Ethical Fashion

Why There’s No Such Thing As ‘Ethical’ Leather

Why there's no such thing as ethical leather
Written by Jennifer Nini

I have a confession to make: I still wear leather.

I'm vegetarian for personal ethical reasons, and have given up eating red meat and white meat.

But still in my possession are at least 20 fashion items all made from genuine leather.

Hypocritical much? Before you judge, here's my story...

Many of the leather items were purchased before I became vegetarian - prior to  2003. These include my Ateliar one-button classic fit lambskin leather jacket which I have kept in mint condition - although the button now needs replacing. There's also my Country Road leather belt and two other vintage leather belts.

In the last 10 years, nearly all of the leather items I'd purchased were second-hand or vintage, such as my leather skirt, handbags and nearly all my footwear including my sturdy RM Williams boots. And then of course there are those items that have been presented to me as birthday gifts such as leather sandals, purses and bags.

How Ethically Minded Can You Be If You Wear Leather?

However a couple of months ago while having drinks with some friends in Melbourne, the ex-boss of one of my besties who I'd only just met - and quite frankly don't remember the name of - points to my leather jacket and quips: "Well if you're into ethical fashion, why are you wearing leather?"

As I proceeded to explain to this guy that the jacket was in fact almost 15 years old, I realised that my explanation sounded, well, trite. I don't actively seek to purchase leather items, but I don't go out of my way to avoid them either.

When I'd find a beautiful second-hand leather item, I'd justify the purchase by telling myself that the animal had already been killed and it would be a waste to give away something so perfectly suited to me.

I'd also convince myself that the leather I'm second-hand purchasing is made from the byproduct of meat farming. If the animal is going to be slaughtered for its meat, surely using its skin rather than wasting it is a good thing?

But then there's the inconvenient truth which is... it's an animal that has been killed deliberately for human 'wants'.

Let me explain the ethical dilemma of leather...

Just How "Ethical" Can You Be If You Wear Leather?

Animals used as commodities.

Firstly, any conversation about leather needs to start with what we consider acceptable social norms.

In society, we are conditioned to believe that it is acceptable behaviour to eat meat and use animals for our purposes because "they were put on this Earth for our use." I am a critical thinker and naturally think that all human beliefs should be challenged. Thus it makes sense to challenge this particular belief too.

Why do we think that animals were put on this Earth for our use? Is it because the Bible taught us that humans were given dominion over animals? And where did that so-called 'truth' come from? An interpretation of God's word or actually God's word... or a complete human fabrication?

And what if you are atheist and don't follow the Bible, or have other religious beliefs, do you assume our desire to kill animals stems from our great ancestors who relied on hunting for survival? And if so, why do we still hang on to this notion when it is clear - for those of us in the Western world anyway - that we no longer need to hunt animals for our food and clothing? Is this a case of just accepting the status quo?

In her book The Sexual Politics of Meat, Carol J. Adams argues that our patriarchal society has something to do with it; that male dominance is linked not only to women's oppression, but that of animals too:

The Sexual Politics of Meat shows how a process of objectification, fragmentation, and consumption enables the oppression of animals so that animals are rendered being-less through technology, language, and cultural representation. Objectification permits an oppressor to view another being as an object. Once objectified, a being can be fragmented. Once fragmented, consumption happens.

She has a point. Women as chattel and cattle as chattel. Same same.

So an ethical discussion about leather always begins here: a deeper look at your personal set of ethics. If you have no problems with animals being used as objects for human-driven activity, this will not be high on the list of 'ethical factors' when making decisions about what you wear.

Shop Vegan Handbags at Matt & Nat

But surely, accepting the killing of animals for human desire and absolving ourselves by saying 'this has always been a part of human history' doesn't make it less okay, right?

Not all leather is created equal.

There's another awful truth you can't deny: that leather isn't just derived from cute grass-munching cows.

According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), "leather can be made from cows, pigs, goats, and sheep; exotic animals such as alligators, ostriches, and kangaroos; and even dogs and cats, who are slaughtered for their meat and skin in China, which exports their skins around the world."

