Is Leather Ethical? The Full Story Behind The Popular Material

As you may have already noticed, finding sustainable, eco-friendly clothing materials and sharing them here has become one of my passions. In my hunt for these materials, besides sustainability and eco-friendliness, I also make sure to keep in mind another very important factor: ethics. For me, an ideal material is one that meets the three green commandments: sustainable, eco-friendly, and ethical, and there’s one specific material that doesn’t seem to get along very well with those factors: leather.

Ethics is the factor we question the most when it comes to this popular and controversial material. Although we dived into the world of vegan leather a while ago, we missed answering a common question about its counterpart: is leather ethical? Is leather even sustainable? Let’s provide some answers!

Where does animal leather come from?

A mans hands cutting a piece of leather.

Animal leather has been used ever since humans began to dress, and now it’s basically a globally traded commodity. From leather jackets to leather-covered books, this material is present in the homes of millions of people around the world. But where does leather come from?

Traditional leather can come from many animals. However, the majority of leather produced today (about 65%) comes from cows, more specifically, cattle hides. There is also sheep, goat, and pig leather, courtesy of the cruel and unethical meat industry. Still, there’s also leather from animals that are raised exclusively for their skins, such as snakes, alligators, ostriches, or even kangaroos. Ugh. More on this last atrocious point later.

As for where the leather comes from, most of it comes from developing countries like India and farms in China, where there are zero penalties for abusing animals on farms. It’s also produced in Italy, South Korea, Argentina, Brazil, the U.S, and Russia, but India and China top the list. To be completely honest, that’s where animal ethics are pretty much non-existent. While we’re at it, let’s discuss ethical issues with genuine leather.

Ethical Issues with Real Animal Leather

Animal leather can come from many different types of animals. When made from cows, it is usually sourced as a byproduct of the meat industry, which gives use to cow skin that otherwise would be discarded or destroyed. Once the skin is removed from the animal, it must be cleaned of flesh and then tanned. Tanning is the chemical process by which animal skin is coloured, made more durable, and made less decomposable through restructuring the natural protein structure in the animal skin.

Leather’s impact on people

Studies done on leather-tannery workers in Sweden and Italy revealed that cancer risk was “between 20% and 50% above expected.” The standard chemicals in tanning include chrome, ammonium salts, and arsenic. These are toxic through inhalation or through its irresponsible disposal, leading to runoff into public water sources, affecting communities near the tanneries as well as the employees.

A tannery with chemicals leaking.

Leather’s impact on animals

As has been publicized more recently, the meat industry is not a happy experience for the livestock. So even if the cattle for leather would have been slaughtered regardless, when one buys by-product leather from unethical cattle farms, one is still condoning animal abuse. 

Animals raised solely for leather production, mostly exotic animals, are raised and caged in horrendous conditions. For example, as reported by the Los Angeles Times and cited by PETA, one Georgia farmer had 10,000 alligators living in four buildings. According to the Los Angeles Times, “hundreds and hundreds of alligators fill every inch of each room.” Animals for leather are killed prematurely because they only need to reach a certain size.  

Alligators, for example, are killed at age 2 for leather but live in the wild for up to 50 years. Fetal leather is leather from fetuses that are cut out of the womb for the extremely soft texture of their skin; this is mostly done to cows and sheep.

Leather is sometimes made from animals that have been skinned alive. This is most common in reptiles. In one skinning practice, snakes are nailed to a tree, pumped with air, and then skinned, all before dying. Alligators are sometimes skinned and then still alive two hours after the process. Even cows can sometimes be bled out and dismembered without being fully unconscious.

Are animals raised and killed specifically for leather?

Cows are rarely raised specifically for leather as it’s only worth about 5% of the overall value of the cow. However, as I mentioned above, there are animals that are raised only for their skin. Exotic animals are only slaughtered for leather because the other parts of the animal have virtually no value.

