Having recently joined the ILM team and the leather industry from the fashion and retail sector, where I was Editor of a leading b2b magazine, I have been eager to learn about the leather trade, including the challenges it faces and opportunities ahead. It’s quite apparent that there are many parallels between the key issues in both sectors.
One of the most polluting industries, the fashion world is not without its problems; an industry whose very raison d’etre is based on driving perpetual, often mindless, consumerism, but which is increasingly confronted with the realities of the impact this has on our environment and consequences for our future. In addition, an ongoing shift in consumer mindsets, and a more informed shopper at that, puts added pressure on the key players to conduct their business in a sustainable and ethical way, with more and more consumers using their purchase power to question the status quo around sourcing and production methods and demanding transparency, corporate responsibility and, indeed, change.
Issues around sustainability, circular economies, the huge waste and environmental damage fashion manufacturing causes, and how big and small brands can tackle these issues are just some of the many complex challenges that my ‘old’ industry has to deal with and that I am recognising in the leather business too. But I also sense a genuine desire among leather’s key players to effect change and lead the way in transforming the industry from within.
Leather industry immersion
The more I immerse myself in the leather industry, the more apparent it is to me how misinformed and misleading the fashion industry is when it comes to the narrative it pursues around the topic of leather and its use in clothing, footwear and accessories. I am realising how these common misconceptions are perpetuating deep prejudices against leather (including exotic skins), its sourcing, processing and finishing, and how biased and misguided the common beliefs around animal welfare and ecological considerations – the most prominent arguments in the fashion industry against the use of leather – are. It is sad, really, that the image of this beautiful, traditional, ancient, natural, lasting and renewable material, which is a by-product of another industry, is being detracted and smeared to such degree.
All things vegan
Let’s take the publicity around so-called ‘vegan leather’ as the prime example. It is widely touted as an ethical, eco-friendly and equivalent alternative to real leather. ‘Vegan leather’ is promoted as if it is an adequate and unquestionably better option than the real thing. But what these campaigns so conveniently omit, and what I am sure consumers are therefore less aware of, is that these professed ‘vegan leathers’ are of course loaded with chemicals, and their environmental impact is often a lot more severe than that of leather. They are either synthetics - essentially plastics – or bio-based, but even then require a host of chemical treatments, or they would simply rot away. Even designer Stella McCartney, one of the figureheads in the fashion industry for eco-friendly apparel and advocate of ‘vegan leather’, had to admit that it’s not without “environmental concerns”.
Consumer fashion press
The consumer fashion press is adding to the deception, selling copies and click-baiting with suggestive headlines such as ‘All the surprising leather alternatives you can opt for if you care about animals’, as recently published in Glamour Magazine, insinuating that if you wear leather you can’t be an animal lover and care for another species. A recent article in Vogue, ‘The Leather Debate: Is Vegan Leather A Sustainable Alternative To The Real Thing’ is probably the most levelled editorial in the discourse that I have come across so far and, at least on the surface, attempts to give a balanced view, but it also falls short of real facts and information, and most worryingly, fails to seek the perspective of the leather industry and its representatives. Evidently, we still have way to go before there is an unbiased, open and constructive form of reporting. As a journalist myself, I’m not proud of this lazy, one-sided journalism. I can’t help but wonder why the leather industry has allowed its narrative to be hijacked and twisted in such a way. It sure could do with a good PR campaign to reverse this.
Of course, it is everyone’s personal preference and legitimate decision to buy leather products or not and, overall, it is a good thing that shoppers are starting to make more considered choices. But it’s not right that the fashion industry is dominating public perception in such a manner and no doubt influencing well-meaning consumers for its own agenda.
Industry has to step up
The fashion industry needs to stop vilifying leather. But I also feel the leather trade needs to step up and take charge of its reputation by educating consumers about its sustainability efforts, eco-processes and frameworks for animal welfare. We need an open, honest dialogue and debate; only then will we be able to demonstrate the true credentials of leather and take control of its portrayal. Consumer interest in all things sustainable and environmentally friendly is at its peak; now is the time to harness this for and on behalf of the industry, and prove that the ‘green non-leather materials’ that consumers are buying to ease their ecological conscience are not as green as they think.
Isabella Griffiths, Editor
Thanks to International Leather Maker where this artice first appeared.