And since I've been to China and have witnessed first-hand some quality control issues in its factories and curious animal delicacies at the markets, I am convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is true.

How Ethically Minded Can You Be If You Wear Leather?

Then there's its eco footprint.

Now as it is obvious that leather is a 'natural' product, don't let that fool you into thinking it's better for the environment.

This could not be further from the truth.

Leather is often a byproduct of meat farming, which is inherently inefficient to produce. To produce a single kilo of beef takes around ten kilos of feed grain. And that's not even factoring in water and energy!

In The Rough Guide to Green Living, Duncan Clarke argues that the "demand for leather subsidises meat production, the leather trade is partly responsible for the massive environmental impacts."

Now to turn animal hide into leather, tanneries use toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, and some cyanide-based oils and tars. The energy intensive process not only produces 75,000 litres of industrial water waste for every tonne of raw hide, but it also creates 100kg of dried sludge.

How Ethically Minded Can You Be If You Wear Leather?

Did we mention the process can kill?

And as modern tanneries use harsh chemicals, it leaves workers in a vulnerable position, exposing them to numerous health risks and increasing their likelihood of contracting cancers, infertility, tuberculosis, blindness and respiratory problems.

In a study of the leather industry in Pakistan, which holds 600 tanneries concentrated in the major cities of Kasur, Karachi, Sialkot; "waste discharge from tanneries pollutes the air, soil, and water, [causes] serious health problems. Exposure to such contaminated environmental milieu has been seen to culminate in a multiple array of disease processes such as asthma, dermatitis, hepatic and neurological disorders, and various malignancies."

And if all this still doesn't bother you, watch this video.

The Toxic Price of Leather from Sean Gallagher on Vimeo.

After all of this research, maybe it's time I opt for vegan fashion, particularly in the footwear and handbag department. As there's no such thing as ethical leather, I'll need to seek out the plastic version. That's if I can overcome my aversion to the non-biodegradable man-manufactured pleather...

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About the author

Jennifer Nini

Jennifer Nini is a writer, activist and the founding editor of Eco Warrior Princess. In 2010, after studying Fashion Business, she began this blog to explore her interests in fashion, politics, social justice and sustainability. Jennifer is also the founder of The Social Copywriter, a digital agency harnessing the power of copywriting and content marketing to help mindful businesses reach more people. When she's not perfecting a sentence or coaching business clients, you will find her at her certified organic farm reconnecting with nature.

29 Comments

  • It is a challenge to figure out what to buy vegan that’s durable and doesn’t have as much of an ecological footprint. I try to stick to canvas or salvaged stuff when I can, recycled fibers or PU if it is something that needs to be waterproof or more durable. I think if you already know so much about this stuff that you won’t have too much of an issue buying in alignment with your values, given the choices out there. (Or most closely aligned to your values, anyway!) The options have gotten better over the years and thankfully there’s some overlap between vegan and sustainable fashion brands.

  • Hi Jennifer,

    I’m new to the Australian ecoworld and stumbled about your blog. I like it!
    As a vegan with a love for fashion I’m facing the same dilemma like you when it comes to leather. I thought the best solution would be to wear what I have until it falls apart and not buy any new items. But then I recently read this article: https://utopia.de/vegane-handtaschen-15374/
    It’s in German but you should understand it when throwing it inro google translate.
    Now I’m unsure again and think that vintage leather might actually be better than vegan versions.

    • Glad you found me and like the blog! And thanks for the reading material. Great article (yes I used Google Translate 🙂 I share your same concerns about vegan materials. Man-manufactured materials is concerning to me due to the amounts of toxic chemicals that it uses as the article clearly articulates. You only need to smell the materials in-store to know that there’s something not quite right about it – the nose never lies 🙂 I guess we all have to make decisions and trade-offs based on what’s available and how we feel about it personally. So, where does that leave us? LOL!

