Ask the Ecologist: Is wearing leather ever OK?

Green Living Editor Ruth Styles answers your eco-lifestyle dilemmas. This week, we've put leather under the microscope

Hi Ruth,
I read your piece on hemp versus bamboo and organic cotton, and I was wondering what you have to say about leather. I’ve heard that it’s fine to wear it, provided you aren’t vegetarian, and that even fur is OK sometimes. What do you think?
Sarah, Kilburn

Leather poses an ethical problem as well as an environmental one; namely whether or not you’re OK with an animal being killed to provide you with clothes. Most people are happy to wear leather when they wouldn’t dream of wearing fur on the grounds that it is a by-product of the meat industry. To some extent this is true, although it does depend on the type of leather you choose. According to PETA, more than one billion cows are killed for meat each year, with the sale of the skin providing around 20 per cent of total revenues from the individual animal. With ostrich leather, the figure is turned on its head with 80 per cent of the carcass value coming from the skin and 20 from the meat. Finally, there are reptile skins, with almost 100 per cent of the carcass’ value created by the skin.

While crocodile, cow and ostrich skins account for the majority available in British shops, there’s another skin in town that poses further moral problems: calfskin. While some of these come from veal calves killed at six months [the average age of veal calves at slaughter], the softest and most expensive come from newborn and even foetal calves cut early from their mother’s wombs. Few meat eaters would be happy to eat the meat from a foetal calf, so why wear the skin? Another ethical issue with leather is its provenance. China is the world’s biggest (cow) leather exporter and its welfare standards are questionable to say the least. India is the other major producer, and again, the standards in Indian slaughterhouses and farms don’t come close to those you would expect to find in Europe.

That’s the moral question covered, but what about the environmental impact? In terms of the environment, an untanned skin has no impact beyond that created by the living animal during its lifetime. The real damage tends to occur during the tanning process, which usually involves a toxic cocktail of chemicals including mineral salts, formaldehyde and chemical derivatives of coal-tar. Chrome tanning is the commonest form and frequently results in the cancer-causing chromium (VI) being pumped into local water supplies. Although this is banned in Europe, in Pakistan – another big leather producing country – it was found that of the 200 tanneries located in the Korangi Industrial Area in Karachi, only half were discharging waste after proper treatment. Another chemical commonly found near tanneries is the poison, arsenic, which has been linked to lung cancer. According to PETA, studies of tannery workers in Sweden and Italy found cancer risks between 20 per cent and 50 per cent above normal levels.

All this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop wearing leather altogether, although I would suggest that you leave fur well alone. If you’re a meat eater, then try vegetable tanned leather, which uses natural tannins found in bark to colour and preserve the skins. Aim for British or European leather whenever possible, most of which will have been produced to high welfare and environmental standards, although it (and vegetable tanned leather in general) tend to be slightly more expensive than conventional leathers. Try Terra Plana for heels or The Natural Shoe Store for comfortable flats. If you want to avoid leather altogether, plenty of options are available. Stella McCartney, Beyond Skin and Melissa all create wonderful shoes using natural fabrics and recycled materials.


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