What is eco friendly leather? Does it even exist? We investigate
By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi
The film Cowspiracy focused attention on just how unsustainable cattle ranching is. Cows take up land, and they eat food that humans could eat. Plius, 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 worst nightmare. And let’s not avoid the fact that animals are almost always kept in horrendous conditions before they’re cruelly slaughtered for us to use their bodies for fashion.
But the fact is, despite its obvious cruelty and nastiness to the planet, billions of people still buy leather. They might believe that it’s a byproduct of the meat industry (which is 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. Despite all the great, eco-friendly vegan leather alternatives out there today, many people still can’t – or won’t – give up animal products But is there a better way to buy leather?
And the short answer is, yes. There’s plenty of eco friendly leather around. But now you may be wondering: what is eco leather, anyway?
Defining Eco Friendly Leather: Four Ways
Eco friendly leather can be defined a few ways. Four, mainly.
- Upcycled leather: If leather is upcycled 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.
- Byproducts of the meat or fishing industry: If leather comes from the meat or fishing industry, we’d consider it to be eco leather. But note: this is not usually the case. According to OneGreenPlanet, “It would be foolish to assume it’s simply a by-product of (meat) industries. There is an important economic interdependence between factory farming and the leather trade, and thus farmers do not sell every single part of each animal to minimize waste but instead to maximize revenue and profit. For that reason leather is an animal product much like any other: produced to meet consumer demand while lining the pockets of those within the respective businesses.”
- Leathers tanned and dyed with vegetable-based materials: Since most leather is soaked in toxic chemicals in the tanning and dyeing processes, if a leather uses natural plant based materials for these, we’d consider it eco leather. In fact, one gauge of a leather’s “greenness” is measured by the absence of certain restricted chemicals. These include azo dyes, PCP, chrome VI, formaldehyde and so on.
- The use of deadstock: As with clothing, if a brand is using deadstock leather fabric that would otherwise go to waste, we’d consider their products to be eco-leather.
- Sustainable leather certifications: It’s all fine and well for a brand to claim they’re using eco friendly leather. But an eco friendly certification means. you can trust their word. More on this below.
Sustainable Leather Certifications
Still not sure you can trust if you’re buying eco leather products? Look for certifications. For example, 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 certification, tanneries must have achieved at least a Bronze award in the LWG Tannery Environment Auditing Protocol carried out by BLC. The finished leather on which the mark is used must meet the requirements of the auditing and testing regime, too.
And if you don’t live in the UK and can’t find that certification, never fear. We here at Eluxe know some of the best eco friendly leather shoe and bag brands around!
The Best Brands For Eco Leather
Nomasei is an eco friendly leather brand that draws much inspiration from vintage styles. And the best part? The material for their footwear comes from luxury fashion houses’ deadstock. But that’s not all! The brand also uses biodegradable soles, 100% recyclable zippers, and leathers that are always free of heavy metals.
Speaking of leathers, theirs are all guaranteed to be by-products of the local Italian meat industry, and Nomasei only works with suppliers & factories that are certified in sustainable sourcing and practices and comply with OECD practices – focusing on their reuse of wastewater, the low presence of metals and a more virtuous treatment of waste
Eco friendly leather because: Non-toxic leather that’s deadstock and/or by-products of the meat industry
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. These eco friendly leather shoes have interchangeable straps and heels that can be swapped according to your outfit and occasion. Great news, since this means you need to buy fewer pairs of shoes. Alterre works on FairTrade principles, and also donates 5% of profits to a women’s shelter.
Eco friendly leather because: Their leathers are chrome-free, which means that they were tanned without chromium. This means it reduces chemical pollution into waste streams from the tanning process and improves biodegradability.
3. Rag of Colts
Rag of Colts is a brand absolutely brimming with British culture! The talented hands behind the label, Caroline Strecker, left 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 sustainable leather brand that makes beautiful, hand-stitched leather bags using vintage saddlery. Some of the materials date as far back as the 1900’s! We love how 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.
Eco friendly leather because: All their eco leather accessories are made from upcycled saddles.
Duende is an eco-friendly leather label that specialises in hand dyeing techniques. These are applied to natural vegetable- tanned leathers. Their enchanting marbling technique dates all the way back to 15th century Persia. It was adopted by designer/owner Lynsey Johnson for her sophisticated pieces.
Lynsey is inspired by all kinds of cultures. For example, she also admires the philosophy of the Native Americans. They never wasted a single scrap of any animal they hunted. So just like them, Duende produces zero waste. All their leather scraps are upcycled into jewellery and other goods.
Eco friendly leather because: Duende follows a zero-waste process, and uses natural, plant based dyes and tanners.
Coclico owes its name to the wildflower coquelicot, which is 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 a truly exceptional eco leather shoe brand. Their material comes from eco certified tanneries, and are manufactured by expert artisans who are well paid. Along with leather, cork and natural woods are integrated into these minimalistic designs. Coclico shoes are ideal for the contemporary woman who cares about the planet.
Eco friendly leather because: Other natural materials are used, such as cork and wood. All leather is naturally tanned by certified tanneries.
Images: Gillian Stevens for Coclico
6. Aitch Aitch
This gorgeous luxury brand features beautifully designed bags in a stunning array of colours. And they’re made from a rather surprising material: salmon leather!
These skins come from waste from the food industry – namely, they’re a natural byproduct of organic salmon fisheries in Europe. Aitch Aitch dyes and and tans their skins in eco-friendly tanneries. Master craftswomen in London hand stitch each piece. And to reduce waste, the brand insists that their collections are only made to order upon request through the website.
Eco friendly leather because: All skins are waste from the food industry and are naturally dyed and tanned.