  • This is a contentious issue for me and I have so many questions, I hope you don’t mind me sharing my thoughts as I’m new to trying to live more ethically and this is one issue that I find very confusing. Although I do want to stress that I think that the way leather is made is abhorrent, I’ve had no problem in the past buying something second hand that was made from leather. I suppose that I’ve used many of the same excuses that you have, but when buying from second hand charity shops aren’t we just giving that item another life? and if I or someone else didn’t buy it could the item say a pair of shoes just end up being shipped to an African country which is where most of our second hand clothes end up which is in turn is damaging their economies?
    Isn’t it better to buy a second hand product that is already out there better than having a new one made? Lastly as Juliane noted above I’m concerned about the chemical implication that comes with synthetic ‘leather’ goods.
    I hope I’m not coming across as negative or disrespectful of your views I’m just trying to understand better as I always thought second hand was a great option for keeping items out of landfill or being shipped abroad as well as helping charities. This topic is actually something I’ve been wrestling a lot with recently as I’m looking for a new pair of plain black boots and I keep going back and forth between a second hand leather pair or a synthetic vegan leather pair.

    • Sarah it is wonderful to know that there are others who are ‘conscious’ enough to actually sit and sort through the issues without defaulting to what ‘has always been done’. I applaud you. And if you’ve read through my posts you will soon realise that while I have strong views, I am open-minded too. Beliefs are just that, beliefs. They can be changed and altered when more information comes to light. So I always appreciate first and foremost any opinion that is not my own because I always learn something.

      Now to make it clear, my first impulse is always to purchase second hand. I actually have a YouTube video where I explore my sustainable shopping habits which you can find here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xIkP6ib3DbY

      However where I think I should clarify is that the choice between second-hand leather and second-hand non leather is the issue because my “auto pilot” always moves to second hand leather. Like you I am very suss about vegan materials, new or second hand. Man-manufactured materials use toxic chemicals and you only need to smell the materials in-store to know it’s just not right. Also as a side note, my first job as a 15 year old was at a shoe store and my dislike for synthetic shoes began then so my journey has been tainted by this early bias towards leather.

      Anyway, I think all we can do is make decisions and trade-offs based on what’s available and how we feel about the item personally. It’s fair to say that I am still unconvinced about ‘vegan’ materials and will always buy second hand first. However instead of automatically going for second-hand leather I may actually consider non-leather items too and see if I get a feel for them – although I doubt it.

      p.s. I’d go second hand leather but that’s just my personal opinion. The last pair of boots I bought were a second hand pair of RM Williams boots because they are Australian made, are beautifully crafted, perfect for the farm and the leather soles can always be replaced!

  • I really appreciate your posts – first of all. They are always so thought provoking and everything I ever think about, but never talk about! So I thank you for driving up conversation.

    It seems like many people have thoughts on the subject and I just want to add my personal thoughts because I too struggle with this issue. Most of my leather is either vintage or second hand. Mainly because I can’t afford the original and not because of my ethical beliefs. I’ll explain why! I believe that accumulating less is always the most sustainable option. If I purchase something of quality, it lasts much longer. I purchased a second hand suede jacket two years ago and it’s already falling apart. Whoever gave it away knew that it was on the brink of its end and I was the unlucky sap to get it at its end. That’s not to say that these last two years of this jacket haven’t been put to good use. However, it’s not the same quality (and I am a firm believer of quality over quantity). That being said, I refuse to buy “vegan” leather or PU, because A) it’s not quality, and B) it doesn’t breathe well at all! So my stance is to buy the real stuff in its original form and make it last. Take care of it and it’ll last a lifetime. I still have my grandmother’s fur coats (from the 30’s) and they are in impeccable condition!

    Bags on the other hand are a second story. I have no problem buying “vegan” because they are more expendable that a quality leather jacket. Bags come and go in trends, while leather jackets can last a lifetime.

