leather alternatives: the lowdown
When it comes to finding alternatives to leather or going with faux, there is a growing range of beautiful and high-quality options with a decreasing environmental impact.
Traditionally, alarm bells start ringing with the term ‘faux leather’ as they are usually made from petrochemical-based materials such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), acrylic, polyester, polyurethane, and nylon. These synthetic materials have a significant impact on the environment; they are made from petroleum oil, a depleting natural resource, and their production can be highly polluting. They are not biodegradable or easily recycle either, adding to landfill, breaking down into smaller plastic particles and potentially contributing to water, air and land pollution.
As the raw materials and processes used to create leather alternatives are incredibly varied, they should also not be automatically marketed as ‘sustainable’ – a trap that is easy to fall in to. This means it’s really important to find out how they are made and from what. There are, however, a growing range of leather alternatives made from truly innovative and lower impact materials – from food industry by-products and plant-based faux leathers, to bio-based and bio-fabricated options.
Images: Livia Firth wears a Piñatex™ gown by Laura Strambi to the 2017 Met Ball Credit: Eco-Age, The Vegea leather dress by Tiziano Guardini on Display at the V&A Credit: Vegea
The questions to ask and the options you have:
- Piñatex is made from pineapple plant fibres leftover from pineapple harvests and is becoming more and more widely available (and an added bonus is that is has a really positive social impact as well). It’s available in an increasing range of colours and finishes, and recent R&D has seen Ananas Anam develop dyes and finishes that are completely bio-based.
- Frumat apple skin is leather alternative made from fruit – more specifically from the skin and core waste recovered from the food industry. The material contains a minimum of 50% apple fibre and is created in Bolzano, Italy. Frumat was the winner of the Technology and Innovation Award at the Green Carpet Fashion Awards in 2018.
- VEGEA is a vegan coated fabric that is produced in Italy. Characterized by a high content of vegetal/recycled raw materials such as vegetal oils and natural fibers from agroindustry, its main fields of application are: fashion, furniture, packaging, automotive & transportation. VEGEA has been used by 2017 Green Carpet Talent Competition winner Tiziano Guardini.
- We are seeing an increase in bio-based options grown in labs from bacteria – whilst not something you will find from many brands currently, this could be the way that leather alternative innovations are heading. They have the potential to be up-scaled and become affordable, potentially without the associated impacts of the leather and leather alternatives available today.
- A range of brands are coming up with inventive alternatives to leather, including Jarod-Pi who combines organic cotton and recycled ocean plastic to create a leather effect.
There is never a simple answer to all things around sustainability, but today we know more, and we can choose better. Most of all, by discarding the idea of disposability in fashion, we can buy good quality products that will last a lifetime (and hopefully even longer!).