FASHION | Why I prefer Real Leather


Taken by Scott Shuman

I love leather! Leather shoes, bags, clothes (I am still holding out for THE perfect leather jacket)! The smell, the feel, the look, the flexibility, the natural history of the material, everything about leather speaks to me. I love the history of leather--my fiance's grandfather was a tanner--and the fact that leather pieces still exist from my great relatives is even more motivation for me to love it. So you could imagine my anxiety when I was asked about my position on leather by a Vegan friend, and now having to present this after Emma H.'s moving post towards her version of going Vegan.

Within ethical fashion, there always seems to be a blurred line as to where Leather fits in--for me the main arguments circumnavigate around sustainability and the animal cruelty movement within Western societies. On the one hand it is argued that leather is a by-product of a larger industry where all of the parts are used. On the other, vegans and vegetarians argue that leather is a by-product of a barbaric process which results in the killing of animals, not to mention the inhumane overcrowded conditions in which alot of Western meat are raised. 

For Vegan Faux Leather, another argument is made as to whether this is really a more ethical (or rather 'eco') and sustainable material. Yes, it is made from synthetic materials, but the process by which it is made is deemed as environmentally unfriendly in the long-run, especially those made from petroleum and other compounds--such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC). There is also the factor of the amount of energy that goes into processing and manipulating such fibres into a leather-looking material. In addition, vegan leather is not as long lasting as real leather. I want something that is not only ethical through process, but sustainable through use. I want the "natural" texture, that doesn't remind me of plastic, and something that is breathable and has the imperfections and unique qualities that real leather has. Is it really better to use Vegan 'Leather' that has a limited lifespan, over real leather that is meant to last past my own? And is the whole point to be just animal friendly? Or should we look at the whole picture of sustainability and environmental impacts?
Vegan leather from Ecouterre
 I asked a Vegan friend (I rarely like to get into confrontations with friends about their beliefs so I asked nicely) about buying 2nd hand leather in a charity shop or inheriting from a relative, and she said that if you wear it, you are supporting the industry itself. However, I can't buy into that. The whole point of vegan leather is so that it looks and 'supposedly' feels like the real thing, and I have never heard anyone ask whether my leather shoes or belt were Vegan. Surely, by making something look like something else encourages the very industry it is trying to mimic, unless it is blatantly advertised as "I AM VEGAN."If it is because leather is trendy then this also goes away from the whole notion that ethical fashion should support slow fashion, hence moving away from a fast-paced, trend-led industry.

I don't want to come off too harsh (too late perhaps), as I do respect vegetarians and vegans in their choices and their beliefs. It is true that I am a meat eater, lover, etc. I don't eat meat everyday, but having lived all over the world--outside of the Western societies--I have come to understand the importance of meat to our Genus Homo. The use of animals through our entire history for consumption, protection and cultural symbolism has been intrinsic to man: we were meant to wear animal skin and plant fibres for survival after we had shed all of our own fur (See Nina Jablonski), we were designed to digest meat through the presence of evolved enzymes in the body, and we were meant to fight off any predators that posed a threat. Now, we hunt for sport, slaughter animals inhumanely, and have muddied our hands through over-consumption and wastefulness. Here is where the vegetarians and vegans in the world and I wholeheartedly agree. In light of this, one may argue that whether or not leather is a by-product of the meat industry, that in itself is a wasteful one. This means that the meat industry itself will need a total overhaul so that the supply-chain is one that adheres to all these concerns. However, there has been very little in terms of a mass revolution to change the very thing that many vegans and veggies despise (PETA is the only movement that has caught the amount of attention it has). Instead, it comes across as a personal revolution, sometimes making a tremor in society, but usually insular and quiet. However, this does not deter me from wearing leather, especially the belt I got as a gift from a Kenyan Samburu or my leather gear I got during my fieldwork in the Amazon.
Indigenous Vaquero Rounding up Cattle near village I lived in. Taken from Big Earth

After living in the Amazon for two years, I witnessed many slaughters of cattle, which fed the entire village and sometimes others nearby. The cattle were killed using a quick prick to a certain part of the spine, which killed the animal within 1/2 minute. The men would skin the cows, and the women would then come and deal with the removal of the internal organs, which they would clean and separate for different uses. The men would break the cattle down and all parts would be used--bones for soup, meat for salting or immediate consumption, and the skin would be stretched to dry and to be used for saddles, shoes, stools, etc. Yet, this is at the local and not the industrialised meat-processing level. But this is not to say that we cannot have a more localised experience of leather.

