To be eco-friendly or not to be eco-friendly? The dilemma of my new boots

I recently stumbled upon the website of a fabulous, (also fabulously expensive) NYC boutique that sells eco-friendly and ethical lines.  There was a gorgeous pair of black leather boots for sale, and given that my current black leather boots are about 4 years old and I’ve had to super-glue the soles shut 2 or 3 times, I figured it was time to invest in a new pair.  Plus these were sustainable!

But hang on a minute, I thought leather was bad.  I’ve also stumbled across some designers of “vegan” shoes that are quite cute, as well as a maker of gorgeous recycled leather bags.  There’s even one that makes bags from car tires!  But these boots were leather, and I didn’t hear anything about recycling.  

So I went to the designer’s website.  Here is what it says: “Though there is controversy around the eco-friendliness of leather, we find significant factors that compel us to use it. First, leather is a by-product of the meat industry so it would be wasteful to discard the skins. Secondly, it is an unparalleled material for the type of shoes that we make. Lastly, we can encourage better tanning practices by using pressure within the industry…”
It goes on to describe specific types of tanning procedures and responsible practices by the tanneries, like water quality maintenance, efficiency practices, and chemical sequestration.  (read the full description here under raison d’etre>eco-conscious)

Sounds great, huh?  Well, to explore a little further I googled “eco-friendly leather” and found this scathing op-ed from a designer of synthetic footwear.  Ahh, well it appears I’ve stumbled upon a touchy subject for my first purchase. Under the op-ed, the comments go crazyyy.  Some good points were raised:

- what about the durability of synthetics versus leather? Leather lasts for years, isn’t that sustainable?
- Ultrasuede is suggested by the author as an equally durable substitute
- well isn’t leather a by-product of the meat industry?
- tanning factories produce large amounts of waste water that pollutes the surrounding environment, especially in countries like India where there is a lack of regulation
- leather was around for a long time pre-industrial age, so isn’t there a more natural way to make it?

So obviously this is a very emotional issue.  What I take away from my limited foray into the subject is that there are basically 3 perspectives. If you’ll excuse my immensely boiled-down version of what is a complex debate, here they are:

1. The Vehement Vegan: exemplified by the op-ed’s author, who writes in the comments: “the use of animal derived products is excessive, outdated, and without modern logic.”  She makes a compelling argument against the mass-production of leather in the absence of environmental regulations.  (My little sister, a vegetarian since the age of 7, would be all over that.)

2. The Observant Omnivore: Ok, so there are a lot of problems with the way leather is produced.  It’s totally fine to wear recycled leather that has been recycled with environmentally-friendly practices.  There may even be some ways to produce new leather that are ok too.  (Possums, anyone?)  Basically the point is to be careful about the leather we buy.

3. The Careless Carnivore:  Leather is awesome.  I rock the fringe when I cruise on my hog.

For those of  #1′s and #2′s, here is a list from ecouterre magazine of 18 vegan shoe brands.

I guess my purchase puts me in category #2.  Maybe it wasn’t my most eco-friendly purchase, but since it was the first I’d say there’s room for improvement.

(Plus the boots are gorgeous, and oh so soft)To be eco friendly or not to be eco friendly?  The dilemma of my new boots

20 thoughts on “To be eco-friendly or not to be eco-friendly? The dilemma of my new boots

  1. Yay Ariel! Great post! I have a question. Is the argument that leather is a bi-product of meat valid? How often is it that meat factories remove the skin off the animal in a way that is cautious enough to allow it to be used… and then take the time to make it/send it off to be made into leather.
    I clearly know NOTHING about this… so if its a stupid question… oh well. :)

    • Great question! That op-ed didn’t really answer it, so I did a bit more digging. Here’s a nice piece from the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2008/aug/27/ethicalfashion.leather

      excerpt: Many people happily wear leather on the grounds that it’s a byproduct of animal slaughter for meat and therefore a form of recycling – waste not, want not. But is leather really a byproduct? Yes and no. It might be more accurate to describe it as a subsidy. It’s very hard to get any statistics as the big meat companies are under no obligation to release figures, but the selling of skins can certainly be very profitable for farmers (while meat is not always so). You could therefore argue that by buying leather, you are supporting the meat industry.

      I think the heart of this goes back to my earlier quote from Timmerman’s book: we need to be engaged consumers. Know where your leather or vegan shoes come from, and make a conscious, informed decision on what to buy. I do eat meat (gasp!) and I think from what I’ve read that I’m ok with certain types of leather, but I’m going to be extra careful and discerning from now on.

      • both are equally freindly if they are made from recycled products. If you are looking at it from virgin materials Glass is probably the more noticable harm (mining leaves large areas blighted for years) however the chemicals used to create plastic (including the main ingrediant, oil) are far more destructive then glass. (6 in one hand half dozen in the other) Recycled is best no matter how you look at it the energy used to recycle plastic is I think (if i remember correctly,) only slightly lower then that to recycle Glass.

  2. You’re “little sister, a vegetarian since the age of 7″ sounds like a real cool chick. This is great ah, really though I love the tone of it, at first I had to keep looking up and checking if you actually wrote it lol. Nice job!!! Now buy me a pair haha.

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