Sustainable fashion: Leather is not the villain it is made out to be

September 09, 2021 3:02 PM

Leather is one of the mainstays in the luxury business and it has been subjected to great scrutiny and criticism for being unsustainable and callous.

leatherLeather and sustainability appear to be opposites only if one’s view is skin-deep. (Image: Aranyani)

By Aravind Balasubramanya, 

Festivals such as Ganesh Chaturthi are around the corner. And around the corner from there are Eid and Diwali. What better excuse than the festive season to let out the shopper in you and enjoy some pandemic-free normalcy return to life? While there is no denying that there is a lot of ‘pent-up’ celebration waiting to burst out, it is also true that we have become more conscious, sustainable and green in our consumption, especially with regards to fashion and luxury.

Leather is one of the mainstays in the luxury business and it has been subjected to great scrutiny and criticism for being unsustainable and callous.

Leather and Sustainability

Leather and sustainability appear to be opposites only if one’s view is skin-deep. For instance, at the surface, the lion and tiger are considered magnificent animals while the hyena and vulture are considered ‘dirty’ creatures. That does not change the fact that the lion and tiger are nature’s killers while the hyena and vulture are nature’s cleaners. Reality is clouded by perception. That is what has affected the leather industry too.

Let me clarify that I am not talking about exotic skins here. Killing an animal for its skin definitely dirties the leather industry. However, making use of discarded skins and hides of the meat-processing and/or milk industry solves the problem of disposal for the world. The cow-leather-using industries become victims of the ammunition meant to be directed on the meat and exotic leather industries.

There is the argument of the ‘cradle-to-gate’ environmental impact of different materials which seems to lend credence to the harm done by the leather industry. The detailed findings from ‘most damaging’ to ‘least damaging’ are in the order – cow leather, silk, cotton, wool, synthetic leather, nylon, rayon, acrylic, spandex, polyester and polypropylene. Though it seems like a comprehensive argument, it is, again, skin-deep at best and misleading at worst.

On one hand, polypropylene, a plastic that takes at least 450 years to decompose, is depicted as ‘least negative impact’! Going by this, it’s better to use plastic over cotton, leather, wool, silk, rayon and nylon. Since plastics are easily and economically created, the world’s problems should have been solved by now, right? It is a known fact that plastics have devastating eco-toxicity. However, the research above has assigned the same ecotoxicity values for all materials justifying it with a disclaimer that the scoring is only qualitative as the methodology isn’t mature because data-collection is ongoing. Who is being kidded here?

On the other hand, accusations being leveled against leather as the greatest criminal are, in fact, impacts from the ‘milk and beef’ industry. Whether it is eutrophication, global warming or water scarcity, these occur mainly when the animal is reared for dairy and meat.

Alternatives to leather?

Once we correct the faulty assumptions of the cradle-to-gate argument, leather comes down several notches in its negative environmental impact. Silk, cotton and wool, the other natural materials, all figure higher in their negative impact. In fact, the drying of the Aral Sea due to intensive water usage for cotton cultivation is a dramatic story highlighting the disastrous consequences of using what is generally considered as ‘safe’ and ‘natural’ alternatives. There is also the point of cotton’s longevity.

The argument of ‘faux’ leather and ‘vegan’ leather is also often brought up. But vegan or faux does not necessarily mean ecologically sustainable here because in most cases, they are synthetic fabrics that are structured and printed to be leather-like. Usually, it is a PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or PU (polyurethane) coating – a plastic mimicking the natural skin. Thus, vegan leather carries all the negative impact of synthetics and plastics derived from fossil-fuels.

The way ahead is sustainability

It would be foolish to suggest that one should completely give up cotton or silk or, for that matter, even leather. The way ahead would be to enhance the sustainability quotient of the materials we use. That calls for sustainable fashion where we do not discard clothes, bags or accessories after a season or year because they are out of fashion. As designers, producers and marketers, let’s move towards using products that are timeless in their quality, fashion and appeal.

[The author is Content & Digital Marketing Manager at Aranyani. Views expressed are personal and the author’s own]

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