Accessories Fashion

A Better Leather? Alternatives to Cow Leather

By Arwa Lodhi

We’ve written about why most vegan leathers are terrible for the planet, and have covered a variety of vegan leather  alternatives already, but what about eco-options for carnivores? After all, many do opine that if people are going to eat meat (and this data indicates meat consumption is on the rise every year), we may as well use the hides that result from the slaughter.

That being said, much of the finest leather is NOT a by-product of the food industry, and even if it is, cows do require a lot of space, feed and energy to farm. Luckily, there are some eco-friendlier leather options available to those who wish to discourage the mammal meat trade in general.

Here are some of the options we’ve discovered that we reckon are much better alternatives to the highly polluting processes of cow, pig and sheep leather production.

1. The Smooth Feel of Eel

Makki Accessories was launched after its founder, Joanne, spent a year living and working in Korea.  Struck by the vast amounts of fish and eel the Koreans eat, she wondered what happened to their skins after they’d been eaten, and then she got an idea–what if leather could be made out of by products of the fishing industry? Soon, she was creating delicate clutches and beautiful statement bags from smooth, soft eel skin.


Eel leather can be far more sustainable than cow hide, but it depends entirely on the kind of eel used: unfortunately, both American and European eels are endangered due to overfishing, and using them for either food or leather can’t be considered at all sustainable. That being said, conger eels are the most commonly used species for eel leather, and are the most common byproducts of the food industry.


But sustainability of any leather also depends on how it is preserved and dyed. Unfortunately, Makki could not confirm that their processes are free of toxic chemicals; all they told us is that they ‘try to minimise their environmental impact.’ A bit too non-committal for us–after all, even Jimmy Choo and Yves Saint Laurent use eel leather in their shoes, and they’re far from ‘eco’ friendly brands. Come on, Makki–do the world a favour and use some eco-friendly tanning and dying, and we’ll love you forever!


2. A Fresh Idea: Fish Leather

Another possible alternative leather comes from fish. Yes, fish!

Mermaid Leather’s humble beginnings were inspired by professional fishermen, R.W. Bubb and Andrew MacDermott in 1989 who saw a need to use wasted skins from the fish processing industry. Tanning fish skins was unheard of at the time, but through extensive research and development over a four year period Mermaid Leather finally achieved a strong, aesthetically appealing and soothing to touch quality fish leather that could be used in a variety of unique ways.


In 1994 Mermaid Leather became fully commercial by purchasing industrial tanning drums and a plating machine for its finishing work. This increased its potential to tanning thousands of discarded fish skins in a single year. Andrew’s brother David joined the fish tanning force in 1997 assuming the role of tannery manager.

Designers throughout Australia embraced this new exciting quality leather while larger contracts for wholesale leather emerged, meaning there is a whole new industry growing from what would normally be wasted material. Mermaid uses non-toxic dyes and tanning, meaning their products are quite ecologically friendly, but what we love most about this brand is that the scaly fish effect provides a much more animal friendly version of ‘python’ looking leather.


But Mermaid is not the only brand using waste fish skins to create fashion:  Khogy  also creates sneakers, handbags, and even jackets. They use only eco-friendly tanning processes, and don’t even dye the skins, leaving them with their natural lustre and patterns.

3. As Sure As Sheep

This alternative to cow leather may be the best one yet:  ‘eco’ shearling.


Eco-Shearling is a revolutionary material used in the construction of luxurious, cruelty-free shoes and boots. Made from a 100% natural derivative of Australian lamb and sheep,  the material is extremely soft, and contains features of both single- and double-faced sheepskin. However, unlike  other leather or double-faced sheepskin products, Eco-Shearling does NOT require the skinning or killing of any animals. Instead, Eco-Shearling fibers are sheared from live lamb/sheep using a process designed specifically to be cruelty-free.

Eco-Shearling is highly sustainable, renewable and biodegradable. It also features advanced moisture management technology, superior thermal control capabilities and has been designed to increase product lifespan in any environment. This option offers the possibility for chic designs combined with strict    environmental stewardship and animal protection.

For more information, please click here.

4. For Cool Chicks: Chicken Leather

A purveyor of eel fish leathers, Heidi Mottram of Poulard has another eco-friendly leather concept that’s quite rare. The renowned designer uses–wait for it–chicken leather. While some may shun the pimply skin of the humble chicken, Mottram claims that 100% of her skins are by-products of the food industry, and what’s more: the make great accessories!

Chicken leather has a similar texture and grainy pattern to emu and ostrich, but unlike these birds, chickens are raised solely for their skins. On the contrary, their skins are often ground up into animal feed, despite the fact they are actually very soft and durable. When correctly processed, it performs like any other leather.

Of course, we are aware of the horrors of battery raised chickens, but if there were to be a brand like Poulard that guaranteed free-range or organic chicken leather and eco-friendly tanning and dyeing processes were used, we’re sure there’d be a huge market for it. Entrepreneurs, take note!

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For more information, please click here.

Chere Di Boscio

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