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.