I used to think it was fine to wear second-hand leather. Over the years I bought some amazing leather and suede skirts in thrift shops. Truth be told, I also own a leather jacket which I bought new some ten years ago and I still buy the occasional pair of leather shoes. However, when I would see somebody in a fur coat, I would be shocked. Even if I knew it was second-hand. A conversation I had a while back made me reconsider this. Why should a second-hand fur coat be different from brand new leather shoes? I couldn’t convince myself of an answer. Ever since, I’ve been wanting to look further into this topic to create a well-informed opinion. Fortunately, leather was elaborately discussed last week in the course ‘Fashion and Sustainability’ that I’m taking, by the London College of Fashion. A great opportunity for me to learn more and share my thoughts with you.
By now, we’re all aware that the production of fur and leather is accompanied by animal cruelty and climate impact. Up to 95% of leather comes from the meat and dairy industry (Supply Compass, Sustainable Material Guide 2020). Leather counts for 8 to 10% of the economic value of a cow (Dr. Helen Crowly from Kering). The climate impact of leather is thus associated with that of the meat-industry, which is huge (The Guardian 2019). Next to that, animal skin needs to be treated with a whole lot of toxic chemicals, such as chrome, to become leather. These toxins often end up in nature and harm the workers that process the skins as well as local societies. Leather is considered the most harmful material in the fashion industry (PETA, The Guardian, Common Objective, Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2017). Let alone the social inequalities and animal mistreatment in its production line. Unfortunately, the fur industry doesn’t do much better. The industry is known for its animal cruelty. About 85% of the industry’s skins come from animals on fur factory farms, where animals don’t leave their cages and killing methods can be cruel. Feces of farmed animals cause toxic-metal and ammonia pollution (PETA). On top of that, the skins of animals also need to be treated with toxic chemicals to convert them into furs.
Wearing leather is generally way more accepted than wearing fur. Over the past years, there has been a strong lobby against wearing fur, while there isn’t as much attention for wearing leather. Many explain this with the argument that leather is a by-product of the meat-industry, while animals that are used for fur are specifically bred for that (The Guardian 2015). Wouldn’t it be wasteful not to use the skins of animals that would be slaughtered anyway? Another argument is that one piece of leather can be used for multiple products, whereas fur garments can require anywhere from 1 up to 100 animals to produce (Latin America Post 2018). Also, fur is regarded as a luxury product, whereas nearly everybody owns one or more leather products.
In essence, I can follow these reasonings. Owning multiple leather products myself, I can relate to the fact that leather is a more common and durable product. Besides, it does seem like a waste not to use the skins of animals when they are already being killed. There are even some great examples of leather from biological farms that are being processed without any chemicals (Leather Panel). However, the transparency in the leather industry is low. It is hard to truly find out where your boots came from. There are examples of cats and dogs being killed for their skins, mainly in China. This is undetectable for consumers due to deliberate mislabeling. Estimates are that up to two million cats and dogs are being killed each year (PETA, One Green Planet 2020). Also, 8-10% of revenue counts for a lot of money in the meat industry. Using animals’ skins is not motivated by circular ideals in the industry, but simply to make a profit. Buying leather is really an investment in an industry known for its huge climate impact and horrible animal welfare. Boycotting leather could potentially have a huge impact on the industry as a whole.
On this note, it makes sense to me not to buy new leather or fur. But how about the garments that are already out there? Fur coats that were handed down for generations, leather gems in vintage shops and the garments already in our closets? The main argument against wearing second hand fur (and leather) is that it promotes and normalizes wearing fur (and leather) as fashion (Vogue 2019). People can’t know whether your fur or leather item is second-hand and may be inspired to buy items themselves. I think there is a truth to this. Though I believe that every consumer is responsible for their own choices, why not promote the most sustainable options? Following that reasoning, I shouldn’t wear my leather garments anymore. However, that is not really in line with the slow fashion values that I’m trying to abide to. Leather garments can last for generations and getting rid of them would mean they’d end up in a landfill or somebody else would wear them. Also, at some point I’d buy items to replace them with.
Faux-fur and faux-leather have been around for a while as alternatives to the originals. A hot topic in sustainable fashion right now is whether faux leather can replace real leather and which is more sustainable (Vogue 2019). Currently, many faux-leathers that you find in the shops are made of polyurethane (a type of plastic) which requires a ton of chemicals to produce. In addition, plastic based faux-leathers (and furs) shed micro-plastics in the environment and they are less durable than actual leather. Even if the impact of their production may be smaller, as a consumer has to buy more of them, the long-term impact may be higher (Harpers Bazaar 2020). Currently, there are some great plant-based faux-leather alternatives such as leather from pineapple, mango or mushrooms. These textiles share many of the characteristics of actual leather and are often circular. This means that even if they are not as durable as actual leather, their impact will definitely be lower over a bigger timespan. At this point though, the scale of the companies that produce these materials are not yet big enough to serve a global market. The argument of promoting leather and fur by wearing faux versions could be posed here as well. However, the general opinion instead seems to be that wearing a faux can promote the quality of faux products (Metro 2018, PETA).
For the past weeks I have been trying to make sense of this complex topic. I’ve tried to make up my mind and plan my actions accordingly. Following from the information mentioned above, I have decided to take the following steps that I think will be the most sustainable. I will start by not buying any new or second-hand leather items anymore and will continue to not buy any fur. The leather items that I already own I will wear and take good care of, but I will try to contact their producers and aim to find out where the leather came from and who produced them. This is a tiny attempt to let brands know that a sustainable industry is important to me as a consumer. Also, I will attempt to start conversations about wearing fur and leather with my friends and other contacts. Whenever I need a leather-like product such as shoes, a belt or a wallet, I will research and aim to buy plant-based faux-leather options. In my current opinion, this is the most ‘sustainable’ road for me. I think we all have to think critically about what we wear and navigate our own paths towards the most sustainable outcome. This will be different for everybody and that means we cannot judge others for what they wear. We can, however, ask them why they wear it.