the leather conversation we're not having
Why do we shiver at fur and sigh at leather?
Photography Kate Owen
In 2015, fur controversy is hardly controversial. Over the past 40 years, we've been subjected to images of animal cruelty, activist protests, and the occasional fashion editor splashed with paint. Save for a few holdouts, most people would concede it's a largely unnecessary material. Sure the occasional trim may slip by us, but it's rare to see someone rocking an ankle length pelt anymore.
The slow but steady move away isn't surprising. Yes rejecting fur is moral, but it's also easy. It's like rejecting caviar or foie gras, the reality is few of us really have anything to give up.
Leather is trickier and the debate around it is more complex. It's often pointed out that leather is a byproduct of the meat industry, so unless you're a vegetarian or vegan you can enjoy your shoes, wallet, bag, car interior, belt, and countless other things guilt free. But while this may have at one point been true, few of us could really believe those pony skin boots would have been skinned anyway, or the huge amount of leather we buy and use daily equates to the meat on our plates. So why do we shiver at fur and sigh at leather?
Even the most ardent activists can understand the huge task to begin the conversation about leather. Lynda Stoner from Animal Liberation told i-D: "I think a lot of work went into making fur a repugnant fashion item because it was doable and achievable. Whereas with leather, there's that false belief it's a byproduct and therefore, it's all too hard."
But for millennia leather and suede were just a byproduct of meat, and using the skins of animals killed for food was arguably respectful—think of it as fashion's version of nose to tail eating. But over the past half century, our desire for these products has exploded.
One billion cows are killed for meat each year, with their skin providing around 20 per cent of total revenues from the individual animal. And for a long time, that was the model. But as we use leather for everything from car interiors to cricket balls, for the first time in history, our hunger for skin is beating our hunger for meat.
Lucy Adam from RMIT's school of fashion and textiles told i-D that the byproduct relationship is being inverted as "meat is increasingly a byproduct of the leather industry." But it's not just about quantity, it's about quality. The leather we lust after is very different from our grandparents. As fur has disappeared from the collections of our favorite designers, leather had become entwined with our concept of luxury.
For animals like ostrich, 80 per cent of the carcass value comes from the skin, for reptiles it's closer to 100. Suddenly there is a market that exists totally separate from food.
But while we're not all snapping up alligator handbags and crocodile skin shoes, the type of leather we value is less prized for being hardy and more for being soft and flawless. The best, and often even mid level, leather comes from very young cows or animals bred for their skin not meat. Lynda continued: "Most leather comes from India or China, whether it's fashioned in Italy or wherever, the animals have suffered horribly. And more often than not they're not killed as a byproduct of the meat industry, they're killed for their skin."
The conditions to produce great steak and suede are not the same, so it's likely cows may never be intended to be used for both. An animal will often suffer as much to give a beautiful skin as a beautiful fur, with newborns or even unborn animals being used to achieve the finest calfskin.
Despite the attention fur gets, it's a tiny, tiny industry compared to leather. And the environmental consequences reflect that. Fur is cruel, but it's niche, and there is little on the larger reaching environmental ramifications of the industry.
The leather tanning industry has been polluting cities for almost as long as cities have existed. Much of the work is done in the third world where the human cost is far less easy to justify than the animal. Carcinogenic chromium is pumped into the water table while workers suffer chronic respiratory damage.
Like so many textile issues from sweatshops to work hours, its containment to the third world means it's often out of sight and out of mind. But interestingly India, the world leader in leather production, is also leading the movement to ban leather products. Many schools ask children not to wear leather shoes. Even though economics offer them less options, the visible devastation to their country from tanning industries leave the population motivated to act.
But the reality is we know these things. Although they're not in our direct eye line, any adult could tell you about the source of leather and wouldn't be naive enough to assume its production is part of the circle-of-life.
Leather is folded in with our attitude towards food and comfort—two of the most deeply ingrained and entrenched parts of our community. Lucy comments, "Eating meat is seen as an acceptable thing to do, so is wearing leather." And the commonality of both in our lives have rendered them largely invisible. While Michael Pollan and Jonathan Safran Foer warn us that our shrink-wrapped chicken breast has removed our ability to see the animals we eat, one could argue that our soft, beautiful, dyed, perfectly cut leather products no longer register as skin. When touching a fur it's hard not to think of a childhood pet; but pulling on a pair of loafers, few of us would consider the cow hundreds of miles away.
Lynda reiterates that our outrage over fur is because it's always been somewhat foreign: "In Australia, if there is an atrocity overseas such as bear bile or the treatment of animals in overseas abattoirs people can point the finger away. People are much more ready to champion a cause that doesn't affect them."
But like with the debate over meat and responsible consumption, the answer isn't necessarily in rejecting leather completely. While some will stay away, it's not always realistic to champion this as the answer. When a problem feels impossible people are slow to tackle it. Fur campaigns have been successful because they were achievable—fur wasn't insidious in our lives.
Lucy is realistic about what consumers need to do to improve the ethical divide around leather: "You can debate whether you should, but the bottom line is it will keep being used," she adds, "Consumers and designers should work toward best practice, and demand transparency in the industry."
Consumers need to take responsibility and articulate their demands through their purchases. This can be done in two ways: Firstly we need to research the products we buy to pressure designers and manufacturers to investigate best practices. Giants such as Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood have already demonstrated you can run a business while participating in the textile and production industry in a responsible way. And each year design schools produce waves of graduates who grew up in a post internet age where issues out of your backyard were still your responsibility.
Ultimately being a mindful consumer doesn't automatically mean depriving yourself of a product that's been created and used for millennia. It's about pausing in our endless consumption of the physical world and asking what matters to us. Whether it's the beautiful products we search for, research, treasure, and keep forever, or the animals that give them to us.
Text Wendy Syfret
Photography Kate Owen