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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…