The film Cowspiracy focused attention on just how unsustainable cattle ranching is. Cows take up land; they eat food that humans could eat, and their -ahem- ‘gases’ contribute to the CO2 that’s warming the planet. And that’s just when they’re alive; once killed for meat and skinned for leather, even more problems arise.
Eco leather can be defined a few ways. For example, if leather is recycled from old jackets, car seats, sofas, and other leather materials that would otherwise end up in landfill, we’d consider it to be eco-friendly.
If the leather comes as a byproduct of the meat or fishing industry, especially if it’s from organically raised cattle or sustainable fishing, we’d check the ‘sustainable’ box.
Some would argue that leather is innately a natural resource, in that it’s replenishable via natural processes at a rate comparable or faster than its rate of consumption by humans or other users, and that it’s way better for the planet than plasticky ‘vegan leathers’. This line of thinking would include the use of wood, for example, as well as leather – but let’s not forget that even if these materials are ‘renewable,’ they do come with a high CO2 and ethical cost compared to plant based materials.
One final definition for eco-leather would be cowhide and other skins that are tanned and dyed with vegetable-based materials, as opposed to those containing toxic chemicals or chromium.
Even if the manufacturing of leather goods does follow best practices, leather does have a fairly negative environmental impact. For example, when leather is disposed of, it’s not in fact, as biodegradable as people think. The tanning process, whether naturally done or not, can preserve the skins for thousands of years.
The gauge of a leather’s “greenness” is measured by the absence of certain restricted chemicals, such as banned azo dyes, PCP, chrome VI, formaldehyde and so on. The British Leather Council operates a rating system for the eco-friendliness of leather. Retailers, brands or tanners who are able to meet the requirements of this standard are eligible to display the EcoSure mark.
This mark is operated in conjunction with the Leather Working Group (LWG). To be eligible to use this mark, tanneries must have achieved at least a Bronze award in the LWG Tannery Environment Auditing Protocol carried out by BLC and the finished leather on which the mark is to be used must meet the requirements of the audit and testing regime.
This unique label knows how to answer the question ‘what is eco leather’! They work on the principles using upcycled plastics and eco-dyed leathers to create shoes that are actually many styles in one.
Alterre shoes was created by Harmony Pilobello and Shilpa Iyengar, who met at Parsons School of Design in New York, where they both studied fashion design. Harmony focused on the methods to develop ethical leather, whilst Shilpa was oriented on women’s wear design. When the two decided to join forces, the results were wondrous.
The secret of the brand’s uniqueness? The way each owner of a pair of Alterre can be modified – the footwear has interchangeable straps and heels that can be swapped according to your whim and occasion, meaning you need to buy fewer pairs of shoes, too. Alterre works on FairTrade principles, and also donates 5% of profits to a women’s shelter.