In the worlds of health, wellness, and sustainability there are an incredible number of ‘right’ answers for every concern. Packaging but organic, no packaging but GMO, vegan but full of additives or regenerative agriculture but meat based- all are sensible options but there is no one ‘right’ option because it depends on your lifestyle and which attributes of a product you deem most important. I feel the same way about the fashion industry. There are very big ‘no’ items like fast fashion, pollutants, and plastic-based fabrics when it comes to sustainability, but there are lots of the in-between ideas as well. One such material is leather- but for me leather is incredibly sustainable when it is correctly sourced, handled, and tended to!
I was fortunate enough to be gifted an absolutely lovely handmade bag from Awl Snap, a woman-owned business out of Richmond, VA. The first thing you see when you log onto their website is ‘Heirloom Leather Goods: Made for Keeps- Not For Landfills’ and that is exactly where the sustainability of leather comes into play. I’ve always liked leather, and even when I went vegan for a time I didn’t donate my leather items because they were still in such lovely shape. I took this into account when looking for my next pocketbook and finding Awl Snap was perfect for a number of reasons- one of the biggest being sustainability. (By the way, this isn’t sponsored, I am just using them as an example because they are a leather company doing things SO right!)
What Makes Leather Sustainable?
First off, all leather *isn’t* sustainable- leather that is sustainable is sourced correctly, treated correctly, and cared for correctly. I’ll get into how to choose an appropriate leather later on, but for now let’s see what makes leather sustainable! This gets down into the nitty-gritty, so just be aware if you aren’t someone who consumes animal products.
There are a lot of different types of animal leather, but I prefer cowhide, which is the most common. The reason why? Because I already consume bovine products. Because my body requires me to eat meat (as I mentioned above, I tried going vegan with the help of professionals and my body wholeheartedly rejected it and I got very sick) I want make sure that the entire animal is used. In the food world, this is called eating nose to tail- meaning that nothing goes to waste. I want to bring that same mentality to my fashion choices as well.
So pay attention to the type of leather used in the consumer good that you are getting- stick to more traditional leather choices that you know the actual animal will be used rather than exotics which only certain parts will be. Also, pay attention to where your leather is sourced from! Different countries have different animal husbandry rules and regulations so look at where your animals were bred!
The tanning process is the most important part of the sustainability of leather. Traditional tanning methods that date back thousands of years and use plant-based tannins are the most ecologically friendly. In the vegetable tanning method natural, plant-based tannins are used to cure the hides using biodegradable ingredients derived from the bark from a number of trees (most notably Mimosa, Chestnut, and Oak) and cured over a long period of time creating a wonderfully resilient, supple, and strong leather that patinas over time. Vegetable tanned leather is a great investment and will last for generations.
However, because vegetable tanning is time consuming and more expensive than chromium tanning today’s consumer marketplace is flooded with chemically-tanned leather. Not only is chemically-tanned leather an incredibly potent water polluter, sending out high levels of chromium and sulfide laced wastewater, but it pollutes the air as well with hydrogen sulfide and ammonia. So when you are choosing a leather, look for a high quality, more expensive, handmade product that is tanned with the vegetable method. One of the tanneries that Awl Snap uses is Wickett & Craig who actually has a wonderful walk through of the vegetable tanning method that they use- and you can see that here!
Another great option for tanned leather is oil-tanned leather. Once again it is a natural process that uses oils to saturate and cure leather that gives it a wonderful waterproof quality! Many sustainable brands use a combination of vegetable-tanned leather and oil-tanned leather to create beautiful works of art that require multi-functional materials.
Leather Sustainability: Longevity
I know that for many of us seeing the price point of a sustainable leather is hard to stomach and rather cost-prohibitive. But when you look at it through the lens of cost-per-wear it makes much more sense. High quality leather lasts for generations, and often with the higher price point comes with the ability to mend, repair, and replace portions of the product. Companies I love like Awl Snap and Freebird offer repair services for their items, and especially in the shoe-space cobblers are a godsend!
Lower quality leather like the slip on leather sandals you can find for $15 at a box store won’t last, you can’t repair them, and you know the making of them caused havoc in to the world they were imported from. Another thing to look at as well, is once these items are no longer able to be worn, what happens to them? Vegetable tanned leather bio-degrades on its own and these more synthetic-leathers don’t!
Also, with a higher price tag often comes a higher reverence for the item in today’s world. I know in my own life I tend to be much more careful with high-value items that I saved for than the $5 t-shirt that I was gifted. So pay attention, notice when things needs tending to and get them fixed, you can invest in a good leather conditioner, find a great cobbler, and keep in touch with the business you purchased your item from. Also don’t forget to look at the care instructions- they are there for a reason!
My favorite pairs of FreeBird boots I have have for well over five years and each time I beat them up they get look even more fun! So while the price point was higher, you can take that price and divide it by the number of wears- well worth it!
How to Choose Sustainable Leather
So we know why great leather is sustainable, but how do you find out if the leather item you are shopping for is high quality and treated in a way you are comfortable with? There are a plethora of companies whose sustainability practices are graded on Leather Working Group– an organization that aims to improve environmental stewardship in the leather business.
But if they aren’t listened there, don’t worry! Many small companies like Awl Snap say it right on their FAQ pages! You can see the names of their tanneries and the faces of the people who crafted you item (shout out to Erin, the founder and head creative at Awl Snap who crafted my Adelaide Crossbody!) right on their websites. For bigger companies you can look for things like American-Made (like FreeBird) which means that there are higher environmental regulations put on the tanning process versus lots of imported leather that don’t have sanctions or hand-tooled, craftsman made, or Goodyear Welt construction which is a type of high quality construction. You can also take to Google! Searching ‘Does Gucci use vegetable-tanned leather?’ returned a number of different product results! Lastly, just ask! Companies sometimes don’t realize that people would like them to be more transparent in their sourcing policies- it may take some time but well-intentioned companies should get back to you with the types of leather they use!
So What Would You Choose?
I love my leather- from my jacket I bought from a sweet Italian man while studying abroad ten years ago, to the beautiful crossbody bag that I use every day from Awl Snap, I choose to purchase items that will last so that someday I’ll be able to pass them down to my future children. Rather than have fast-fashion trendy items that end up in a landfill, I have items from my mother and my grandmother that I cherish, and the staples that I buy today will someday be passed down as well!
I’d love to know- what are your favorite sustainable materials. Do you love leather, organic cotton, linen? Let me know over on Instagram!
This Adelaide Crossbody was gifted to me from Awl Snap. All opinions are my own. Some links are affiliate links.