    • Glad you find the posts thought-provoking Olivia because that’s the point of creating them! I share your dislike of ‘vegan’ man manufactured leather for the same reasons. I don’t go shopping very much but I can always tell when the store stocks synthetic materials because you can smell it even before you’ve walked in. I personally don’t even bother going in to a store that smells like that – it’s awful and smells toxic. And like you I buy less but I buy better because I try to practise minimalism. The quality issue is interesting because I know my vegan friends say that the synthetic materials are in fact built to last (I guess because it’s like plastic right?) so would argue about the longevity. I am not in a position where I need to buy something right now but when I go to buy my next pair of shoes or bag, I will compare a second-hand leather item and second-hand vegan item and make a decision from there. Hopefully I don’t just go on auto-pilot and choose leather because it’s what I’ve always done LOL! 🙂

  • I am struggling with what I consider ‘ethical fashion’. It’s a tough topic. I am trying to avoid all plastics (polyester, PU leather, etc). That is my base. I believe in quality and longevity over quantity and fast fashion. I like finding alternative material for handbags as there are heaps of options for non-leather materials and for creative, arty, up cycled bags. I also get tons of compliments on my bags. Shoes are a different challenge. I haven’t gotten anything new for years as I work my way through an excessive collection towards minimalism. But, I think I’m ok with naturally tanned leather. I am ok with humans eating animals and animals eating humans.

    • Melinda I share many of your values as I practise minimalism so am lead by the motto: “Buy less but buy better.” And I actually laughed out loud when I read your last sentence. Spot on hahaha! Although on a more serious note, humans have a consciousness and animals haven’t been proven to have this. So the “ethical” argument goes, if we have this consciousness and a conscience, we should be able to use this to override our basic animal impulses because humans “should know better” and it’s these qualities that separates us from all other species. As you can see, I’ve had many a discussion with my vegan friends 🙂

      • “Buying better” is interpreted in different ways, some quite damaging. Plastic pollution from synthetic clothing (including PU leather) is a massive problem with enormous and growing problems for our environment and wildlife. Natural alternatives based on sustainable practices are far better for all living things. As mentioned before, I support the circle of life. Lions, sharks, other predators, and indigenous / ancient cultures play an important role in managing ecosystems. Many people in western cultures currently have been completely disconnected from this reality. Consumerism and fast fashion have only made these issues worse. I have recently been learning more about the traditional custodians of the land where I live (Aboriginals, especially the elders) and the amazing and simple ways they looked after the flora and fauna to ensure sustainable practices and ongoing conservation.

        • Absolutely agree with your viewpoint on the assumptions that “buying better” means choosing unnatural options. It is one of the reasons I have chosen vintage leather over new man-manufactured materials that are marketed as “vegan” leather although I will continue to make these decisions on a case-by-case basis. I won’t have the opportunity to exercise these decision making abilities until I am in the market to buy fashion which I rarely do given I also practice minimalism. And I agree if we lived like many traditional/tribal cultures we wouldn’t have the scale of environmental and social problems we have today. Capitalism and our insatiable appetite for new/bigger/more has created this Frankenstein monster of fast fashion/fast food/fast everything at the expense of people and planet. The question remains: how do we curb an inherently unsustainable system when all economies/businesses/livelihoods are tied to economic growth?

      • The “ethical” argument would be to use natural, sustainable materials over consciously choosing to continue extensive polluting. Clearly you and your vegan friends seem to be ignoring the full picture and are unaware of the impact plastic pollution has (from water bottles and take away coffees to microfibres in synthetic clothing washed out to waterways every time they are cleaned. I would encourage you to expand your research.

        • I think you have misinterpreted my comment. That is to say that the argument my vegan friends have raised with me time and again is the “moral” argument – I myself am not actually vegan but have sat through many of these lectures myself. Now as a discerning consumer I will always choose natural over synthetics. Although it is fair to say that the leather industry has many things to answer for which is of course the aim of this piece. Don’t mistake my critique of leather to mean that I am pro-man manufactured plastic materials. That is like someone calling me a man-hater because I’m a feminist. The man-manufactured materials is a topic I have yet to explore on this blog but will do so of course given that I enjoy exploring fashion issues that promote dialogue and critical thought in the hope of creating responsible and sustainable industry/society.

