Real Leather vs. Vegan Leather

Abby, the founder, working with our leather source in Nairobi to choose leather.

Abby, the founder, working with our leather source in Nairobi to choose leather.

Which is More Ethical?

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 call ourselves 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 offering real leather products.

Real Leather

Many people believe using animal based products are not a 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. 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.

It is also argued that the process of tanning the leather is harmful to 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. However, the downside of vegetable tanning is that it requires the use of wood, which means chopping down trees and using a lot of water.

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. There is a big difference between buying a “leather bag” at a cheap department store and buying a leather bag from us.

Vegan Leather

The thing is though…the majority of vegan leather uses and emits toxic chemicals (polyurethane) that it emits in the production process. Furthermore, 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 their materials.

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 impact the communities where we work in East Africa. As agriculture and livestock remains the top industry, we want to both support the Maasai community as well as reduce waste from the meat industry. Who knows? Maybe one day we will offer an eco-friendly 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!

Leather tanning process