At a time when consumers are taking more of a conscious approach to buying clothes, understanding the environmental impact of our clothing has become more important than ever. Many people are shocked to hear that cow’s leather impacts the environment more than any other material (1), not often considering the cow’s life and death as part of the overall impact. When thinking about the impact of any material, it is important to take into consideration the entire process, from cradle to gate.
Cow’s leather is the most commonly used type of animal skin, and the entire process is riddled with environmentally damaging practices. Beef cattle are raised for an average of 18 months before slaughter (their natural lifespan is 15-20 years)(2). During this time the animal needs up to 87 litres of water per day (3), so over it’s life it will require 47,589 litres of water. Many people would argue that leather is just a by-product of the meat industry, but a cow’s hide makes up 10% of its value, so it actually supplements the overall profit of the cow (SOURCE4). Lots of leather comes from animals that were killed primarily for their skin.
Most cow leather comes from developing countries such as India and Bangladesh or China, which are known for having little or no animal welfare laws. A lot of the time the animals are transported long distances before they are killed, and many die on the journey from malnutrition, disease or exhaustion. The cows are then killed in front of each other.
After the animal is killed, the process to get the skin into a tangible pelt involves soaking the skins to clean them, fleshing, liming, unhairing, degreasing and pickling. All of these processes involve human labour, water consumption, energy usage, chemicals and wastage. Then begins the tanning process, which turns a pelt into actual leather that can be sold. There are several types of tanning commonly used, but Chromium-tanned leather is currently the most popular form of producing leather, and the most hazardous. Chromium, when inhaled by humans, can cause several respiratory problems, and once absorbed by your skin can lead to dry, cracked and scaled skin, as well as erosive ulcerations that refuse to heal called "chrome holes."
The toxic combination of chromium salts and tanning liquor used in the process is then thrown out into nearby water supplies, effectively poisoning the water.
This is happening in tanning factories all over the world, with unsafe working conditions, unfair wages and damaging, lasting effects on the environment.
There may be companies who claim to only use vegetable tanning or eco-friendly production methods to make leather, but at the core of this industry is the killing of animals and the wearing of their skin, so you have to ask yourself; how ethical can leather ever really be?
If you love the look and feel of leather for fashion, you will be pleased to know there are so many alternatives available. There are plant-based leathers made from pineapple, orange, apple, mushroom, recycled tyres, cork, Hana (agave plant), leaves, and even coffee!
Faux leathers can also be made with polyurethane, which has some negative impacts on the environment but doesn’t involve the animal welfare or as much of the chemical issues as cow leather – plus it’s very versatile and durable.
Innovation in the animal-free textile industry is steaming ahead, with new alternatives being developed all time. If a vegan leather material can be developed without the use of crude oils, plastics or harmful chemicals, and be accessible (scalability, cost, etc), then I see no reason why it can’t replace animal leather all together.
Some brands currently using vegan leather alternatives include; Collection & Co, Thamon London, LaBante, Stella McCartney, and of course, Watson & Wolfe! So now you can stay true to your individual style and avoid using animal leather, all the while reducing your environmental impact. A stylish solution that’s better for the animals, the planet and us.
A guest post written by Grandermarnier
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