Leather is a bit of a hot topic at the moment among fashion sustainability circles, but the ethical and sustainability credentials of leather have been debated for a long time. If you're new to the topic, here's a quick overview.
Leather is often justified by fashion brands as a byproduct of the meat industry (and I used to justify my own shopping with this belief); however, this argument doesn't really stand up in sustainability terms, because the meat industry is extremely unsustainable as it is. The fact is, leather is a co-product, not a byproduct, of the meat industry. Leather (or animal hides) makes up 5–15% of an animal's value, and is sold alongside meat. In some cases, cows are also reared specifically for the leather industry, rather than the meat industry – which further undermines the byproduct argument.
Making leather is also an extremely toxic process. Across the preparation, tanning and crusting steps of production, various carcinogenic or fossil fuel-derived chemicals are used – such as chrome – often resulting in health issues for those working in the supply chain (who are often working in unethical conditions as well).
It's also estimated that the carbon footprint of leather is about 17kg of CO2 for every square metre produced.
If you want to read more about the environmental and ethical impact of leather, I'd recommend reading this article on the sustainable fashion blog Curiously Conscious.
What about vegan leather?
Let me start by saying that new vegan leather products seem to emerge every week. They're being made from all kinds of materials, from natural materials like mushrooms and apple skins, through to synthetic materials like vinyl. However, most vegan leather alternatives still require chemical intervention (and this often means fossil-fuels and plastics) at some stage in the production. And a lot of the sustainable options out there are far beyond the budget of the average person (Stella McCartney, I love you, but I can't afford you). Vegan leather also tends to show wear and tear far quicker than real leather, which isn't so great if you're going for sustainability ie things that can be sustained.
So until vegan leathers can be free from plastics and fossil fuels, and cost a little less than $1000 a pop, it's unlikely I'll be buying them.
My personal conflict
I can't deny that I love the look and feel of leather bags and shoes and jackets and furniture and so on. And the leather products I have in my wardrobe have lasted a long time with very few signs of wear. Leather seems to just get better with age, to be honest. It's durable and strong, and will last a lifetime if looked after properly. But I struggle to reconcile my love of leather with my sustainability (and vegetarian) values.
I'm not about to throw away my leather goods, because that would just be a wasteful thing to do. As I've said before, and I'll say again, the most sustainable clothes are the ones you already own. But as a vegetarian, I'm not so keen on buying new leather goods. So where does that leave me if I'm saying no to both new leather and vegan leather?
Obviously, the best thing to do would be to buy nothing at all (if you're going for a perfect track-record on the sustainability books). But personally, I don't believe perfection is what we should be going for. Perfection is incredibly difficult, dare I say 'impossible', in the modern fashion industry. Supply chains are far too long and complicated for anyone to do their due diligence on every single thing they buy. And in my personal experience, striving for perfection leads to burn-out, which makes us opt for convenience rather than mindfulness anyway.
So, as a mindful materialist, my compromise has been to opt for second-hand leather. That way, I'm getting the durable, strong, comfortable, beautiful shoes I'm after, without directly supporting the leather industry. I'm also extending the life of those products by giving them a new home. Second-hand leather is also an affordable alternative to new leather (hello RM Williams), if you're on a budget like me. It's not a perfect solution, but it's a compromise that is working for me so far.
The downside? Forget instant gratification. Buying second-hand means trawling through vintage stores, charity shops and online marketplaces to find what you're after – particularly if you have something specific in mind. But, speaking from experience, the hunt is worth the find. You'll treasure the items you discover because you'll appreciate the process more. However, shopping second-hand can be tricky if your size isn't often found in second-hand stores/marketplaces.
I've spent months trying to find a pair of second-hand black leather loafers (in my size, in a style I like). I've been looking online and in stores to no avail, until last week when I found the perfect pair. I found them on Vestiaire Collective – an online marketplace for designer fashion – and they arrived today, and they've been worth the effort (and patience), and I can't wait to wear them.
So, whether to leather or not?
I can't (and won't) tell you what to do, you need to make your own mind up. But I can offer information and experience, and say what I would do.
At the moment, I'm sticking with second-hand leather. But as technology and the fashion industry evolve, my mind may change with it. And that's fine. At the end of the day, I think you need to do what works for you in the most mindful way possible. Start with doing some reading if you're unsure. And reassess what you already own before making your next purchase.
If you're going to buy leather, second-hand is the better option. Whatever you do, try to make it last as long as you can and, as always, be a mindful materialist.
Thanks for reading my ramble, I hope you found it useful (and maybe even a little bit informative).