Fashion, Life & Style

Is Leather Eco-Friendly?

is leather eco-friendly

is leather eco-friendly

What are your thoughts on leather?  Is leather eco-friendly?

We do buy leather, but most of the leather in our house and wardrobe is secondhand.  For quite a long time now I’ve been having an internal debate as to how eco-friendly leather is compared to it’s vegan polyvinyl chloride and polyurethane counterparts (the main materials “fake leather” or “pleather” are made from).  I’ve also had a few discussions with people about leather lately and thought it would be a good time to open up a good old fashioned debate on leather vs. non-leather alternatives, and seek an answer to the is leather eco-friendly question.

leather industry and the environment

The Case For/Against Leather

Intensive animal rearing obviously has major environmental and ethical implications, including large scale deforestation, increased methane levels, and animal cruelty issues.  Creating leather is resource intensive, in terms of water and energy usage, and it’s also no secret that the leather industry is hazardous to the environment, to workers and to local people’s health due to the heavy metal chemicals used in the tanning process, such as chromium.    Chromium can cause cancer, and pollute waterways and soil, especially in India and China where many tanneries go unregulated.

Approximately 85-90% of leather is chromium treated.  Other tanneries use traditional natural dyes in the tanning process, such as saffron, in place of chromium.  This vegetable tanning takes much longer than chromium tanning, meaning you do pay a premium, but less harsh chemicals are involved, meaning there is less harm caused to the environment and to the tannery workers.  Leather which is vegetable tanned is also easier and safer to recycle or dispose of, however this more sensitive way of making leather does not take away the fact that animals are being killed.

Leather is widely claimed by manufacturers as a by-product of the meat industry.  As leather commands a higher cost than meat, I’m simply not clear on whether leather is in fact a by-product of the meat industry, or if meat is a by-product of the leather industry.   According to PETA, a high proportion of leather sold in the UK comes from India, yet according to some reports half a billion people in India are vegetarian.  We can’t look at that fact in isolation though: 90% of the leather we import from Asia is bovine, and in the last couple of years India has become the biggest beef exporter in the world, overtaking Brazil.  Perhaps there is some truth to the matter, but it’s such a grey area.

Some people say that as long as there are people in the world willing to eat meat (currently 2% of the UK’s population is vegetarian) then there will always be animal by-products.  Whilst I agree that when an animal is killed to be eaten then all parts of the animal should be used for something, even it’s skin, does this become an excuse to justify the need for leather, or is it simply being pragmatic?

eco-friendly vegan shoes

Are Alternatives to Leather Eco-Friendly?

The case against leather would be more clear cut if leather alternatives were more eco-friendly.  Although irrefutably more ethical when it comes to animal welfare, the production of PVC and polyurethane (PU) requires petrochemicals derived from fossil fuels, such as coal or natural gas.  This fossil fuel use accounts for increased carbon emissions, making them non-renewable.

The chemicals themselves required to make PVC and PU aren’t pretty for neither the environment or for human health.  PVC is regarded as the most toxic of all plastics – as well as being a known human carcinogen, it’s known to cause diabetes, damage immune systems, disrupt hormones, and create birth defects.   It’s effects are wide-ranging – workers, soil and water supplies, and nearby communities can all be at risk.

PU is a better choice than PVC – although chemical laden, it requires less chemicals than PVC to produce, and although still toxic, particularly in the workplace, is less toxic than PVC.  Manufacturers are also now starting to be able to make PU with plant-based raw materials, reducing the toxic chemical load in it, and meaning it can biodegrade.

Asking if PU is a better choice than leather opens up another eco-friendly dilemma:  I have two vintage (+30 year old) leather bags (one of which is pictured above) that I have used on steady rotation for the past seven years.  Both are still going strong: a little scuffed perhaps but it all adds to the character.  Comparing that to the cheap PU bag I owned before switching to those leather bags – I bought it new and it barely lasted 6 months of near daily use before the strap stretched beyond repair and a hole developed in the bag itself.  It ended up in the bin (to landfill) less than a year after purchase.

And herein lies the dilemma – which option is the best?  There are no easy answers to this one.

resole shoes

Other Alternatives to Leather and PU/PVC

In the UK we import about £4 billion of leather fashion a year, predominantly shoes.  At the same time, around 2 million shoes are dumped in landfill every year.  If you already own leather shoes, then instead of buying more shoes in alternative materials, the most eco-friendly option would be to re-sole shoes that you already own, if that’s possible.  I’ve noticed a diminishing number of cobblers, possibly related to the fact that people are more likely to throw their shoes away when worn rather than pay £15-£20 to have a pair re-soled.

If you’re looking to purchase alternatives to leather then there are a number of different materials out there.  Cork leather, bark cloth, e leather, recycled ultrasuede, and glazed cotton are all materials to look out for.  I plan on writing about some of these alternatives, as well as about natural dyed leather, so do keep your eyes out for that in the coming weeks.

Conclusions – Is leather eco-friendly?

I personally think there are cases both for and against leather, and I don’t think there’s any option that ticks all the eco-friendly boxes.  I’d love to hear your views on leather – let me know your views in the comments below or get in touch via Twitter or Facebook.


