I like leather. I buy it, I wear it and it is natural material that has been one of the most useful materials throughout history. After all, what could be more natural than leather, right?
The problem is that modern massive scale leather production too often has widespread negative impacts to animals, people and the earth in a way that it didn't used to.
- Big Livestock Production is Inhumane and Pollutant: Massive factory livestock yards and slaughter operations have gotten pretty nasty. Cruel treatment of animals is rampant in this industry and has proven difficult to reign in. Furthermore, it's estimated that almost 1/5 of the greenhouse gasses damaging the ozone come from livestock (ahem, their rear ends, that is).
- Modern Large-Scale Leather Tanning Can Be an Environmental and Human Rights Disaster: The majority of the world's fast fashion leather is produced in poorly regulated leather tanneries in places like China, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The most common methods of modern leather tanning involve tons (very literally) of toxic chemicals such as chromium and formaldehyde. Workers are routinely exposed to these corrosive chemicals with inadequate protective equipment. Human trafficking and child labor are rampant in this filthy and dangerous industry. Women and children workers are typically paid much less and there is no compensation for injuries that occur on the job. Too many of the facilities involved in these concentrated leather tanning communities do not have the proper technology to appropriately handle their toxic waste disposal, so most of the sludge (chemicals and solid animal waste alike) gets openly dumped into the waterways, poisoning the wider community and exposing millions of people to health horrors ranging from respiratory problems to a long list of cancers and birth defects.
But Leather Lovers Don't Despair- The good news is that it's possible to find leather produced more ethically, but it's harder to find it in the fast fashion, low quality, high quantity industry (i.e.Famous Footwear or Walmart). Look for companies that are transparent about where their leather comes from and the conditions of the tanneries. Smaller, independent retailers are more likely to carry such products because of the smaller batch nature of such items.
Also, repurposing/recycling/upcycling/refashioning old leather into new items is booming and that trend is our friend. Quality leather can last well over many decades, so Grandpa's old, broken leather chair might just be salvageable for something new.
One of my favorite discoveries lately are these Cruelty Free Leather Sandals from India (we thought they were so cool, we decided to carry them at KinShop).
Why we love them: First, the leather is from cows that died of natural causes, not raised as livestock on giant factory farms. An artisan group in the Rajasthan state of India then uses a Vegetable Tanning process to tan the hides. This process is completely chemical free and does not harm people or the environment. Talented leather artisans decorate the leather using intricate stamping techniques and natural dyes, creating chic floral and paisley motifs. They are Fair Trade, sustainable, artisan-made and offer an otherwise marginalized group in India the opportunity for economic advancement...Better still, they are stylish, comfy and vacation ready!
So Leather On in moderation my friends! I will continue seeking out more ethical leather and please share about brands or leather products that conscious consumers should know about.