In a recent interview, Stella McCartney was asked why she did not use leather, to which she replied:
Many people claim that leather is okay to use because it is a by-product of the meat industry, however, livestock production is one of the major causes of the world’s most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. Tanneries are listed as top polluters on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “Superfund” list, a list that identifies the most critical industrial sites in need of environmental cleanup (McCartney, 2014).
But if leather is so harsh to the environment, why is it everywhere, from shoes, belts and purses to furniture and car interiors?
According to Jacobs (2014), processing leather requires copious amounts of energy and a toxic stew of chemicals including formaldehyde, coal tar, and some cyanide containing finishes. Jacobs further explains that most of our leather is sourced from overseas, from countries like China and India.
PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) published an article titled “The Leather Industry’ (2014) and explain that ‘more than 1 billion animals are killed worldwide for the leather trade every single year’. In a similar article titled ‘The Global Leather Trade’ published by PETA (2014), they also claim:
Most of the leather in the U.S. and Europe comes from India, China, and other countries that either have no animal welfare laws or have laws that go largely or completely unenforced (PETA 2014).
Will the Fashion Industry ever move away from Leather?
Pioneering sustainable and cruelty free fashion is Stella McCartney. The Guardian reported from Paris Fashion week 2015 how she unveiled a new range using Fur Free Fur and used vinyl in accessories.
However, the media is usually quick to point out the faults with synthetic materials, for example, The Wall Street Journal reported from Paris fashion week 2015 that “the trouble with faux leather, is that it can’t easily be buffed back to perfection when it’s been scratched”.
According to a UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organisation) report titled ‘Future Trends in the World Leather and Leather Products Industry and Trade’ published in 2010, the estimated global trade value of Leather is approximately US$100 billion per year. The report also highlights:
There are now no sectors in which leather cannot be replaced by other materials, and the industry has to protect the image of leather products as synonymous with quality – both aesthetic and functional. As technical textiles develop further and “synthetic leathers” improve, the challenges to leather will become more menacing (UNIDO 2010).
In short, both leather and fashion support each other. The fashion industry will not move away from leather until consumers demand this.
Who will drive the change?
The UNIDO report (2010) outlines that consumers and users should get more education, so that no one will consciously buy an item of bad quality. “Consuming should become an intelligent and responsible act”.
Kotler & Pfoertsch (2006) believe “the main idea is to create consumer demand for the ingredient at the retail level, so that they pull the product through the distribution channel, forcing middle stages to use this ingredient.”
But it’s not just consumers who can make a major impact. Newell’s article ‘Conscious Design Can Drive Systemic Change in the Fashion Industry‘ (2015) notes that even when students love design, surprisingly they often don’t know about all the design choices they can make at the beginning of the process to improve the product and improve the industry;
when they work for a big brand, often designers only see part of the production process, and because the fashion supply chain is so complex, they are making design decisions based on limited understanding (Newell, 2015).
Newell concludes her article with:
If new generations of designers bring conscious and ethical thought to the design phase of the process, progress may begin to permeate the fabric of the industry from the ground up…designers will be able to see the big picture and learn the right questions to ask in order to make sustainability start at the beginning (Newell, 2015).
Leather appears to remain popular for the foreseeable future – as long as consumers demand it. However, change in the industry will be required. Consumers have to take responsibility and ensure they purchase ethically produced products.
Mainstream design brands will also need to embrace technical textiles further and designers need to show how synthetic leather can be used to improve products and the industry. Once synthetic leathers poses a challenge to leather, real reform will begin.
McCartney, S. (2014) Q&A WITH STELLA. Available at: http://www.stellamccartney.com/experience/en/stellas-world/sustainability/stella-interview/ [Accessed 16 March 2015].
Jacobs, B. (2014) How Bad is Leather and What Are the Alternatives?. Available at: http://life.gaiam.com/article/how-bad-leather-and-what-are-alternatives [Accessed 16 March 2015].
The Leather Industry (2014). Available at: http://www.peta.org.uk/issues/animals-not-wear/leather/ [Accessed 20 March 2015].
The Global Leather Trade (2015). Available at: http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-clothing/leather-industry/global-leather-trade/ [Accessed 16 March 2015].
Cartner-Morley, J. (2015) Paris fashion week: Stella McCartney unveils ‘fur-free fur’. Available at:http://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2015/mar/09/paris-fashion-week-stella-mccartney-unveils-fur-free-fur [Accessed 20 March 2015].
Paris Fashion Week Highlights: Saint Laurent, Leonard, Hermès and Sonia Rykiel (2015). Available at: http://www.wsj.com/articles/paris-fashion-week-highlights-saint-laurent-leonard-hermes-and-sonia-rykiel-1425992779 [Accessed 18 March 2015].
United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (2010). Future Trends in the World Leather and Leather Products Industry and Trade . Available at: http://leatherpanel.org/sites/default/files/publications-attachments/future_trends_in_the_world_leather_and_leather_products_industry_and_trade.pdf [Accessed 16 March 2015].
Kotler, P. and Pfoertsch, W. (2006) B2B Brand Management. New York: Springer, pp 131.
Newell, A. (2015) Conscious Design Can Drive Systemic Change in the Fashion Industry. Available at: http://www.triplepundit.com/2015/02/conscious-design-can-drive-systemic-change-in-the-fashion-industry/ [Accessed 18 March 2015].