I am just in the middle of writing an assigment plan for another subject and in keeping with my theme for this semester, I have chosen to write about sustainability and leather.
Some shocking facts, here goes…
Ethical concerns with leather
- Mistreatment of animals “In India, animals are being slaughtered primarily for their skins, with meat a by-product. They are notoriously cruel, marching the cattle hundres of miles” Andrew Butler, campaign coordinator for PETA (Vartan 2002)
- Exposure of tannery workers to carcinogens leads to site-specific cancers, as well as disorders caused by hazardous dust and chemicals. Study in Istanbul found tannery workers more likely to have respiratory and gastro-intestinal problems (Yegenoglu et al 2007)
- Workers handle toxic chemicals with little protective clothing > in Harazibag, general population 31% more likely to suffer from skin diseases, 17% to have kidney problems (Robins & Roberts 2000)
Environmental concerns with leather
- To dry 1 tonne hide requires 20m3 of water (Ludvik 2000)
- Tanning one metric tonne of hide produces 20-80 cubic metres of toxic and foul-smelling waste water which contains chloride, sulphide, pesticides and other biochemicals (World Bank Group)
- Deliming produces ammonia, dyeing releases solvents into the air (World Bank Group)
- Up to 70% of the original hide weight is in waste including trimmings, hair and degraded hide (World Bank Group)
- In Kanpur (major leather manufacturing city in India) in 2003, 22 tonnes of chromium-laden waste were being dumped in the open every day (Sharma 2003)
- In Croatia, 4-5% of water pollution is from tanneries: each year 27000 tonnes of leather consumes 800 000-1 000 000m3 of water (HDKO 2000)
I struggled to find much info about the actual landfill of leather but was shocked nonetheless at what goes into producing leather and moreso, what is permitted to go on in its production. The environmental impacts not only hurt the physical landscape but by doing so, it seems thousands of people, both workers and people living in leather manufacturing areas, are having their health compromised.
I just glanced at my much loved Mimco bag and don’t know if I feel quite the same about it. I have always valued its buttery leather and the way it wears but now… I don’t know, what’s the right thing to do? I can’t really buy into the belief that pleather is better in many ways – though the thought of cruelty to animals really does make me question whether pleather is a far more ethical choice.
I have been naive, I admit. Since leather is such a luxury good and I have always sourced those made in Italy, I never really considered that it could be manufactured in third world countries and then exported. Mind you, in my readings, it mentioned the top quality leather is made mainly from free range stocks in Europe however this represents the very pinnacle of the market with most leather of lower quality being imported at cheap prices from India. It seems the US is the top importer from India whereas Europe imports a lot less from there. I guess in the US, leather goods are quite widely mass produced into cheaper leather items (think those leather shoes with synthetic uppers and soles) whereas in Europe, in places like Italy, there is that conservation of the artisanship of leather shoes. I am pretty sure the EU has protection laws on some of this and will aim to find out more.
I just can’t stop thinking about those poor people subject to such conditions and the shocking stories that emerge from areas such as Kanpur – in this article it describes the open practice of trucks dumping tannery waste into the waterways and areas of the villagers. How sad that commerce is not only valued more highly than the environment but than human life (and the two do have a closely tied relationship).
So there is definitely a problem: what is the solution? Though I found 100s of websites claiming the sale of ‘vegetarian shoes’, ‘cruelty free handbags’, as far as I could tell, in many cases this was just the greenwashing of a cheap, fashion follower product. It may be cruelty free to animals but what about the environment? Also, pleather may be a subsititute for leather but it is not a match.
So I looked upwards from the fashion followers to the fashion dictators – Stella McCartneyso well known for her animal free stance. Yet while the Stella McCartney label definitely takes a stance on animal rights, there is no reference to what alternatives are actually used. While I suppose hiding her sources is part of keeping the product exclusive, it also goes against the concept of a transparent life-cycle process. For me, as a young designer, looking for alternative materials and citing Stella McCartney as a major inspiration in this field, it is very hard to consider taking her lead without any information available about the product’s origins.
One company that has gone a slightly different way, as I was suprised to find, is Hermes. I stumbled across Hermes through discoverin Treetap Vegetal Leather:
- Treetap vegetal leather (TVL) has emerged as the most environmentally friendly alternative > hand-crafted material made of natural latex on a cotton backing, which is produced by rubber tappers and Indians living in the Amazon rain forest supports bio-diversity as well as provides income for Indians
- Introduction into marketplace via NAWA inc for Deja Shoe (Campbell 1994)
- Product is by-product from sustainably harvested trees (Campbell 1994)
- Families are trained in process for lands under their custodial care (
- In 1999, Hermes used TVL for bags and accessories (Jordan 2001) > indicates the possibilities of sustainable luxury
Now, I have never seen TVL so it would be interesting to know how it feels, what it looks like. However, I think the biggest promise of TVL is that it is a leather alternative that is not so synthetic – there is a story behind and exotic association with the Amazon that makes it conducive to luxury. Click here to see a famed Hermes Kelly bag in TVL.
An alternative like TVL is what gives me hope. Though there is little info on it yet in terms of the latter part of its life cycle, it represents a fundamental shift in the thinking about leather products. This is not just finding a cheap substitute like replacing wool with acrylic, silk with polyester – this is about finding a new textile that can be imbued with new meaning. The sustainable aspect of TVL, the story behind it and the benefits for Amazonian Indians aligns it with both ethical and environmental objectives.
Post script – as I searched from some Treetap products, I found a site that mentioned a photographer, whose site mentioned he made a short film entitled ‘Amazon Guardians’ – treetap led me to fashion film.
Campbell, M. (1994). Deja Shoe pioneers use of Rain Forest material in its footwear. PR Newswire. Aug 09, Sec 1 p 1 (accessed through ProQuest 20 August 2010)
Jordan, M. (2001). From the Amazon to Your Armrest – Daimler, Hermes and Aveda Find Rain Forest Products Help Farmers, Save Trees. Wall Street Journal. (Eastern edition). May 1 2001 p B.1 (accessed through ProQuest 20 August 2010)
Vartan, S. (2002). Pretty in Plastic. Emagazine. Vol XIII, no. 5 http://www.emagazine.com/view/?1104&src= (accessed 20 August 2010)
World Bank Group. Pollution Prevention and Abatement Handbook – Environmental Guidelines for Tanning and Leather Finishing. Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency,. http://www.miga.org/documents/TanningandLeatherFinishing.pdf. (accessed 20 August 2010)
Yegenoglu, Y., Erelel, M., Çalak, B., Agbas, N., Issever, H., Özdilli, K., Özyildirim, B.A., Hapçioglu, B., Ince, N., Ince, H. Isik, E., & Akçay, E. (2007). Respiratory Problems in Tannery Workers in Istanbul. Indoor and Built Environment, volume 16: 177 http://ibe.sagepub.com/content/16/2/177 (accessed 20 August 2010)