We’ve all had one, two, three… or more leather bags. And then one day, a few years ago, I wondered if it was really the best fit or if I should use leather alternatives. I read, watched documentaries, and what I discovered made me never buy leather again.
Origin of leather
Let’s go back to the beginning, to the origin of leather. Researchers estimate that the first treated hides date back to 17,000 BC. However, this estimate is only indirect, and can be deduced from the tools that would have been used for leather work. At that time, hominids used flint and shells to treat animal skins. And to make them rot-proof, they subjected them to the action of smoke. Around the 8th century AD, the Saracens brought a new method to Europe, alum tanning.
Today, there are 2 methods of tanning. But we’ll come back to that. Just keep in mind for now that the discovery of animal hide tanning was made a very long time ago. Back when we didn’t have writing.
So now, you’re going to tell me that if you eat meat, leather is recycling. Aren’t you?
Except… not really.
The leather is said to concentrate between 10 and 60% of the value of the animal, with an average around 45%. If half of the value comes from the hide, it is no longer recycling, but a real industry, whose aim is profitability.
A quite significant profitability, by the way. In France, leather goods are doing rather (very) well. The turnover achieved by companies in the sector has almost doubled over the last 10 years, from 1.8 billion euros in 2010 to 3.4 billion euros in 2018. For the major luxury brands, leather goods and footwear represent between 60 and 75% of their turnover.
If we consider the leather sector as a whole in France, it represents 25 billion euros of turnover, including 10.6 billion euros in exports. Worldwide, leather consumption reached 195 billion euros of turnover in 2015.
France is the world’s third largest exporter of leather goods. But it is also the world’s 4th largest importer. In fact, in France we mainly manufacture luxury bags, which are exported, but we buy more leather bags for fast fashion, which are imported, mainly from Asia.
In France, however, meat consumption is declining by 4% each year, which in twenty-five years has halved the quantity of hides available.
Good news? … not exactly
To compensate for this lack of hides, luxury brands are investing in tanneries or even setting up breeding farms. We are therefore completely getting away from the idea that leather is recycling.
Every year in the world more than a billion animals are cruelly killed for the leather trade, from cows to calves, horses, lambs, goats, pigs, dogs and cats.
Especially since investigations reveal horrific abuses. Most of the leather produced in the world comes from China, where, despite years of campaigning by animal protection associations, there are still no sanctions against animal abuse in the leather industry.
I already feel that you’re going to tell me, “this is what’s happening in Asia. In Europe, we have standards. As long as you have a bag made in Europe, it’s okay.”
If you have seen the Cash Investigation on luxury, you may have already discovered the dubious practices practiced in tanneries in Italy.
In the leather district of a Tuscan city, not far from Florence, hundreds of Senegalese, small hands of luxury, work in very precarious conditions. They work up to 13 hours a day, in a building that can sometimes reach 45°C and move hundreds of hides every day that weigh between 20 and 30 kilos. A third of the workers are temporary workers (6 times more than in France), they are paid at a discount, up to 4 months late, and overtime is not declared. Accidents at work are frequent and not declared. In periods of high production, machine safety is disabled, and fingertips are sometimes cut off.
And that’s without even mentioning the fact that luxury companies don’t pay their taxes. But that’s another story. To find out, keep watching this Cash Investigation (starting at 48:30). Elise Lucet’s team often has interesting things to tell.
Let’s get back to the subject.
The one advantage of European production is that pollution is limited.
Tanneries aren’t really the best thing we do in terms of ecology. In 2012, the Blacksmith Institute, an NGO working to reduce pollution in developing countries, included tanneries among the ten most toxic industries worldwide.
At the same time, when we know that the raw hides that arrive in the tanneries undergo between 25 and 30 operations, it is not surprising that the tanneries try to go as fast as possible to make the hides rot-proof, and that ecology is not their first concern.
Remember I told you there were two methods of tanning. We’re just getting there.
80% of the world’s leather production is made with mineral tanning. While it has the advantage of being fast, this tanning method is extremely toxic. It involves the use of chemicals such as formaldehyde, arsenic, chromium, lead, cyanide, ammonia, and mercury, which then end up in the wastewater of the tanneries. In developed countries, strict legislation limits the impact by forcing the treatment of wastewater. Nevertheless, this is not the case in developing countries, where 80% of the world’s leather production is tanned.
In Dhaka, Bangladesh, 15,000 workers (some as young as 10 years old) work in the city’s 200 tanneries. Without gloves or masks, most of them develop chronic skin diseases, respiratory insufficiency and cancer.
To compensate for the horror of chemistry, it’s been some years now that a few tanneries have been using another method, based on natural ingredients (tree bark, roots, leaves, fruits, etc.). This is called vegetable tanning. It is usually shortened as “vegetable leather”, a pretty name that has nothing vegetable about it, except that animal leather is tanned with vegetable ingredients.
A good solution?
No, not really.
The illusion of vegetable leather
While historically the ingredients used to tan leather were natural, today, with rare exceptions, they are subject to chemical modification.
The impact on the environment is above all not negligible and generates very high levels of pollution.
1/ To obtain the tannins from the bark and wood, trees must be felled.
2/ These barks and wood are then treated to obtain the tanning extracts.
While vegetable leather is on the upswing these days, its environmental impact is only slightly less than that of chrome-tanned leather.
Higg gives a rating of 163 for chrome-tanned leather and 162 for vegetable-tanned leather.
(PS: alpaca is at 283, silk is at 681… We’ll talk more about this later).
True vegetable alternatives to leather
If you are still with us, you may be desperate. We reassure you right away, today there are many 100% vegetable leather alternatives!
Cork is flexible and resistant and can be worked like leather. The outer part of the bark of the cork oak is used to make this material. Its removal, every 10 years, does not harm the growth of the tree, since it produces it naturally. It has a Higg index of 14.
Eucalyptus, invented by the German entrepreneur Fabian Stadler, who had the idea of using this very robust material to create belts.
The mushroom, it is an Italian laboratory which developed this material, from the “caps” of mushrooms and without chemical tanning. Entirely biodegradable, the “Muskin” (mushroom + skin) looks like suede. For the moment, our tests on the material are not conclusive, and it remains very expensive.
The pineapple, developed by the Spanish Carmen Hijosa. She came up with the idea of using the leaves of the plants on which the fruit grows to produce an eco-alternative to leather. This material, called Piñatex®, is the one that WWoW mainly uses. It has a Higg index of 60 (vs. 162 for vegetable tanned leather).
Grapes, made from the fibers contained in the grape skins and seeds using the marc from wine production. It is one of the latest in the world of leather alternatives, which we can’t wait to test!
Eco-leather: Richard Wool’s invention is one of the most promising alternatives. In fact, it won the World Green Design Award in 2014. Entirely made of natural fibres, this material could very well turn the industry upside down in the coming years. We don’t know too much about it yet.
Now you know where leather comes from, how it harms animals, the people who make it, and the environment. The idea is not to change your wardrobe overnight, but to know that leather alternatives exist and have a better impact. Beautiful, durable, hard-wearing and harmless to no one.
That’s why I created WWoW.
To participate in the creation of a world more respectful of the Earth and its inhabitants and to show that another fashion is possible.
Sources and further reading
La Rue des artisans
CNC, 2017, CNC
Une filière cuir à la peau dure, Le Monde, 9 Février 2017
Cuir n’est pas vegan qui veut, Le Monde, 9 Février 2017