The Leather Dilemma

PC: Issara

Can an item made of leather ever be considered ethical fashion? In sum, it depends on how you define ethical fashion. As far as labor goes, leather can be made ethically if the workers are paid fairly and given a safe environment in which to work. However, if you look at where leather comes from—animals—all leather could be considered unethical because animals are killed to be made into products.

In the past few weeks we’ve discussed the many ways to shop ethically, including fair-labor brands, environmentally friendly materials, consignment, and renting. It should be clear by now that there is no one way to define or shop ethical fashion. However, leather poses a new question: Does an item’s ethicalness depend on its materials?

First, we have to look at how manufacturers typically make leather. Most leather is made in China or India from the skin of cows, sheep, and other cattle. However, sometimes producers even use dog or cat skin and then intentionally mislabel it for sale. The animals are often abused, mistreated, and then mercilessly killed. Turning the skin into wearable leather requires the use of dangerous chemicals, including mineral salts, formaldehyde, and coal-tar derivatives. These chemicals often poison the manufacturing community’s water sources and air leading to an increase in mutations, cancer, and other deadly diseases in the local residents.

This all sounds terrible, right? It is, and unfortunately this is how most leather is made. And while we should continue to fight for the better treatment of animals and increased government regulations on animal treatment, as long as there is a demand for meat, cattle and other animals will be killed. So then, should their hides just end up in a landfill? Here, we face another tricky question.

Let’s say that one day in the future the leather industry is perfectly regulated so that animals live wonderful, happy lives and only die from natural causes. At this point we have to look at how the producers treat the hide post-partum and what effects that has on the environment. As I said, right now the typical process of making leather is dangerous and toxic to the environment and its residents. However, some industry participants are working to change that.

One such brand is Issara, a Melbourne-based company that makes leather bags and accessories. Not only does Issara provide their artisans with fair wages, healthcare, and savings plans, but it also intentionally works to produce environmentally friendly products. Issara’s website explains, “Our tanneries are compliant with international environment standards and our packaging is eco-friendly. Our leather is free from AZO and disperse dyes (water insoluble dyes that escape conventional wastewater treatment processes), accessories are nickle free and lining is azo free. We make every effort to minimise our environmental footprint and reduce the use of non-recycleable plastic in our packaging.”

While Issara consciously works towards creating a more ethical and sustainable leather industry, its founder Roshni Govindaraj says that leather will always have an environmental impact no matter a brand’s production practices. In a 2015 interview with Forbes, she explained, “Tanning and manufacturing of any kind will have some environmental impact. It is important to realize that you’re looking at a spectrum. It’s not black and white: ethical vs. unethical or environmentally friendly vs. polluting. Rather, operations fall on a continuum and you work to best practices and international standards to ensure your activities have minimal negative impact.”

The most outstanding point I take away from this quote is that “it’s not black and white.” This is true of the leather industry, but it is also true for the fashion industry as a whole. Which is why you must choose for yourself what your stance is on leather and other animal products. You may decide to avoid leather and other animal products all together, or you may be like me and choose to only shop leather goods through consignment or brands like Issara who consciously minimize their environmental impact.

Most importantly, stay informed about where materials come from and the processes involved in making them. This way you can make educated decisions on whether or not to buy and support certain brands, products, and materials.

-Kate Hornberger


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