Images: 1. My own / 2. Wikimedia Commons / 3.  Queenie & The Dew / 4. Split Yarn

Fashion, Life & Style

Ethical Fashion On A Budget

ethical clothing on a budget

ethical clothing on a budget

Ethical clothing – it can’t be done on a budget?  Or can it?  As a fairly thrifty mrs I like to think so: here are my top tips for shopping ethically without breaking the bank!

The Moral Fibres Guide to Ethical Fashion on A Budget

Do The Ground Work

It’s not really groundbreaking, but before you buy anything new have a good sort through your wardrobe.  Donate any items of clothing you don’t wear to charity.  It’s a little known fact that you can also donate worn out clothes to charity shops – just put them in a separate bag marked rags, and the charity shop gets money for it from the rag trade.  The rags then get recycled – look, no landfill!

Once you’ve had a good sort through, look at the items you have left, and ask yourself if there anything that you really need?  If so, make a list (and stick to it!).  At this stage it’s also a good idea to set a budget.  When shopping, particularly secondhand, it is easy to get caught up – a £5 top here, a £3 dress there, a £15 coat there – it all starts to adds up.  Set a firm budget and stick to it.

Shopping Secondhand

ethical fashion on a budget

The most ethical way to shop for the items you really need is to shop secondhand.  There are quite a few ways that you can shop secondhand and buy ethical fashion on a budget:


eBay is a second hand clothing goldmine (some of the time!).  I love shopping on eBay, I’ve found so much good stuff on there (and at the same time a load of rubbish) so I’ve put together a guide on tips for buying clothes on ebay to help you navigate it’s murky waters!

Asos Marketplace

Asos Marketplace* is another good option for buying pre-loved items.  It can be a bit overwhelming, but I find browsing by category and setting my maximum price on the slider makes it a bit easier to deal with.

Charity Shops

Charity and vintage shops are always an excellent port of call.  If you don’t have the time or inclination to mooch round charity shops in the hope of striking gold Oxfam* sell secondhand clothes, shoes and accessories online.  I’ve also put together a guide on charity shop tips that you might find useful.

Vintage Shops

Living in Edinburgh I’m quite spoiled for choice when it comes to vintage shops – we have some amazing reasonably priced ones such as Armstrongs.  If you don’t happen to have any vintage shops near you, or your nearest ones are astronomically priced (like some of the London ones I’ve visited) then Armstrongs sell online via their Armstrongs eBay store.

Other online options include Asos again, which has 408 vintage shops* operating in it’s vintage marketplace.  Beyond Retro also have a good fairly affordable selection on their website.  Etsy* is another veritable gold mine for vintage clothing.  The majority of it is US based, however you can filter your search to only show UK items to avoid getting stung on postage fees and import duties.  It does have a UK sister site – Folksy – but it’s vintage selection isn’t particularly great and I find their search function a bit rubbish to be honest.

Wardrobe Swapping

Another option for ethical fashion on a budget is wardrobe swapping – check the internet to see if there are any wardrobe swapping events near you.  If not, then online you could try Swap Style.  I haven’t used it so can’t report back on how good Swap Style is, but if you’ve used it do let me know how you get on!

Ethical Fashion Retailers

people tree

Buying new is less ethical than buying secondhand.  However, if you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for secondhand then buying new from an ethical retailer online is a good next step.

Some of my favourite ethical retailers for men and women include People Tree* and Thought*.  Dedicated women’s ethical retailers include BibicoAnnie Greenabelle, and Nancy Dee.  In fact, I’ve put together a list of 35 ethical clothing brands to help you out!

If they’re still out of your budget then all of these retailers do run amazing sales periodically throughout the year.   You can sign up to their mailing lists and be notified of when their sales are.  As an added bonus quite often when you sign up to their mailing lists you can get money off your first purchase – for example Nancy Dee offers a whopping 20% of your first order when you sign up (although not redeemable on sale items)!

And a top tip for keeping on budget: it’s easy to get carried away in the sales.  Keep a list of the items of clothing you really need and so when the sales swing round you know exactly what you’re looking for.

In case you’re wondering why ethical retailers, like People Tree, are able to have sales and still pay workers a fair wage, then this blog post by People Tree is quite a good read.

Ethical Fashion on a Budget on the High Street

marks and spencer ethical

If you prefer shopping in bricks and mortar stores, then it is possible to shop comparatively ethically on the high street, on budget, with a bit of research.  The Good Shopping Guide and Ethical Consumer are great places to research high street shops, and find out how your favourite shop ranks on ethics. It does get a bit confusing as the Good Shopping Guide and the Ethical Consumer do contradict each other a little, but generally in the UK Marks & Spencer*, Monsoon, Bonmarche* (who, to be honest, I hadn’t heard of) and perhaps more surprisingly, New Look*, are all a bit more ethical compared to their high street counterparts.

Although least ethical in the grand scheme of ethical shopping, these retailers do seem to be doing a bit more than other high street retailers.  I’ve previously put together a handy guide to shopping ethically on the high street – it includes four simple questions to ask yourself before shopping to help avoid those impulse fast fashion fixes!

So there we go, I hope this helps you shop for ethical fashion on a budget!  If I’ve missed something or you want to add anything do let me know in the comments section below!

Images: 1. My Own / 2. Ladybird Twill / 3. People Tree / 4. Marks & Spencer

* denotes an affiliate link.  Please see my disclosure policy for more information.