Some say cow leather can be ‘greener’ than vegan leather. But what is eco leather? Does it even exist?
By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi
The film Cowspiracy focused attention on just how unsustainable cattle ranching is. Cows take up land; they eat food that humans could eat, and their -ahem- ‘gases’ contribute to the CO2 that’s warming the planet. And that’s just when they’re alive; once killed for meat and skinned for leather, even more problems arise.
For example, harsh tanning chemicals are applied to hides to keep them from rotting; after that, the skins are subjected to dyes, fixatives and other chemicals to give the leather texture and colour. In short, normal leather is an ecologist’s (and a vegan’s) worst nightmare.
But the fact is, despite its obvious cruelty and nastiness to the planet, billions of people still buy leather. They believe that it’s a byproduct of the meat industry (not always true) and that it’s the best material for things like shoes, jackets, bags and even sofas.
Whilst we here at Eluxe advocate shunning any animal products whenever possible, we also recognise that not everyone’s gone vegan. So for those of you who still can’t give up being carnivorous – be it in terms of fashion or food – but still care about the planet, you may be wondering: what is eco leather?
Defining Eco Leather: Four Ways
Eco leather can be defined a few ways. For example, if leather is recycled from old jackets, car seats, sofas, and other leather materials that would otherwise end up in landfill, we’d consider it to be eco-friendly.
If the leather comes as a byproduct of the meat or fishing industry, especially if it’s from organically raised cattle or sustainable fishing, we’d check the ‘sustainable’ box.
Some would argue that leather is innately a natural resource, in that it’s replenishable via natural processes at a rate comparable or faster than its rate of consumption by humans or other users, and that it’s way better for the planet than plasticky ‘vegan leathers’. This line of thinking would include the use of wood, for example, as well as leather – but let’s not forget that even if these materials are ‘renewable,’ they do come with a high CO2 and ethical cost compared to plant based materials.
One final definition for eco-leather would be cowhide and other skins that are tanned and dyed with vegetable-based materials, as opposed to those containing toxic chemicals or chromium.
Even if the manufacturing of leather goods does follow best practices, leather does have a fairly negative environmental impact. For example, when leather is disposed of, it’s not in fact, as biodegradable as people think. The tanning process, whether naturally done or not, can preserve the skins for thousands of years.
The gauge of a leather’s “greenness” is measured by the absence of certain restricted chemicals, such as banned azo dyes, PCP, chrome VI, formaldehyde and so on. The British Leather Council operates a rating system for the eco-friendliness of leather. Retailers, brands or tanners who are able to meet the requirements of this standard are eligible to display the EcoSure mark.
This mark is operated in conjunction with the Leather Working Group (LWG). To be eligible to use this mark, tanneries must have achieved at least a Bronze award in the LWG Tannery Environment Auditing Protocol carried out by BLC and the finished leather on which the mark is to be used must meet the requirements of the audit and testing regime.
‘But’, I hear you asking, ‘where on Earth can I find brands that produce eco-leather and abide by these principles’? Well, of course Eluxe knows a few of the best.
The Best Brands For Eco Leather
This unique label knows how to answer the question ‘what is eco leather’! They work on the principles using upcycled plastics and eco-dyed leathers to create shoes that are actually many styles in one.
Alterre shoes was created by Harmony Pilobello and Shilpa Iyengar, who met at Parsons School of Design in New York, where they both studied fashion design. Harmony focused on the methods to develop ethical leather, whilst Shilpa was oriented on women’s wear design. When the two decided to join forces, the results were wondrous.
The secret of the brand’s uniqueness? The way each owner of a pair of Alterre can be modified – the footwear has interchangeable straps and heels that can be swapped according to your whim and occasion, meaning you need to buy fewer pairs of shoes, too. Alterre works on FairTrade principles, and also donates 5% of profits to a women’s shelter.
2. Rag of Colts
Rag of Colts is a brand brimming with British culture. The talented hands behind the brand, Caroline Strecker, traded in London for the quieter setting of Burton in Somerset. Inspired by her great grandfather’s career as a horseman, she grew up fascinated by the detailed craftsmanship of bridle.
Fast forward some years and Caroline turned her fascination into Rags of Colts, a brand that makes beautiful, hand-stitched leather bags using vintage saddlery. Some of the materials date as far back as the 1900’s, meaning leather from over a century ago is still being used for good purposes. No two bags are ever the same; they’re all unique and full of individual charm, with acute attention to detail.
Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca once wrote “duende is a power and not a behaviour.” This completely epitomises the meaning of the word and the spirit of the brand with the same name. Duende is an eco-friendly label that specialises in hand dyeing techniques applied to natural vegetable tanned leathers. Their enchanting marbling technique, which dates all the way back to 15th century Persia, has been adopted by designer Lynsey Johnson for her sophisticated pieces.
Lynsey, having grown on the Ogeechee River banks, wanted to follow the philosophy of the Native Americans, who never wasted a single scrap of any animal they hunted, so just like them, Duende produces zero waste – leather scraps are upcycled into jewellery and other goods.
Coclico owes its name to the wildflower coquelicot, that can be found in the province of Pays de la Loire. The founder of this brand, Sandra Canselier, has a deep history of leather crafting. She comes from a long line of French shoemakers and wanted to honor the legacy of her family, while conveying her imaginative perspective in the shoes she designs.
Coclico footwear is an exceptional brand when it comes to sustainable leather products: the material comes from certified tanneries and are manufactured by artisans who take meticulous care in the making of each pair. Along with leather, cork and natural woods are integrated into these minimalistic designs for the contemporary woman who cares about the planet.
Images: Gillian Stevens for Coclico
5. Aitch Aitch
This gorgeous luxury brand features beautifully designed salmon leather bags in a stunning array of colours. Their skins are a natural byproduct of organic fisheries in Europe. Each piece is dyed and tanned in eco-friendly tanneries and the bags are constructed by hand by master craftswomen in London. To reduce waste, their collections are made to order upon request through the website, and are also available at Curve San Francisco and Malia Mills East Hampton.
6. IMM Shoes
Made from recycled/upcycled leather, IMM Shoes are designed and made by hand by skilled immigrants. These men and women are paid a fair wage to create loafers that are chic, timeless, and unisex.
Main image: Alterre