What actually counts as leather now

How is leather in fashion compatible with sustainability and climate protection?

Leather is more present in fashion than it has been for a long time. But how does that get along with the major debate about sustainability and the climate? Not very well. Unless you know exactly where the leather comes from or rely on leather from the laboratory, which could take a while.

Leather from head to toe, until now it was more for biker brides, the actors from "Matrix" and of course the Beckhams, but only in the late nineties. Her partner look of leather jacket and trousers from Gucci is still legendarily embarrassing. But if you still laugh at it now, you might find yourself in full gear this fall. More leather was seen on the catwalks than ever before, and by no means only at fashion houses like Hermès or Salvatore Ferragamo, which are traditionally closely associated with the material.

Alexander McQueen, Celine, Burberry, Dior - leather appeared in all colors and shapes, for women as well as men. With an emphasis on: above and below. Overalls, leather dresses with leather boots, jackets with skirts with long coats. At Bottega Veneta, one of the female models even wore a biker jacket with matching pants. After twenty years, at least Victoria Beckham seems to have been rehabilitated to some extent.

How do leather and sustainability fit together?

If you believe the analysts at Edited, a company that continuously analyzes data from the fashion trade, the boutiques around the world have not only ordered a lot of leather items for this season, they are doing it because the demand is so great, also for next summer. “Leather” is one of the most important current trends in fashion - at the same time there is more discussion about sustainability than ever before, and big labels such as Michael Kors or Versace unmistakably forego the use of real fur because the material is no longer “up to date” . How does that fit together?

Pretty good for many in the industry. Because, unlike fur, leather is primarily a by-product. As long as meat is consumed, animal hides are produced that can be tanned and processed. Conversely, not using them would mean simply throwing away a valuable commodity, the industry argues. At the same time, leather is a natural product that has been used for hundreds of years and is not only biodegradable but also extremely durable if it is well cared for.

Leather as a contradiction? Are you kidding me? Are you serious when you say that

Even for designers like Gabriela Hearst, who is concerned with sustainability and, for example, was one of the first to design her latest fashion show in New York to be climate-neutral, leather is not a contradiction in terms. "We only process it when we actually need it, we don't overproduce," Hearst said in an interview. In addition to small quantities, she also ensures high-quality, resource-saving processing of the handbags and timeless design that should outlast trends. However, the 42-year-old grew up on a ranch in Uruguay. So for them, managing a herd of cows is pretty much the most natural thing in the world.

Brands like Loewe from Spain and above all Hermès see leather not only as a special material, but also as traditional craftsmanship that needs to be preserved and cared for. Years of training are required to be able to produce the demanding designs in these houses. The handbags and accessories are expensive in the end, but sometimes last for generations. Especially since they can be resold at barely lower prices than vintage pieces. The life cycle of some models is about as long as that of a solid wall unit.

Animals would drink at the Trevi Fountain

But where does all the leather for those buttery pants, shirts and coats come from? This is exactly where one of the major problems facing the leather industry lies. To this day, there are hardly any uniform standards for complete traceability, many manufacturers ultimately do not even know where the material originally came from, it is said again and again.

Because a large part is processed in Italian tanneries, the leather often bears the “Made in Italy” stamp. But if all the cattle actually came from Italy, "one could no longer move in front of herds across the country, and the animals would drink from the Trevi Fountain", as the Guardian author and Green Living - Activist Lucy Siegle once put it.

According to a 2009 Greenpeace report that revealed that well-known luxury companies were also sourcing leather from Brazilian ranchers who were suspected of illegally clearing the rainforest for grazing land, companies like Gucci temporarily stopped imports of Brazilian leather. After the recent fires in the Amazon, brands such as Timberland and H&M announced that they would no longer use leather from the area.

Leather-free future?

In addition, tanning, in which the raw hide is turned into soft, durable leather, has come under constant criticism. The main tanning agent used is chromium salt, which can be harmful to health and the environment if handled incorrectly. Especially since the processing often takes place in tanneries in China, Bangladesh or India, where there is still a lack of adequate controls and standards. In the past, chemically contaminated wastewater ended up in rivers unfiltered. In 2014, the online retailer Zalando had to recall leather shoes with so-called "Chromium VI" values ​​that were too high, which can trigger contact allergies.

