Leather and the alternatives
Leather is a made from animal hides, usually cows, and the processes the rawhide goes through to become leather are notoriously laborious and chemical heavy. The leather finish the manufacturer is after (butter soft for jackets, harder for shoes), depends on the chemicals used but some of them are pretty nasty. If you want to be put off using leather products, a quick read (to the end) of the Wikipedia entry on leather and the tanning processes might well work so have a look.
My personal view
As a declutterer, a lot of leather products pass through my hands and I honestly love reselling them because, as the patina changes with age, the more desirable it becomes and it can command premium prices dependent on the quality and the brand. If you're buying second hand, it's more acceptable to buy a product made out of any material as you're keeping it out of landfill a little longer. With new clothes however, the tide is changing and we're starting to look for alternatives to the high street when purchasing the things we wear on our backs, and on our feet. Aside from that, the high street in itself is changing, as people go online to buy clothes and shoes. So now is the time to look at those niche brands that are questioning the leather products we buy and changing what they're made of.
With traditional leather, the issue, at the moment anyway while we as a species still eat beef, is not that we're making stuff from leather but that we're making shoes from cowhide where the rest of the animal carcass is just thrown away. And the cowhide from the beef we eat is also thrown away. When did we stop using the leftover products from one thing to make another? A classic case of everyone for themselves, and left hand not talking to right hand. My amazing co-founder and plant-muncher friend Lisa Matzi may disagree with me on this, and I am trying to go more vegan or at least flexi, but while we're still using leather products and eating meat, it would be better if we used every single part of the animal when we killed it rather than take the choicest pieces and leave the rest to rot away.
What are the alternatives?
The fact that there is now a sustainable, renewable, vegetable source of leather, why are we still using animal leather? Is it because it's considered a luxury item?. On the other hand, when one of the alternatives is plastic (pleather, whatever) is it any better? This brings me to Vegan fungus, or perhaps the more palatable term mushroom leather, which is making an entrance in the world of trainers. This interesting little article about nat-2 and their new fungi sneaker, made from, not only mushroom leather but real rubber, real cork and bio-textiles. It's a high end product, as most brand-new sustainable wear is, and will be at least for the time being, but if you want to question how mainstream shoes are made, and don't like the idea of second hand then this product is for you.
You can grow leather?
Mushrooms need soil and moisture to grow. They don't need anything as precious as light as they grow underground anyway so they don't have to take up precious land in order to grow. They are yummy, and with a little science and development, they can be turned into clothing (and furniture and bricks and just about anything, but I digress) and grow on waste produced by humans. I've just been blown away by watching videos produced by MycoWorks in the USA who grow mushrooms using discarded corn cobs, paper waste, sawdust and other rubbish. A large piece of mushroom leather can take two weeks to grow compared with two years for the same size of cow alternative. So next time you're shopping for leather you may have the option of buying a mushroom jacket, and not only in colour either.
I have a little purse made from fish leather, or salmon skin to be precise. I met with the owner of Heidi & Adele a few years ago and still use my card holder. It's strong and beautiful, if a little worn from overuse. I couldn't quite believe that salmon skin, the same that I love to fry and eat, was strong enough to be made into a leather alternative product. But yes, a piece of raw salmon skin is hard to break, so with some processing it can be turned into a beautiful wallet.
Discarded fire hoses. Yes. Elvis & Kresse started their company in 2005 when they discovered that decommissioned fire hoses from the London fire brigade were going straight to landfill. They make stunning, endlessly stylish pieces from the hoses and their products (mostly bags and wallets) have become luxury items. The other waste products they use to make various items in the production processes of their products (from imperfect parachute silk to discarded shoe boxes) is impressive.
If you're not sure if alternative leathers are for you, then Veja is an ethically made trainer brand about which I knew little, except that it's based in Brazil and it's nice to hear positive stories coming from there with all the scary political stuff. Their story is pretty cool. They've committed to being a transparent company and to publish every mistake they've made; what they're doing about it, and how. Contrary to popular belief, the leather they use is not vegan, it is made from traditional cowhide albeit from cows in the areas in the south of Brazil, not from areas of slashed and burned virgin Amazon jungle to grow pasture for cattle. They use real rubber - and what a resource they have; real cork, ditto, and while the leather they use is not vegan, it's sustainably sourced, and dyed using vegetable tannins. And they a use a product they call B-Mesh, made from recycled plastic bottles. They also have a vegan range of trainers.
So there it is. Leather alternatives in a nutshell. Let's seek out the small companies that are making a difference by questioning the way we're doing things at the moment and move away from the precious, resource-heavy products and vote with our biodegradable bank cards.