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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: 4 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.
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.
‘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.
Best Brands For Eco Leather
This unique label works 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.
3. Cast Made
Lucie Cast is the founder of the handmade leather bag label based in Devon, Cast Made. Every piece is handmade with great attention to detail, in terms of design and sustainability. Vegetable tanned leather is obtained using natural plant extracts, instead of the conventional procedure that involves harmful chemicals. Even the hardware on the bags is attentive to preventing waste: just a tiny bit of brass is used as a clasp. A Cast Made bag is an accessory for a lifetime that never goes out of style and that acquires texture according to the adventures it shares with you.
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 dying 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.
It’s not easy to find a company that makes eco-leather products on demand, but Willique is one of those rare beasts which does so. Their gender neutral Conscious Collection is comprised of a range of alternative leather, bespoke handbags hand crafted from a variety of sustainable materials.
7. 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.
Main image: Alterre