Here are a few ways that you can indulge in leather whilst retaining an ethical lifestyle:
  1. Buy Ethically-Tanned Leather. I have become a big advocate of leather processed in ethical tanneries and vegetable-tanned leathers. Although there are few brands that use this, you don't have to look too hard, as there are quite a few designers, such as Selina Cheong & Hare+Hart, who are working with ethically tanned leather. 
  2. Buy from a Fairtrade or Ethical Brand. Usually, these products are done on a local scale, as per Fairtrade, or the supply chain standards have been met.   
  3. Buy Second-Hand or Vintage Leather. By recycling leather, you will be extending the life of the leather (as opposed to it going into the rubbish) and therefore encouraging a more sustainable cycle for the item.   
  4. Buy or DIY Upcycled Leather. So many brands are doing this now. My favourite is Olga Road who makes some really amazing Upcycled Leather Jackets. My favourite is The Cypress. This is another way of reducing waste, especially as leather is so durable.
  5. Invest in Leathers from Other Animals. There has recently been a great deal of work being done on alternative sustainable leathers from various animals. The most sustainable has been the fish-based leathers, such as Traces e-fabrics made from Pirarucu (e.g.), which are caught according to environmental laws and for consumption.
I am not arguing against veganism or vegetarianism, as that is not my intent. To each his own, and I have to respect the choices we all make. However, having been born and raised in the developing world, I have witnessed what it means to incorporate something as simple as leather into one's culture. The markets overflow with leather belts and sandals, made locally, from leather from local cattle, and made by small scale businessmen and businesswomen who display their artistry through this medium. I can still recall my favourite pair of leather sandals, which I ended up buying two of, and how the nostalgia attached to them still lingers. Leather tells a story that comes along in only a handful of materials, and for me this is the final reason why I prefer real leather.
What is your take on the debate?

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  1. Really great post, I think this needs to be brought up more. Leather in the fashion industry is somewhat ignored even by advocates of Fair Trade. I think the sustainability of clothes is incredibly important so if real leather can be found ethically then that is very positive. I really like 'O My Bag' for ethical leather handbags. Here is a post I did in October about fur and leather in fashion I hope you get as much great feedback as I did- it really sparked debate x

    1. Thanks Amelia! I agree that the leather industry takes a backseat to other controversial fabrics such as fur, which is why I found your article very interesting. I was sent my first anti-fur campaign when I moved to the US, and then a more gruesome image when I was studying for my Masters. Then I too have seen Fast Food Nation, much like Emma H., and have been very much aware of the cattle industry in the US, which sometimes seems worse than what they do to the poor minx and rabbits in the PETA videos. However, if we want this all to change we really do need to be actively sparking debate. I'd rather listen to how we can change something, than why it is better to cut it out. Hence, my motivation for even starting this article. I've been fortunate enough to have seen many slaughters of animals in the developing world for food, and all its by-products (in this case, they do see every part of the animal as a co-product and not a by-product), which is why I have such a positive outlook on the meat industry and leather within the rest of the world. I see the sustainability within it, when it is kept small, local, and quick.

  2. Hey Amelia! Thanks for linking your blog, it's a really good read. Nice to see your face and a bit of Brighton too!

    So as the vegetarian over here I guess I better comment. Giving up leather is what I am struggling with the most as I contemplate going My Version of Vegan because like you Stace, I love it and think wearing plastic as an alternative just doesn't make sense. I have a couple of things to say, not against what you said, more in addition.

    1. Despite your positive experiences in the developing world with small scale meat and leather production, a lot of leather does come from the developing world (and elsewhere) on a large scale that is produced incredibly unsustainably, in a way that is especially harmful to those working in tanneries as well as the environment.

    2. Increasingly reports show that new leather is no longer a by-product of the meat industry and is very much a product in itself adding to the very problems created by the meat industry.

    3. Although I agree that man has needed to kill animals throughout history as well as in may situations today, my point is that I no longer do need to rely on killing animals and therefore won't be. (just had to get it in there)

    Points made, I think I will be a vintage and second hand leather wearing Vegan. As I said, it's my version!

    1. Hey Em! In regards to point two, this is actually accounted for on a small scale. The majority of leather that is imported comes mostly from China and India, where there is actually evidence that leather is a co-product and not a product. And let's not even mention the use of the skins of dogs and cats, because although you don't eat these animals, others do. Unfortunately, I know this. blah!
      It all goes towards where we place value. Shall I deprive the hungry child of goats' milk for some nouveau Western values, or shall we advise the against leather shoes made from the llama for the Andean girl walking miles to school? Or shall I give up my fresh eggs from the two little brothers in the Midlands who raise their own hens? No, because we all place different values on different things. For a vegan killing animals is unnatural, for me it isn't. What is unnatural is the way in which this is done, and when you can't provide alternatives for those people who place value on such things, then that sort of revolution becomes slightly muffled and far beyond the reach of those outside your context.
      I will never argue against a Vegan on their beliefs, I will, however, try to make mine into one that is more humane, ethical and socially sound.

    2. The only argument for leather is that it is culturally stylish in the west or, if you're an outdoors-man, its innate waterproofing, durability and whatnot. The dynamics of the industry is such that meat production would not be as economically viable on it's current scale if the leather which accounts for at least 15% of the material were not all used. Hence a huge leather industry in effect subsidizes a large meat industry and there can be and resultantly is an increase in meat consumption. Given the fact that meat tastes damn fine, an argument put against its over-consumption based on its healthiness in moderation would be far more effective than asking people to move towards extremes such as vegetarianism. People cannot be moved to such drastic change by logical argument alone.

    3. Thanks Sai for your insight.

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