The New Fashion Initiative

Skin in the Game: What About Leather?

This post is part three in a four-part series written by Joshua Katcher – fashion designer, educator, and author of the award-winning book Fashion Animals. In this series, Katcher examines how the fur and leather debate became a debate about plastic. Don’t forget to check out part one and part two!

How did plastic become the primary focus of the debate around replacing fur and leather when the data we have shows that plastic is not the single worst material for the environment? And how did concerns for torturing and killing animals get deemed sentimental and misguided or left out of the mainstream sustainable fashion conversation almost entirely? 

I was scrolling through a popular designer’s Instagram page. This designer doesn’t use leather, and I came across an image of some shoes that had recently been sent down the runway during Paris Fashion Week. The comments section was full of things like “plastic crap!” and “plastic shoes should not cost so much” and “if these are plastic then leather is more sustainable.” 

Most people hear “leather” and words like genuine, real, and natural come to mind – especially in comparison to something like polyurethane (PU) leather. They don’t think about the fact that a typical steer will consume the equivalent of 284 gallons of fossil fuels and emit almost 300 kg of methane in their brief, often miserable 36-month life before slaughter. The size of the global herd? 1.5 billion head. Do the math and you’ll get the picture. From a climate crisis standpoint, one standard leather hide (about 7 lbs) is equivalent to driving 25,000 miles in a car – and that’s before the havoc of the global tanning industry is even brought into the equation. Meanwhile, producing 7 pounds of PU is the equivalent of driving just under 30 miles.

You might be thinking, “But the animal is being killed for meat, so is the leather really responsible for those impacts?” It’s important to correct a popular fallacy here, that leather is just a byproduct. So pervasive and common is this idea that many material life cycle analyses (LCA) of leather consider it to be “recovered waste” and only measure from the rawhide stage onward with a focus on the disastrous global tanning industry. Breeding billions of methane-emitting livestock, clearing forests for grazing, growing corn for those billions of animals and factory farming are completely overlooked! Since the sales of hides maximize profits, the intention is not to minimize waste. Leather is a $414 billion global industry, not a waste-diverting charity. 

Massive meat and dairy subsidies further obscure the value of leather. The US government, for example, spends $38 billion a year propping up these industries. Other countries have similar subsidies in place. It’s essential we see leather itself as a meat-subsidy or at least a co-product. By not buying leather, we are defunding livestock products in general, which take an enormous environmental toll that can’t be written off, least of all as a virtuous act of waste-diversion.

We’ve seen what the Copenhagen Fashion Summit’s Pulse report and the Higg Materials Sustainability Index indicate: leather is one of the worst materials for the environment, with more than twice the overall impacts of PU leather. Other livestock materials like alpaca, wool, and silk are measured as being worse than most synthetic fibers in regards to their climate impacts. The Center for Biological Diversity reports that the “ecological costs of livestock grazing exceed that of any other western land use,” and that “livestock grazing is the most widespread cause of species endangerment.” Research findings published in Science of the Total Environment state that “livestock production is the single largest driver of habitat loss.” 

Leather production warrants the same urgency as synthetics. The data is right there.

Popular claims of so-called sustainable “holistic” grazing in which carbon would be removed from the atmosphere and stored in the soil may be overstating benefits. The idea of grazing being climate positive has been called into serious question in reports like Oxford’s Grazed and Confused, which cites over 300 sources. Rewilding would sequester more carbon than even the most advanced grazing systems. It would also allow for species typically threatened by pasture, from large predators to wild horses, to recover.

If biodiversity is part of sustainable fashion’s long-game, conversations around circularity must include rewilding grazelands. Mistaking grazeland for nature is an aesthetic problem, because to many of us, it simply looks like nature. 

Oxford’s Joseph Poore researched global results of returning sheep or cow pastures to wild spaces and found there would be significant benefits to endangered species from Asiatic cheetahs and Persian gazelles to saiga and fragrant shield-backed trapdoor spiders. High-yield technologies that minimize land use are also an opportunity for new carbon sinks and new economies. Farmers could benefit from lucrative ecosystem services like carbon storage, as well as ecotourism and wildlife tourism. But this requires legislation, as many laws prevent farmers from making money without livestock in animal-fiber producing places like Australia.

How can it be that no sustainable fashion conferences or panel discussions are talking about this? It’s a question I’ve asked a lot of people, and the answers vary. One reason is that rewards and resources from organizations with vested interests like Woolmark can be quite alluring. Some say that key studies showing the negative impacts of “natural” materials take a cradle to gate approach and don’t consider end-of-life impacts of materials (how long and at what cost they will linger in seas, soils, and landfills), so their findings are therefore less valid. Some say it’s the overall volume of plastics being produced (and overproduction and overconsumption in general) that demands a primary focus. Others have simply accepted the well-funded message that because materials like fur and leather just seem natural and feel natural they must be better for nature. While all of these responses are troubling, it’s this last response that is the most pervasive. When we overlook or rationalize our way around data because of aesthetics, we need to check ourselves and then double-check the data. 

The leather industry has been hit hard in recent years as demands for hides are dropping. At the same time, the market in vegan leather is exploding and is projected to grow to $90 billion by 2025. You can be sure that stakeholders in skins are also paying very careful attention to what’s already happened to the fur industry. That’s why in April of 2019, the industry-funded campaign “Leather Naturally” was launched with the intent to greenwash. Claims like, “Leather is beautiful, versatile, sustainable. Fact.” are stated boldly. But now we know, it’s not as simple as that.

More research, data and resources are needed to understand material impacts, but if we are going to make strategic decisions in a time of climate crisis, those need to be informed by the impact data that we currently have, not feelings about what is nostalgic or what seems natural. 

Stay tuned as we continue to explore this issue!