Even prominent environmental activists such as Livia Firth, wife of actor Colin Firth, do not see the future entirely without leather. However, one has to consume less overall and guarantee a transparent, ecological production chain. The small Swiss bag label Fin, for example, sources its leather exclusively from Switzerland, has it vegetable-tanned in Italy, i.e. completely without chrome, and manufactured in a small family business.

Every step in the production chain remains traceable - almost unique in the industry. Large companies such as Chanel or the luxury group LVMH have meanwhile started operating or buying up their own tanneries in order to be able to better control both the quality and the processes.

Once upon a time $ 90 per cow skin

While luxury brands have been complaining for years that due to the growing demand for leather accessories - especially from Asia - it is becoming more and more difficult to get animal skins of the highest category, the supply on the market has on the contrary risen sharply overall. “In 2015, after a drought in the USA, the price of leather was still at a record price of almost 90 dollars per cow skin,” says Vera Dordick from Hidenet, an information service for the global leather industry.

In the meantime, it has partly fallen to a tenth because meat production has risen so sharply. "Fewer and fewer shoes are made from leather, first because the material was too expensive, then because people preferred to wear sneakers," says Dordick. For the first time she hears from many companies that fur is actually not processed, but rather "disposed of". "That doesn't make sense either," says Dordick. The new leather boom, which is already evident in brands such as Arket or online stores such as Asos, is by no means additionally heating up production.

Real or vegan leather?

Anyone who eats little or no meat generally sees the wearing of leather as increasingly critical. According to the trend research agency WGSN, sales of shoes, clothing and accessories labeled as “vegan” rose by 54 percent in the USA in the first half of 2019 alone. Avoiding animal products is also a huge trend. The faux leather coveralls from the Nanushka brand, which are also sold on Net-a-porter, are bestsellers.

The Hungarian label Áeron, which is actually particularly successful with its real leather creations, is giving its customers the choice this autumn for the first time whether they prefer some of the designs in real or vegan leather made from recycled polyester and polyamide. Many customers can hardly tell which of the burgundy brown, buttery skirts and quilted jackets are which.

Leather substitute made from pineapple fibers

Not every synthetic leather is the more environmentally friendly solution. Conventional PVC or polyurethane, which is often used by fast fashion suppliers in particular, is made from petroleum and is as biodegradable as a yoghurt pot. Even Stella McCartney, the best-known representative of sustainable fashion, admits that she has not yet found the optimal solution. Their current synthetic alternative, "Alter Nappa", for which customers are now also willing to pay four-digit prices, is made from recycled polyester and solvent-free polyurethane, with a finish that is half made from vegetable oils. After all, according to McCartney, recycled polyester already causes 24 times less environmental pollution than Brazilian cowhide.

Just as leather was discovered as a by-product hundreds of years ago, there is now an increasing search for other "waste products" that may also be suitable for the fashion industry but are not of animal origin. One of the most prominent products is Piñatex, a leather substitute made from pineapple fibers that are unused in large numbers in the Philippines.

Boss was already using the completely compostable Piñatex for sneakers. Apple and mushroom leather are also promising alternatives. However, many of the vegan leathers are not yet available in large quantities. Above all, they sometimes look astonishingly similar to real leather, but they are neither as resistant, nor do they age as favorably as the “real” model. Their shorter lifespan, in turn, ultimately has a negative impact on the environmental balance.

The next gold rush

That is why there is feverish research into lab grown leather around the world. Many in the industry already see leather from the laboratory as the next gold rush for the luxury industry. American startups such as Modern Meadow or Provenance cultivate cells from the protein collagen, one of the main components of animal and human skin.

Here, however, collagen is obtained from yeast, the DNA of which is broken down and supplemented by “secret” enzymes; Only in this way can a skin structure grow without animal components. The fibers are then tanned and processed as usual.

The highlight: the DNA of the leather can be varied in the Petri dish before it grows. Strength, structure and flexibility could be determined according to customer requirements. This would allow the brands to order “custom made” leather that does not have any defects or injuries, as often occurs in real skins, but has all the properties and advantages of the natural material.

Slow, expensive production

Modern Meadow, which has been working on the development since 2014, presented the organic leather called “Zoa” two years ago in New York, small sample parts that have already caused a sensation with their feel.

However, so far, production has not only been slow, but also costly. Experts estimate that another four to seven years could pass before it is ready for the market. It's not surprising that Modern Meadow and Provenance are still in contact with luxury labels. The leather of tomorrow could be the buttery soft solution of the future.