The real value of these exotic animals lies in the fact that they’re clearly not common. Cows are everywhere. They can reproduce easily and are evenly balanced in the supply-demand scale. On the other hand, there’s a lot of demand for exotic animals, but little supply. Processing these skins requires elaborate methods, the animals are rare, and they are usually not as large as cows.

Of course, none of this justifies killing an animal. Raising animals just to kill them to wear their skins is one of the worst human whims, and that’s precisely why we should start making the switch to ethical leather.

Is all Real Leather Byproduct of the Meat Industry?

When it comes to cow leather, yes, it’s usually a byproduct of the meat industry. If leather only constitutes 5% of the total value of the cow, it wouldn’t make sense to throw away the other 95% of the cow. So, are cows killed just for leather? Not really, but there are places where the birth, life, and death of cows are traumatic. The factor of whether or not it is a byproduct of the meat industry matters little compared to the animal cruelty factor. If you haven’t seen videos of PETA going into a cow or exotic animal farms, DON’T WATCH THEM, but I’ll just say that they are hard-hitting, to say the least.

Either way, is it ethical to use a material of animal origin when the breeding and death of it were merely for food? If you’re a dedicated vegan, of course, you won’t consider it ethical. But if you are a person who wishes to continue using real leather, those that truly are a byproduct of the meat industry, you might consider it a bit more ethical. If you want to opt for the last route, don’t worry. Later in this post, I’ll mention brands that use real ethical leather, no greenwashing nor animal cruelty allowed.

Is making leather from Wild-Caught Animals Ethical?

Deers are heading in the direction of overpopulation in both Europe and the U.S. They are not in danger of extinction (a factor that exists in exotic leather production), but does that mean making leather from wild-caught deer ethical? If we take into consideration the fact that if deers do become overpopulated, they can end up unbalancing the ecosystem or simply dying from starvation, can I say that it is more ethical? I am not sure… 

Also, many impoverished rural communities in South America, Indonesia, Australia, and near the Nile River in Africa make their ends meet by hunting local wildlife for leather production. But if killing animals for any reason crosses your ethical line, then wild-caught deer and other wild animal’s leather is still not ethical.

Can animal leather ever be considered ethical?

Going by my previous example, a vegan person will most likely consider any type of animal leather as unethical, but a non-vegan person may consider animal leather ethical if it’s a byproduct of cruelty-free farms. The answer to the question “can animal leather ever be considered ethical?” depends on whom you ask, but if you ask me, I would say that as long as the leather is 100% a byproduct of proven cruelty-free farms, it has a point in the ethics department.

What Types of Leathers Are Ethical and Sustainable?

Would you believe me if I told you that the fruit salad you make as an afternoon snack might contain one or two vegan leather ingredients? And what if I told you there are leathers made from Italy’s favourite alcoholic beverage? Yes, there are many types of ethical and sustainable leathers with unexpected origins, but those that meet the ethical and sustainable qualities fall into the same category: vegan leather. Allow me to dispel any skepticism you may have by introducing you to a few vegan types of leather:

