tella McCartney has proved beyond doubt that fashion can get by without leather. But as fetish fashion slinks off the catwalks and onto the highstreet this season, it seems high time we posed the question, is there such a thing as ethical leather? At the moment, no official organic or free-range accreditation exists for leather as it does for food. And of the 3,000 businesses certified to Global Organic Textile Standards worldwide, none provide leather – yet. This however, isn't to say that concerns about animal welfare and environmental damage via leather tanning aren't being addressed by some designers and stores. New Look's policy is only to use leather which exists as a by-product of the meat industry, never using skin from live skinning or boiling, or unnatural abortions, such as Karakul. Likewise, Marks & Spencer, is currently working alongside the BLC leather technology centre in Northampton to establish traceability guidelines and 'address animal welfare standards in leather production’, as part of its Plan A initiative to establish M&S as the world’s most sustainable major retailer by 2015. Like McCartney, Isobel Davies of Izzy Lane would never use leather in her products and thinks it’s time we, the consumers, approached the issue in the same way we do our food. "Using leather from an unknown source is potentially to support cruel farming systems. Calf skin is likely to come from calves which are reared for veal, which may mean they have been kept in veal crates, deprived of any freedom to even turn around and deprived of any contact with other animals. Your leather may have come from cows which have been kept in indoor systems, never grazing outside or breathing fresh air, perhaps then being transported long distances to be slaughtered.
“It's important to demand the origin of all animal skins and animal fibres and know what lives those animals live or have lived." Its materials need not be British for a product to qualify as 'British Made', meaning while veal crates are banned in the UK, that butter-soft calf leather British bag could still be the result of cruel processes. Ilona Ludewig-Mack owns London-based 'organic' leather provider, Natureally and says a clear line should be drawn. “Killing a calf is more like producing fur - it is done for the skin and the meat is the by-product, not the other way round as for my cattle hides. Yes, there are occasional calves that need to go, but these are the exception.” Just as it represents a concern for animal welfare, lack of traceability also means a product's tanning process may have been conducted in a country in which guidelines for reducing potential ecological damage don't exist. Sam Setter, of Leather International Magazine and specialist blog Limeblast, says, “It is totally useless for a shoe company to self-certify that they produce their shoes according to the required ecological standards, when they buy their leather from a factory that dumps its effluent in the nearest river and its raw fleshings and shavings into nearby land.” ECCO Leather is one company bucking this trend. ECCO Leather has built a water treatment facility next to its tannery to recycle all water, also using it to power around 60% of the factory's future energy usage. Keen to get involved with the facility, designer Rachel Freire teamed up with ECCO. "To invest in something like that is certainly not a profitable exercise, but intends to help set a standard for the industry and shows an awareness and longevity which can easily be lacking in all areas of industry today. It is rare for a company to want to hold itself accountable and that really made me interested in working more closely with ECCO."
Marks and Spencer
leather by Ali Schofield
Published on Oct 24, 2011