When most people think of leather, they tend to think of luxury, value, and couture. But for those of us who know how leather is made, we see a leather bag on display in the store as so much more than just an alluring accessory. We know the story behind it was one of agony, and to us leather signifies the cruel practices of a company that cares only about profits.
Unfortunately, our consumer culture is not set up in a way that allows for contemplation of matters such as supply chains and how the products that we see in stores got to be there. Paul McCartney said that “if slaughterhouses had glass walls, we’d all be vegetarian.” I believe that the same is true for our clothes which come from animals. If everyone saw exactly how animals are exploited and abused for our fashion whims, then they would be 100x more likely refrain from buying products that entail the suffering of helpless animals.
So how does leather get to stores and to our closets – and why should we care?
I won’t go too much into detail about how animals are brutalized for their hides as I want to focus more on the fashion possibilities we’re left with when we give up leather, but here’s a brief overview:
- Most leather comes from India and China, where there are no laws regulating the treatment of animals
- Animals confined in overcrowded, filthy factory farms where they are reduced to economic units
- They are mutilated – dehorned and castrated – without anesthetization, and otherwise roughly manhandled by workers
- On the trip to the slaughterhouse, they are crowded into trucks where they go without food or water, and are often subjected to extremely hot or cold weather. Many die of either heat exhaustion or being frozen to death in transit
- At the slaughterhouse, they are strung upside down and have their throats slit. Due to the inefficiency of stunning practices, many of them will be skinned and dismembered alive
- When animals are killed, their corpses immediately begin to decompose and rot
- To arrest the decomposition of flesh, 225 chemicals – many of which are highly, highly toxic – are used in a process known as tanning
- Some of these noxious chemicals include formaldehyde, chromium, lead, cyanid, arsenic, aniline, and chlorophenols
- The tanning process creates a massive amount of industrial waste run-off that find their way into the air, land, and water
- Exposure to chemicals causes many workers to develop cancer, jaundice, musculosketal disorders, and leukemia
Leather’s toxic environmental footprint
Most people are at least dimly aware that leather comes from the carcass of a dead animal, but here’s a lesser-known fact: leather is one of the most environmentally un-friendly products you could possibly purchase.
The reason for this is because when an animal dies, their flesh starts to decompose immediately. Therefore, a ton of toxic chemicals are required to prevent the hide from further decomposing. These toxins include aniline, cyanide, tannins, formaldehyde, chlorophenols, and hexavalent chromium salts – all of which find their way into the soil, air, and waterways. Carcinogenic particles, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide are released into the air as the leather is being chemically treated.
As if the toxicity resulting from tanning process wasn’t bad enough, it takes 20x more energy to produce a fashion item made from leather than one made from synthetic materials.
The good news
For many people, embracing a plant-based diet often opens the door for them to a whole new world of delicious foods. Similarly, becoming vegan in our fashion choices also introduces us to a different realm of possibilities that we hadn’t even realized was there. I’ve said before that people are always really impressed when they ask about my bags and shoes and I tell them that they’re vegan. What’s even better is that because synthetic materials are so much cheaper to produce, I don’t have to spend as much money on clothing, shoes, and accessories. This leaves me with money left over to spend on the things that actually matter – like quality, fresh food and exercise classes.
Urban Expressions – Founded in L.A. in 2005 by two conscious entrepreneurs who “wanted to revolutionize the industry with chic animal-friendly handbags that meet the needs of the everyday woman,” Urban Expressions has a gorgeous line of luxury vegan bags.
jeane and jax – Based in Montreal, jean & jaxe is a collection of stunning vegan bags and wallets from designer Silvia Gallo.
Eve Cork – Offers beautiful bags made in Portugal out of cork!
Bead & Reel – Is an “ethical boutique” that sells fair trade and vegan clothing, shoes, and accessories.
Andi New York – The Andi Brand makes sleek, lightweight, and practical bags that are great for travel and the gym.
Cri de Coeur – Is known mostly for shoes, but they also have some wonderful vegan bags.
Matt & Nat – Has a sophisticated collection of bags and wallets, with linings made from recycled water bottles.
Free People – In recent years, Free People has been incorporating more faux-leather items into their collections, including bags. On their site they have a whole separate category for “vegan leather” bags and they’re only a fraction of the price of the leather ones.
Big Buddha – Big Buddha has a wide selection of fashionable vegan bags, at very reasonable prices.
American Eagle Outfitters – AEO has some great vegan bags, but make sure you check the product description to make sure that it’s made from faux-leather, polyurethane (PU), or cotton, as some of their bags are made from leather.
Swell – The surf outlet Swell sells a variety of veg-friendly bags, many of which are made out of canvas, that are perfect for the beach!
Vegan Chic – One of the best resources for vegan shoes and accessories. When I first gave up leather, I purchased a great olive green faux-leather bag from there and I still use it all the time.
MooShoes – Have really awesome vegan bags in addition to their collection of vegan shoes. If you’re ever in NYC, check out their store in the East Village.
Alternative Outfitters – Another excellent place to find vegan shoes, bags, and accessories.
As someone who continually get compliments from men and women alike on my clothes, I can testify that it’s not necessary at all to sacrifice being fashionable to dress vegan. The only thing you will have to give up is the sense of status that comes with owning a designer label and the idea that if you avoid leather, you won’t fit in. But in all of our choices regarding what we consume – whether it be food, clothing, or other products – we have the opportunity to be a part of the problem (the problem being our society’s reckless treatment of animals and the environment) or a part of the solution. When we stand up for what we believe in through our choices, we are in the words of Mahatma Gandhi “the change we would like to see in world.” We demonstrate to others that leading a compassionate lifestyle that is in alignment with our values is indeed possible, and that if we can do it, then so can they.