Genuine leather: A good idea?

-Riza Poudel

Our home planet-Earth- today faces a more environmental/ecological threat to its entire existence than ever before.  So, the notion of a sustainable future is being increasingly highlighted in almost every sphere of human activity.  The simple philosophy behind such a notion is to ensure the well-being of the planet and its habitats by reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.

In this context, industries/brands have indeed a pivotal role to play in terms of contributing to a sustainable future as socially responsible entities.   It is more so in the case of those industries, which are responsible for creating more adverse impacts on the environment. Leather industry, no doubt, is among them.  The very industry, by its nature, completely relies on livestock farming. And it does not take a rocket scientist to say that such farming is simply lethal to the environment.  

Livestock and their byproducts actually contribute for at least 32.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year which is 51% of the annual worldwide greenhouse emissions.

Raising livestock, in particular, uses more than 70 percent of agricultural land, and is a leading cause of deforestation, biodiversity and water pollution.

In fact, the leather industry, per se, is one of the major polluting industries.

The process of turning skin into leather requires massive amounts of energy and dangerous chemicals, including mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, etc. Animal skin trims, animal hairs, flesh wastes, buffing dust, and keratin wastes are produced in the leather processing. All of these wastes contain protein as its main component, which negatively affects the environment.

Importantly, leather is not simply a by-product of meat industries though most leather is obtained from animals slaughtered for meat or after producing milk. There exists an important economic dependence between factory farming and leather business. As a matter of fact, farmers not tend to sell every single part of each animal to minimize waste but instead to maximize profits.

On the other side, the global leather industry slaughters more than a billion animals and tans their skins and hides. According to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animal (PETA), many of these animals suffer all the horrors of factory farming- including extreme crowding and confinement, deprivation, and unanaesthetized castration, branding, and tail-docking- as well as cruel treatment during transport and slaughter. 

This suggests that the use of animal leather is not only environmentally unsustainable but also ethically wrong.  In fact, the movement of veganism has been gaining momentum globally for the sake of the sustainability of the planet and ethical treatment to animals.  According to The Economist and The Guardian, 2019 will be the “Year of the Vegans”. About 3 million people in Britain alone are attempting to go vegan in 2019. Out of this population, 74% are female. Although men are also increasingly shopping for luxury items like leather outfits, women still constitute a large chunk of the consumers of such items.

The leather industry will do well to consider all these vital aspects that might negatively influence its overall market performance in the days to come.

So, how it can continue its business?    

As the popular adage goes, “Every problem is an opportunity in disguise.”  So, there are also opportunities for the leather industry to promote sustainability throughout the supply chain, starting from sourcing of the materials to getting them into the hands of the consumers.

The industry as a whole should come up with innovative ideas to use the fabrics that do not involve animal skin. In fact, various prestigious fashion brands like Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood, and Victoria Beckham have already switched to faux leather.  Another prominent name in the fashion industry, Natalie Portman, produces her own line of vegan shoes. Vegan leather is usually made by coating plastic to a fabric backing.

Lately, there also has been the production of the biodegradable leathers that are made by using dried vegetables, vegetable dyes, and natural tanning process. A finished product from coconut leather resembles animal-derived leather and is highly sustainable and durable. Another alternative that has emerged is the Muskin- a vegetable leather from mushrooms. Other options for biodegradable and renewable leather can come from resources like cork, paper, kelp, tree bark, waxed leather, recycled rubber, slate stone, and kombucha tea.

It seems the vegan and biodegradable leather is gradually emerging as an alternative to the “fabrics that bleed.” 

Nevertheless, Coach, Hidesign, NappaDori are those big brands in the fashion industry which still are highlighting “genuine leather” as their unique selling point (USP). Such business strategy might backfire in the long run as it is not in sync with the notion of sustainability.

  This also means that they have opportunities to rebrand themselves by introducing the products that reflect their rich legacy with a lower environmental footprint.

 If they really come up with aesthetically appealing and functionally brilliant products in a sustainable way, it would contribute not only to the well-being of the planet but also for the survival of their businesses. 

After all, great brands in the 21st century will be those which will a force for good in society, from a functional, emotional and environmental perspective.

Kajol Jain- First recipient of PETA Asia’s Outstanding Activist Award.

Says- Leather are coming from Beetroot, Mushroom, Pineapple and even Apple. So if big brands are smart then they’ll move to plant-based leather. Brands like Victoria Beckham has already started to boycott fur and exotic leather.

The author Riza Poudel
-The author holds a masters degree in fashion management from National Institute of Fashion Technology, Mumbai.
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