  • Thanks for a great read, as always.
    I agree with the comments raised here – how do we reconcile between second-hand leather and any newly manufactured product or material? Like Olivia, I tend to ‘not buy’ when I can’t decide, and then I opt for quality.
    So, I always take the second-hand leather, for a few reasons. The recycling factor obviously, but I adore the worn look and feel of it, the price is usually good and it’s often got many more years left in it. I have to admit, I’ve never purchased vegan leather because I often don’t like the look of it and I’ve been concerned about longevity.
    But your post is another reason to question the purchases I make and the stuff I wear. It’s another step in understanding the values behind what/why I consume. So thanks for that, and do keep it up 🙂 xx

    • Great to know you enjoyed the read 🙂 And of course I share yours and Olivia’s view points when it comes to leather because I too have historically associated with “high-quality”. I personally don’t like the smell of synthetic ‘leather’ materials and I myself don’t even like purchasing polyester, although make concessions for a well-made vintage polyester dress. However as I am vegetarian my leather consumption is something to be mindful of, even though I purchase it second-hand. I can how an outsider who has no concept of ‘ethical fashion’ may see it as hypocritical. It’s confusing even for those of us in these circles 🙂

  • Interesting. The way I feel about leather is that I would only buy it second-hand. I am a pescatarian- fish and dairy are in my diet. I always figure, second-hand leather doesn’t contribute to the demand for more leather in the fashion industry. In addition, why stop at jackets and accessories… I have leather shoes. Does anyone question you on your leather shoes? Why just jackets? In certain climates, leather shoes are a necessity. In some regions, people live off the land and consuming the whole animal is a way of life. Where do we draw the line in judgment, particularly those of us who continue to eat animal products (dairy can actually be an extremely violent, cruel industry)?

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment Dayle. I eat cheese and on rare occasions will eat fish/seafood but I tend to operate from the basis of whether I can inflict harm. I stopped eating red meat and other forms of white meat because I cannot bare to witness a sentient being’s suffering (I live on a farm and surrounded by cattle grazing farms too). Although I appreciate how hypocritical this is given that I eat fish. I buy second-hand leather for the same reasons as you although this is more out of “auto-pilot” and the belief that leather is “high-quality” and will last. The “ethical” discussion tends to be around human consciousness and conscience. As we are the only creatures that possess these qualities we “should” be able to override our “baser” animal qualities because we possess such “advanced” qualities. Some cultures are also viewed upon as more “advanced” than others. Now some people say that these kinds of questions are “first world” problems and yet millions of people around the world even in developing countries and places such as India, do not eat meat or wear animal products. Animals are viewed upon as having similar rights to life as us. It is interesting to learn that humans can evolve to avoid eating meat and harming animals… but many of us choose not to. It’s fair to say humans will continue to evolve and in which direction, who knows? 🙂

  • Hi Jen,

    This is an issue for any person trying to be ethically and environmentally responsible. I agree with avoiding new leather, though, (so long as it doesn’t bother you to wear it and you are strong enough–as you are–not to be ‘shamed’ by others for wearing leather while being into ethical fashion) buying second hand is not only not bad for the environment, it is a positive thing! Good on you :). I also agree with not giving things away if they are gifts or you had them previous to becoming vegetarian.
    From a bried skim of the comments it seems like no one has hit on that there is an eco alternative to animal leather that is not environmentally damaging. Have you heard of Cork Leather? This is a Brisbane-based importer of a number of manufacturers from Portugal where the oak is grown and turned into a leather like material. It has a lot of the qualities of animal leather but is not processed with chemicals or high energy use, it is light-weight, soft, water-proof… there are so many benefits. The process is quite an art form, as the bark is harvested from the trees every seven years or so (keeping the tree alive and actually prolonging it’s life significantly in doing so), then I believe it is soaked and beaten, then soaked again and joined. From there they make the material into bags, shows, belts and so much more.
    I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! 🙂

    • Thanks Bonnie! Great to hear your perspective too! And thanks for the recommendation. I’ve never heard of the brand but I’ll look into it. I am somewhat aware of Pineapple “Leather” but it’s something I have yet to investigate in any great detail too. Now I have one cork clutch bag purchased many years ago and of course, that I still use and have and I absolutely adore cork. Sounds like something right up my alley. Although I don’t really purchase anything new, I would if I think it’s a good investment and can’t find anything second on eBay that’s equivalent. I’ll be on the hunt anyway and see if there’s anything I need/like! Hope you’re going well lovely! 🙂

  • Hi Jen,
    I had never heard of pineapple leather, but it sounds like an interesting choice to research further as well. It’s promising that it doesn’t require any extra water or land to grow, being grown with the pineapple harvest. I would be really interested to read a follow up article on sustainable leather alternatives–though that will be quite research intensive and I know how time poor you are! But still, it is just such a fascinating concept that could really build some momentum and take off in our community that is becoming ever more dedicated to sustainable alternatives.

