From Hollywood (who could forget the iconic T-Bird leather jacket?) to the music industry (think Michael Jackson in Thriller), leather has always been pop culture's universal symbol of cool and edge, especially when the cold weather hits, which makes its environmentally harmful manufacturing processes that much more disappointing.
The cows that are used for traditional leather require lots of flat, treeless pasture for grazing, and Greenpeace estimates that the Brazilian cattle industry alone accounts for 14 percent of the world's deforestation. As the leather hide moves into the production process, things only get dirtier. The tanning and dyeing of leather sucks up massive amounts of water, and tanneries in Bangladesh collectively produce 22,000 cubic meters of wastewater per day. The processes also involve multiple toxic chemicals including chromium, a dangerous compound that's been linked to respiratory issues and cancer.
Now, enough of the bad news. Today, innovative brands are working tirelessly and passionately to produce stylish and quality leather and faux-leather goods like coats, handbags, wallets, and clutches, without the social and environmental impact. Here are a few manufacturers to check in on:
1. O My Bag
O My Bag knows how to keep it clean in a nasty business. The brand exclusively works with fair trade suppliers, including the Sheong Shi Tannery in India, which sources only local leathers. O My Bag doesn't put much finishing on their bags in order to avoid pumping them with toxic chemicals. This means that they can get a little scratched up, but you'll dig the vintage look.
2. Elvis and Kresse
Elvis and Kresse uses recycled leather materials such as decommissioned fire hoses and fabric leather scraps to handcraft each bag. Not only does this brand reuse materials in products, it also uses old shoe boxes to package each piece. Ninety-five percent of production is completed in Elvis and Kresse's workshop, which is powered by renewable energy. Oh, and those bags made from fire hoses? Elvis and Kresse donates 50 percent of profits from them to the Fire Fighters Charity in the UK.
3. Tanner Bates
Tanner Bates sources leather exclusively from family-owned tanneries in Europe, and the company's owner knows all the people he buys raw materials from by name. This means that Tanner Bates has the ability to trace the entire supply chain all the way back to where the cows lived! It's traditional craftsmanship from long ago looking out for the future. On the retail side, every Tanner Bates product is made to order, which eliminates a ton of waste.
A word on faux-leather
In our wonderful pluralistic world, there are also plenty of designers offering alternatives for the leather-free lovelies. But beware that not all vegan leather is entirely eco-friendly. Surprisingly enough, a lot of vegan leather is actually made from plastic. When considering leather alternatives, particularly artificial ones, check to make sure they're not made using a ton of nasty chemicals with complicated names like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU).
A by-product of the production of PVCs is dioxins, which have been called "the most potent synthetic carcinogen ever tested" by the USGBC. What's more, since PVCs aren't fully biodegradable, they release harmful phthalates when broken down. PU microfibers are also harmful to human health as well as marine life.
So, if you must go with a vegan brand, check out Matt & Nat. While they do use PVC and PU, they're up front about it and also utilize reclaimed material like cork and rubber as much as they can. They also have 100 percent recycled plastic linings.