Dubbed the world’s first sustainable fashion week, Helsinki Fashion Week wouldn’t dream of showing fur or exotic skins on its catwalks – and it is not alone. Virtually every big-name designer in the world, from Prada to Gucci, has gone fur-free. Many, such as Chanel and Burberry, have also dropped exotic skins. As these brands cite sustainability and ethics as their reasons for the bans, one thing is clear: for the sake of animals and the environment, leather must be the next thing to go out of style.
Like fur, leather must be loaded with toxic chemicals to keep it from decomposing on the wearer’s back. Mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, cyanide-based dyes, and other dangerous substances are routinely used during the tanning process. An estimated 90% of leather workers – many of whom are children – in Bangladesh (one of the world’s top leather-producing countries), die before the age of 50 as a result of exposure to these chemicals. This is one of the reasons why the “Pulse of the Fashion Industry” report has ranked cow leather at the top of its list of materials with the highest cradle-to-gate environmental impact.
But tanning is only one of leather’s issues. Vast swaths of rainforest in South America have been eliminated to make way for raising the animals who will be killed for leather – 80% of deforestation in the Amazon is due to cattle ranching. Farming animals for their skin and flesh uses massive quantities of land, water, and grain. Luxury fashion giant Kering, owner of Alexander McQueen and Saint Laurent, established in its “Environmental Profit & Loss” report that an astonishing 93% of the environmental damage caused by leather occurs before the skins arrive at the tannery. Consequently, measures such as vegetable tanning don’t come close to mitigating leather’s alarming impact on the climate.
Traceability is another persistent problem: labelling such as “made in Italy” refers only to where the garment was assembled, omitting the country of origin of the leather. This makes it nearly impossible for consumers to stay informed and know where – or even from whom – the leather was made.
This brings us to the question of ethics. Over 1 billion animals are killed for leather every year – and contrary to what many believe, leather is an industry of its own, not a “by-product” of meat. The vast majority of these animals are raised on filthy, crowded factory farms, and many are subjected to horrific mutilations – workers may clip or grind down their teeth and cut off their tails or testicles without any painkillers. At the abattoir, their throats are often cut while they’re still conscious and able to feel pain.
At a time when the origins of clothing are under scrutiny more than ever, the truth behind leather is anything but glamorous. The good news is that there has never been a better time for fashion to follow in Helsinki Fashion Week’s footsteps and give up leather. Chanel and HUGO BOSS are experimenting with pineapple leather, while Stella McCartney and Hermès both recently debuted bags made from mushrooms. H&M’s Conscious Exclusive Collection features leather crafted from wine grapes, and Scandinavian designer Carin Rodebjer chooses vegan leather for her upscale accessories. We can all begin to shop with compassion today by choosing vegan clothing over destructive animal skins. As I will be noting in my speech, vegan fashion is here to stay – and that’s good news for the planet and all the living, feeling beings we share it with.
By Sascha Camilli
Sascha Camilli is senior PR coordinator at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).