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Ethical Style: How Your Leather Jacket Is Destroying the Environment

Tracking the ecological footprint of your leather shoes.

Every Thursday, your Ethical Style questions, answered.

The cow is the most farmed animal on earth—at any given time, there are 1.5 million of them waiting to become beef. The beef industry’s stranglehold over the world’s dinner plates is a big problem for the environment (not to mention those million-and-a-half cows). But until the world’s diet changes, slipping on a pair of leather shoes or throwing on a leather handbag can seem like an honest attempt to try to use the whole animal.

Indeed, most leather that ends up on our feet and over our shoulders comes from cows. But numbers aligning meat and leather consumption are elusive. Consider this: Utter Pradesh is one of the highest-concentrated centers of leather production in the world. It’s also located in northern India, a beef-free country where the cow is considered holy and slaughtering is forbidden in many parts of the country.

That divide hints at a broader reality: Leather is a co-product of the meat industry, not a byproduct. More leather does require more cattle. And like most mass-production processes involving animals, the process gets ugly. Cows live in confinement in overcrowded stalls, where they’re plumped with hormones and force-fed with dubious fillers, or not fed enough, dehorned, and branded. Animal rights watch groups have reported cows being skinned while the animal is still conscious, among other cruel practices.

And those tight living conditions still manage to wreck havoc on huge sections of the earth’s surface. Cows feed off of crops that use up 33 percent of the world’s arable land. The Amazonian rain forest has been seriously depleted to make way for more animals. Brazil is the single largest exporter of unfinished leather to China, and more than 40 percent of Brazil’s cattle lives and grazes on former Amazonian grounds. According to the U.N., worldwide cattle-rearing for food and fashion is responsible for 18 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation only makes up 13 percent of that figure.

And the environmental damage doesn’t end when the cow stops emitting gas. After a cow is slaughtered, its hide is unhaired, degreased, tanned, dried, softened, recolored, and finished. The tanning process usually employs a mix of chromium and a huge amount of water. When that sludge is unceremoniously dumped, it can seep into the ground water, where basic chromium can quickly turn into the toxic chromium VI. (the same chemical that inspired Erin Brokovich to rally against Pacific Gas & Electric). Ingestion of the stuff can cause ulcers, severe kidney and liver damage, DNA mutation, and sometimes death. And though leather is considered a “natural” textile, the sheer volume of chemicals used in the tanning and finishing processes means that most leather is not biodegradable.

So far, the fashion world has failed to find a totally sustainable alternative to the real deal. “Cruelty-free” (and often cheaper!) alternatives to leather exist—though unless they’re specifically labeled “vegan,” many use glues that include animal leftovers. Matt and Nat makes fashionable leather handbag lookalikes, while Cri de Coeur and celebrity favorite OlsenHaus offer vegan shoes. Birkenstock even has its own nubuck and patent leather imitations, Birkibuc and Birki-Flor.

But unfortunately, these meatless alternatives don’t look so good from the ecological vantage point. Imitation leather is made from polyester, which does not come from renewable resources and is not biodegradable. Burning these materials can emit noxious gases into the atmosphere. One popular pleather base, PVC, is even known as the “poison plastic.”

Another option is real leather, done better. Cultivating hides from organically farmed cattle, and vegetable tanning it cuts down on both the ecological damage and cruelty concerns of the mainstream leather process. Vegetable tanning uses safe tannins that occur naturally in tree bark, but it has its problems, too—it is much more labor- and time-intensive than its chemical alternative, still uses a lot of water, and still requires cattle to be slaughtered.

No “eco-friendly” or “cruelty-free” option is perfect, but many represent an improvement on the status quo. As with every problematic item in our closets, we ultimately need to learn to buy less leather, smarter.

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