A Beginner’s Guide to Leather
I’m not going to lie – I love leather! A good hide is a thing of immense beauty and I would never take it for granted. Leather is a biodegradable, renewable resource with vast potential applications. But there is a problem: 90 percent of the world’s leather supply is chrome-tanned. It is not selfish to want to see only vegetable-tanned hides are produced. It is an essential move towards a more sustainable planet.
Leather is a by-product of the meat industry, which is really not going anywhere. And it’s better to use a by-product than to source virgin materials. As long as we eat meat, there will be leather. It is a versatile material with a host of available uses:
- Organic matter means it is completely biodegradable
- The production of leather can be both environmentally and worker-friendly
- Leather lasts
- A range of colors and finishes are available
The Big Issue
To make leather usable, and to prevent it from rotting, you must prepare it. This requires curing, tanning, and finishing the hide. Because leather is incredibly complicated to work with, we’ll stick to examining the two major types of tanning: chrome and vegetable.
Humans have practiced vegetable tanning for hundreds of thousands of years. Cavemen, needing to keep warm, may have had a bit of luck one night when they accidentally rubbed some fat into the leftover, inedible animal hide. Finding the result to be soft but firm, techniques were (relatively speaking) quickly adapted and passed down through the generations. New technologies led to continual improvements. The vegetable tanning methods we have today can produce a hide that is hard-wearing and incredibly long-lasting.
Then, around 150 or so years ago, we discovered chrome-tanning methods. Chrome tanned leather has the benefit of being incredibly soft and resilient when wet. Though the most important aspect is production time. A skilled artisan requires one to six months to prepare whereas machines can produce a chrome-tanned hide in one day.
The problem only happens when one starts to consider the health of the tanners and the planet. The type of chromium used leeches out into local water tables, infecting clean water supplies and the animals that drink from them. The health issues are slightly mitigated by the fact that chromium(III) sulfate is the “significantly less toxic” cousin of hexavalent chromium, which you may remember was the thing killing everyone in Erin Brockovich.
Leather To Look For: Featured Tanneries
I have searched and searched and finally managed to find three tanneries in the US all producing ethical leather. Which is to say, leather that is sourced as a by-product and produced using limited or no toxic chemicals. Many of the companies that use hides from these post it proudly on their websites. But some don’t. Join me in contacting our favorite brands directly and encouraging them to consider the leather they use.
A Look At Horween Leather
For over 100 years, Horween Leather has been providing designers with high-quality, low impact leather. Nick Horween, Vice President of the company since 2008, has a pair of his grandfather’s shoes, made from Horween leather and passed onto him by his grandmother, that he still wears today. Nick says of these shoes, “they are made by Alden, which is one of our oldest and best customers. I wear them often, and they look better and better as time goes by.”
In the spirit of transparency, I will point out that one of their more popular styles does use chrome in the tanning process (Chromexcel), as well as a vegetable re-tannage. But their eco credentials still stack up. They only source responsibly from the meat industry in USA, Canada, and Europe. And they tan the hides in Chicago to the highest standards. Like every socially conscious fashionista should demand, Horween ensures that their leather will last, literally, for lifetimes. I especially recommend checking out their website – the blog is brilliant!
A Look At Hermann Oak Leather
In a bold move, by today’s standards, Hermann Oak Leather strives to make the highest-quality leather to the most stringent ethical standards. Their range of styles is extensive, but going beyond the norm, they offer most of their exclusively vegetable-tanned hides “naked”. The technique is not only “environmentally friendly, but it also leaves the naturally warm brown hues of the leather to show through, like a piece of mahogany wood. Vegetable leather is the most beautiful of all leathers in its natural state.” The website is also incredibly informative, and I would recommend checking out their environmental page, or their infographic breakdown of the tanning process if you want to learn more about processing leather.
A Look At Wickett-Craig Leather
At over 150 years old, Wickett-Craig Leather is the oldest of the vegetable tanneries. Luckily for us, the ethics instilled so long ago continue today. With an absolute commitment to the environment, they strive to use only natural (read: found in nature) ingredients in their processes, while also creating a hard-wearing hide in a range of styles.
What’s your leather story? Do you have your own pair of shoes, a belt, or a handbag that came from a faraway land or time? Share your story with us by posting on Instagram with the hashtag #socoleather.