Ethical and Sustainable Leather Guide

Ethical and Sustainable Leather Guide - brown leather wallet with phone, watch, and key on wood table
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Ethical and Sustainable Leather Guide

The following post was written by Kasi Martin and was originally published on The Peahen blog in 2015.

Choosing leather ethically can be tricky. I’ve deciphered some of the popular options and brands to help you cut through the marketing and get to the truth.

I learned these lessons first-hand when my mom asked for my birthday wish-list, and kindly obliged to my request for an ethical, faux leather handbag.

After some research, I settled on a bag from Matt & Nat. It’s supple, neutral and ladylike – it doesn’t get more classic than that. The company has been delivering designs under the umbrella of ‘vegan leather’ since 1995. Matt & Nat’s brand relies on recycled nylons, cardboard, rubber and cork. Their commitment is impressive in an era where chemical additives and man-made materials reign.

However, it turns out that Matt & Nat’s standard is the exception to the rule. Most vegan leather brands rely on cheap Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), a synthetic material that’s carbon-intensive, doesn’t biodegrade and leaches toxins when disposed in landfills.

After 20 years of Matt & Nat delivering beautiful vegan leather goods at accessible price points, I thought other brands would have adopted their model. I was wrong.

Most vegan leather brands rely on cheap Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), a synthetic material that’s carbon-intensive, doesn’t biodegrade and leaches toxins when disposed in landfills.

All this time, if you’ve been buying vegan or fake leather as a conscious decision for the environment and animals, you’ve been lead astray. This misinformation leaves us in a bind. How do we, as conscious consumers, decipher what’s ethical and what’s BS when it comes to leather?

As with all consumer decisions, we don’t make purchases in a vacuum. There are some seriously complex forces at work in the leather industry – from the supply chain, to environmental principles to labeling and false marketing. If you’re detail oriented, see references number one and two below.

You might want to crawl under a rock at this point, but stay with me. There are two important things you can do to keep your ethics in line when buying leather: learn the lingo and adopt some new laws.

Deciphering the Leather Label

First off, mastering leather lingo is the best way to make informed decisions. Most people choose their stance on leather the same way they choose their lunch. There is a strong correlation between hamburger habits and leather boots and, conversely, soy-dense diets and faux handbags. I wish the issue were as simple as real vs. fake but the nuances of the label are critical.

Here’s what you should pay attention to:

Real Leather

Surplus leather (sometimes labeled ‘dead-stock‘) can be thought of as, simply, scrap leather. It’s the leftover leather from agricultural or manufacturing production. Buying surplus is technically still reinforcing animal agriculture; however, it’s a step forward to eliminate production waste.

Vintage leather is your best option if you want the longevity and look of real leather. Be aware: if you’re an animal rights advocate, you’ll be a walking, talking contradiction of yourself. Still, vintage leather is considered an ethical option because no new demand is created for animal skin, or other polluting materials.

Handcrafted/artisanal leather honors traditional – oftentimes slower – production and supports local craftsmen. Buying direct from artisans allows you to get closer to the supply chain and be better informed about ethical practices.

Local leather is the equivalent of local produce, with the same benefits. Buying leather from locally raised cattle removes the carbon impact associated with transport. Unless you live in an agricultural area, this type of leather will be hard to find.

Vegetable tanned leather is a natural alternative to industrial, chromium-tanned leather that leaches toxins into the water supply. It goes easy on mama earth.

Calfskin leather is leather produced from young calves touted for its supple feel and fine grain. This is the veal of the leather industry. I can’t write avoid it enough times.

Alternative leather is made from animal skin by-products that are cast aside as leftovers during food production. You may see the skins from eel, fish (typically salmon), sheep, ostrich and – even chickens (poulard) – on the label. Be skeptical of this type of leather unless it follows the surplus model.

Faux Leather

Microfiber vegan leather can be identified by PU or PVC on the label. Try to avoid these under all circumstances. If you must, the lesser evil options are made from recycled nylons or degradable polyurethane (PU). Take Kamea’s word for it, PU and PVC are among the most polluting materials on the planet.

Natural vegan leather is hands-down the best option available. Look for cork, glazed organic cotton, paper, cardboard and barkcloth as the primary materials.
Pleather is the retro name for vegan leather. Those outside the fashion set will refer to it this way.

How to Identify Ethical and Sustainable Leather

Now that you can cut through the BS on a leather label, there are a few general guidelines you can follow to make ethical decisions in an industry that’s out to mislead you.

Some naysayers downplay fashion as frivolous or unimportant. They are wrong. Fashion can be presented as art, but when it’s boiled down to basics – it’s a common need of every human.

Right now, fashion is in the top ten most polluting industries, and animal agriculture’s role in this is becoming increasingly important.

Livestock make up 51% of all greenhouse gas emission (see Cowspiracy). All this said, there is massive potential for change-making in the industry if consumers demand ethical products, especially leather goods.

Adhering to these new laws will keep you honest:

  • Opt for vegan.
    • Make the animal a non-issue.
    • Be sure to look for natural materials, with a preference on cork. Vintage, real leather is a better option than PVC or PU faux leather.
  • Watch out for greenwashing.
    • This is the sneaky way marketers tap into the eco trend by propping up their products as sustainable or animal friendly when they are not. Faux leather brands are prime offenders.
    • Be leery of “Made In” tags. This label guarantees only that a product was assembled in a designated location, not that it originated there. This can be a form of greenwashing because it sweeps the shipping and related carbon emissions involved in the supply chain under an eco-friendly label. 
  • Consider longevity.
    • If you’re going to wear the heck out of your purchase then vintage leather is a durable option. As long as you’re not morally opposed, choose real leather for these types of purchases. But, if you’re buying a trend piece, vegan leather makes more sense.
    • Vegan brands like Matt & Nat are rated surprisingly high for durability. Make your selections on a case-by-case basis.
  • Don’t buy it if you don’t need it.
  • Be leery of “Made In” tags.
    • This label guarantees only that a product was assembled in a designated location, not that it originated there.

When it comes down to buying any kind of leather the details are wishy-washy. Consumers are stuck in the middle of the vintage vs. faux war, forced to decide which is more important – earth or animals. The decision isn’t simple, but when it comes to ethics you can never go wrong with too much information.

Here are the leather brands doing it right: 

Do you know any I haven’t covered?

More on Materials

About the Author: Kasi Martin is dedicated to making ethical standards in fashion mainstream. She is the creator of The Peahen, where she writes about brands, designers, issues and trends at the intersection of style and standards. Visit The Peahen blog here. 

References: World WatchEthical Fashion Forum (gated), Eluxe MagazineRefinery 29

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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  1. Thanks for publishing Leah! It sounds like you're making good choices when it comes to shopping for and eating animal products.

  2. I really love The Sway and Reformation for reclaimed/deadstock leather clothing. Angela Roi makes great vegan handbags, and they give to a number of charities as well.

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