With increasing amounts of people going vegan, “vegan leather” has become a buzzword in the fashion industry as of late--but what even is it? Is vegan leather really better for the environment, animals, and humans? Are there ethical ways to source real leather? There are a myriad of products on the market and though there is no perfect option, each type of leather has its pros and cons and we want to lay it all out and let you be the judge of what is best for you!
Leather has been used for millennia for making shoes, clothing, shelter, and much more. The durability of leather makes it an ideal material for items that need to handle wear and use. In recent years arguments against leather have cropped up, centered around animal rights and environmental issues, especially the high levels of methane cows contribute to the earth’s atmosphere.
With technological advances, vegan leather has become an option for people who choose to avoid using animal products. However, some quick Google searches reveal that though vegan leather may not involve animals, it does involve chemicals. Most vegan leather nowadays is made from polyurethane (PU), a plastic-based synthetic manufactured from fossil fuels that takes a long time to break down once it reaches the end of its useful life. (source: Australian Broadcasting Corporation) Polyurethane is undergoing development to reduce its flaws, but as it stands, PU releases hazardous toxins during manufacturing and the oil based polymers it’s made with which make use of fossil fuels, making this type of vegan leather not all that eco-friendly. (source: The Sydney Morning Herald)
That said, more sustainable vegan leathers do exist and are made from a vast array of surprising materials such as cork, pineapple leaves, soy, kelp, mushroom mycelium, and even kombucha. Many of these options utilise by-products from other plant industries that would otherwise go to waste, eliminating the addition of more waste to landfills and reducing the fashion-industry’s pollution. Due to the more natural material of these types of vegan leather, they also decompose much more quickly and safely than synthetic vegan leathers. Unfortunately, this also means that these types of vegan leather are less durable than plastic-based leathers and that they are not waterproof (like PU vegan leather), but then again, neither is real leather! (source: ABC)
As a fair trade shop that is committed to caring for both people and the planet, we wrestle with the issues that arise when sourcing leather products. Most of our leather products come from areas of the world where raising livestock is a significant part of the culture and economy. In many developing countries, people rely on farming for income and have few other employment options. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock provide farmers with many economic benefits including a means of reducing the risks associated with crops, a source of regular income from sales of milk and meat, and opportunities to increase employment through on- and off-farm processing.
Is it fair to demand leather-free products from countries where subsistence farming is the primary means of survival? Additionally, is it ethical to refuse to purchase from artisans for whom leather working is a sacred and traditional craft? In many cases, the income artisans generate by working with fair trade companies enables them to overcome barriers that kept them in the lowest social class for centuries. With the extra income provided by the fair trade market, many artisans are able to send their children to school, a key tool to breaking the cycle of poverty.
Learning about the leather tanning process is also very important as it can be highly polluting and pose health hazards to workers. The most common tanning method accounting for 80% of the leather on the market is chrome tanning which is a fast, efficient, and low-cost process, but the heavy-metal minerals are harmful to the environment and tannery workers. Chrome is also hazardous when it comes to decomposing, causing another environmental threat. (source: Heddels)
Vegetable tanning is another method that accounts for 20% of leather and is often thought to be less harmful than chrome tanning. Instead of chemicals, the tannins come from the bark of oak, chestnut, and mimosa trees, making vegetable-treated leather biodegradable when the time comes around. Though this process is more “natural” than chrome tanning, this means that trees have to be cut down to harvest the tanning materials. Additionally, the process requires significantly more water than chrome tanning and studies suggest that the environmental impacts of vegetable tanning and chrome tanning are similar, though there is much variation from tannery to tannery when it comes to eco-friendliness. (source: Heddels)
So how are HumanKind’s leather products sourced? We buy from multiple brands that are working with artisans around the world. Here is the scoop on each of these artisan groups:
JOYN has two lines of bags--one with leather and the other with vegan leather. Their leather bags are made from surplus leather that giant fashion companies that have over-ordered and plan to send to the landfill, but JOYN breaks the cycle by repurposing this leftover leather.
At HumanKind, we also carry JOYN’s vegan leather purses, wristlet wallets, and totes. The vegan leather is used as an accent material to provide durability and style to bags made from traditional block-printed cotton fabric. These bags incorporate the look of leather, but are still free from animal products.
Click here to learn more about JOYN’s leather and vegan leather sourcing.
Bolga Market Baskets
Many of HumanKind’s Ghanaian market baskets have a small piece of leather covering the handle that is made from the hides of cows raised by subsistence farmers. The cows are not just killed for the hides and all parts of the cows are used.
Click here to learn more about the leather sourcing of our market baskets.
Matr Boomie’s leather items are made in a vegetarian region of India where hides are obtained only after an animal has died a natural death. Matr Boomie also employs the vegetable tanning method to protect both workers and the environment from toxic chemicals.
Click here to learn more about Matr Boomie leather.
Like Matr Boomie, Ganesh Himal’s leather items are made exclusively from no-kill leather and they utilize the vegetable tanning method to avoid health and environmental hazards.
Click here to learn more about Ganesh Himal leather.
While all the information and issues surrounding the topic of leather and vegan leather may be overwhelming, we hope that this overview empowers you to make more informed purchases that reflect your values. Afterall, as Anna Lappe said, “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.” Are you a committed activist for animal rights? Opt for a vegan leather bag like this cross body bag or this tote.
Do you love the feel of genuine leather and want to support traditional crafts? Choose the most ethical option available, such as this tote made from surplus leather from giant fashion industries, intercepted before it reached the landfill.
Too stressed out by all of this? Try a bag made from cotton, silk, or other plant materials.
And if your main goal is to support artisans in the developing world, you will do just that with every purchase you make at HumanKind!
Click here to shop our online collection of leather and vegan leather goods!