  • Apple skin leather: Believe it or not, apples are our first protagonist in the world of vegan leather. Made from apple peels and cores, this innovative bio-based alternative was created in 2008 by Frutmat. This Italian company decided to recycle waste from the apple juice and apple compote industry to create an ethical and sustainable material. You can find it in notebooks, clothes, handbags, and many other leather goods.
  • Pineapple leather (Piñatex): As if apples were not enough, from Ananas Anam comes Piñatex, a vegan leather made from the fiber of pineapple leaves. Many environmentalists and famous brands like Hugo Boss believe it’s the future of eco-friendly fashion because Piñatex requires no water, fertilizers, or additional land for its production, and, honestly, so do I. Plus, the residue that remains as biomass after processing the material can be used as fertilizer. What more could we ask for?
  • Cork leather: If, in addition to the traditional leather-like appearance, you need resistance, waterproof qualities, and lightweight, vegan leather made from cork is for you. Its origin comes from the bark of the cork tree, which is periodically stripped in sections without cutting or damaging the tree in any way, shape, or form. But the best thing about this alternative is not only its characteristics, but it’s also the fact that it is a super sustainable material. What do I mean by that? Well, stripping the bark of the tree encourages its regeneration process, increasing the tree’s lifespan. How cool is that?
  • Mushroom leather: Food seems to be topping this list, and I love it! In addition to fruits, mushrooms also work as a source for vegan leathers, and Bolt Threads proved it. They developed Mylo, a soft, antibacterial leather made from the caps of the Phellinus ellipsoideus mushroom that can grow in small spaces and biodegrade. Will the fungi kingdom become the flagship of sustainable and ethical leathers? We hope so!
  • Wine leather (VEGEA): Did you know that Italy is a leading wine exporter? Yup, and apparently, it’s also a leading vegan leather creator since they achieved the impossible: creating a leather made from wine! This is not a drill. An architect named Gianpiero Tessitore created VEGEA, a sustainable and ethical leather made of leftover grape skins and seeds after winemaking. Zero harmful chemicals, zero pollution or water waste, and zero animal abuse, that’s what I’m talking about!

P.S: If you want to know more details about the vegan leathers mentioned above and what exactly is vegan leather, we recently did a post about it, don’t miss it!

Brands that use Ethical Leather in their products. 

 ABLE, an affordable ethical brand uses leather, which is a byproduct of the meat industry and minimizes their waste by making small leather goods out of leather scraps. Their tanneries in Ethiopia follow strict safety and ethical guidelines and use 100% recycled water in their tanning process. And if you can’t make it to their store in Nashville, you can order online and receive your item in their 100% recyclable and repurposed packaging. 

Nisolo is a groundbreaking ethical and sustainable fashion brand, they exemplify transparency and educate readers on why other fashion companies have contributed so much to environmental degradation. You can donate your shoes to souls to soles through their website, an organization that refurbishes and recirculates your unwanted shoes. Their leather is not vegan but is sourced from tanneries that use vegetable-based tanning solutions without toxins and follow ethical and sustainable social and environmental production guidelines.

Christy Dawn leather goods only use upcycled leather and purposefully design each piece with timeless style so that you would never consider exchanging them for a newer style. Not only do they made some of the most beautiful dresses, but they are also leaders in regenerative agriculture.

A woman wearing a red dress standing in a field.
Image: Christy Dawn

Hozen is a female-founded company that puts the earth first, using only vegan leather for all of its products, it’s why we included them in our sustainable backpack roundup! The items are small-scale manufactured in Los Angeles, guarantee fair wages, and are guaranteed cruelty-free by PETA. Additionally, 10% of profits are donated to mercy for animals. 

Vejas takes responsibility for every single step (hello sustainable sneakers) of their leather production. They have cow leather fed only native vegetation, vegan leather options, and tilapia leather made from discarded Tilapia parts! Crazy, I know! All of their leather products are vegetable-tanned and 100% Chrome-free. 

While Looking For Ethical Leather Is Like Finding A Diamond In The Rough It Can Be Done!

Finding true ethical leather is not an easy task as not many brands are transparent when it comes to their suppliers. However, the best alternatives can come from the most unexpected sources. Who would’ve thought that vegan leather made from fruit or mushrooms could exist? Those are excellent alternatives! But while their use spreads in the mainstream industry (there are only a few brands that use vegan leather nowadays), the best we can do is to get our leather products from reliable sources.

Last but not least, if for some reason you still continue to buy furniture or clothing made of leather without verifying their source of origin, I encourage you to ask yourself this question that I had to ask myself a few years ago: how can I connect with nature while simultaneously wearing clothes and buying things that destroy it? We have to be a little more conscious and responsible with our purchases since the future of wildlife and the environment is in our hands, don’t you think?

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