Which is More Ethical: Real Leather or Vegan Leather?
There is a conversation going on in the ethical/sustainable fashion world right now about whether it is more ethical and more sustainable to use real leather or vegan leather for fashion products, like bags. Since we are an ethical fashion brand, this is a conversation we care very much about and one that we continue to learn about. We want our customers to be well-informed and up-to-date with our understanding of this conversation and why we feel good about the leather products we offer.
Many people believe using animal-based products is not sustainable or good for the environment. In many ways, these people would not be entirely wrong. Since veganism has been on the rise over the past couple of decades, the world’s meat consumption has decreased, and therefore more fashion companies are actually using leather from animals solely raised for fashion. If this doesn’t sit well with you, you’re not alone. It doesn’t sit well with us either. We don’t want animals to be raised and slaughtered so we can have a new pair of boots or wallet or whatever. However, in many developing countries where unemployment is high, like Kenya, where we get our leather from, agriculture is the primary source of income for people. Cows are raised for meat, not fashion. Leather that is a by-product of the meat industry is using material that would have otherwise gone to waste. By purchasing the leather to make bags, we are merely using something that would otherwise be discarded….and supporting small businesses that are providing fair employment opportunities.
Another element in this conversation is the process of tanning the leather and its impact on the environment. There are two ways to tan leather, chrome and vegetable (the leather we source is all vegetable tanned), and although both have environmental concerns, one is far worse than the other. 80% of leather is tanned through the chrome process, which involves the use of toxic chemicals. Vegetable tanning, on the other hand, does not emit toxic chemicals, making it safer to use as consumers. It is also better quality, ages beautifully, and lasts longer. Vegetable tanning may take longer and cost more, but it is definitely worth it!
Every tannery does things a little differently, which is why we feel so strongly about knowing what goes on with our products from start to finish. Some bags being sold as leather bags may have a plastic coating over them, which drives the price down. Leather is not cheap - so if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Although it sounds good, the majority of vegan leather uses and emits toxic chemicals (polyurethane) in the production process. Because of the use of these chemicals, these products are not recyclable and not biodegradable like real leather.
So if you are anti-animal product, then real leather is not for you. But if you are more concerned with sustainability, then the moral of the story is, you need to know who you are buying from and do the groundwork of knowing the materials used.
One vegan-leather source that is eco-friendly is called PinaTex. It is a natural leather source made from fibers extracted from pineapple leaves. More and more eco-friendly alternatives are being invented all the time.
Where We Stand
As much as possible, our desire is to positively impact the communities where we work in East Africa. As agriculture and livestock remains a top employer, we want to both support the local community as well as reduce waste from the meat industry. We also believe vegetable-tanned leather is the most eco-friendly option for us to use while also giving you the best possible quality. Who knows? Maybe one day we will offer an eco-friendly, high-quality, vegan option, but at the moment, most are too toxic to consider. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue, as we are learning all the time how to best be responsible consumers and producers!