    I do know what you’re saying about hardly ever buying new though. For me it’s that trade off between the time (and fuel if you’re driving to look around) to find the perfect second hand item or an often pricey but sustainably made alternative option. Oh choices! We can only do our best.

    So you already have a cork clutch? Cork is perfect for bags. So beautiful… Yes, I will admit that I’m cork crazy! Not finding a backpack that fit my ethical, local, and sustainable criteria, I finally opted for a cork backpack as I’ve had a cork fan for over a year now and absolutely love it (so much so, that I ranted about it in an article, which also links to Cork Leather, the company I mentioned: http://living-roots.org/cork-leather-an-eco-friendly-alternative-to-animal-leather/). If I had been in love with my cork fan, I am even more in love with the backpack. Which reminds me that I should post a photo on Insta…

    Hope you’re doing great as well! Keep up the great work 🙂

    • Hey Bonnie! Thanks for the vote of confidence and for understanding my time constraints. The sustainable leather alternatives topic is on my to-write list. Hopefully with the re-jig of the team and appointment of an editor and another regular writer, it will free up more time to get other things accomplished 🙂 Yes I understand about the shopping – I run a tight wardrobe ship as I practice minimalism so nothing is added to the house unless absolutely necessary! I don’t even buy books anymore everything is borrowed from the library unless I get an e-galley copy or a book is gifted to me from a publisher. Hope you’re well and keep me updated on Living-Roots!! 🙂

      • Hey Jen,

        The growth of your team is very exciting, and I’m sure it will make a big difference to your time as well. Can’t wait to read the sustainable leather alternatives article–I’ll look out for it. It’s so refreshing to hear how dedicated you are to not filling your life with unnecessary items. I will use your example as inspiration, as I’m sure I could improve in this area myself.

        I’ll keep posting on Social Media (trying my hand at Instagram now…) to keep you in the loop. Always a pleasure to connect with you :).

  • This is exactly how I feel about leather. I’ve been vegetarian for my whole life and vegan for the last four years, but unfortunately I did buy one pair of leather shoes (the website I bought them from listed them as ‘vegan’ accidentally and I had already wore them and had them for a while before I realised). It’s difficult to know what to do when that happens, but it’s probably more ethical to keep them than to throw them away.

    I love the idea of pineapple leather and I love brands such as Matt and Nat who use recycled materials. Unfortunately, most vegan leather companies I know use unethical practices such as sweat shops. It’s so hypocritical thinking that because we care about animals, we don’t care about the conditions the humans have to work in. That’s extremely frustrating to me. It’s especially annoying when people argue that wearing leather (and even fur!) it more ethical than buying faux fur/leather from retailers who aren’t fair trade. It’s almost as if people forget that they have the option to buy neither and good retailers do exist out there.

    • Thanks for sharing your story Laura. That is my concern with ‘vegan’ leather: the vegan/green/white washing. The focus on praising animal friendliness to avoid the concerning environmental and social impact. To all the vegans: advocating for animal rights is wonderful, just don’t forget human rights too!

      I am with you about the leather shoes. Keep them. Or if it continues to eat you up inside, you can give them to a friend that you know will get lots of wear out of them. No need to waste 🙂

      As for people arguing the ethical superiority of purchasing leather over buying non-fair trade faux leather. You’re spot on. Seek out better alternatives. There are options and we have the choice. Let’s not pretend we don’t. Thanks again for sharing your views.

  • Nice article and I want to appreciate you for sharing such helpful information, I am leather jacket lover and no information can stop me wearing leather jackets.

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