Giving back

What’s really in your handbag? The ethical dilemmas faced by leather lovers.


The notion of animal cruelty is abhorrent to the majority of Australians. Movements to stop cosmetic animal testing, live export and puppy farming have all garnered massive public support, but it’s time the spotlight was turned on the leather industry according to Sydney based online boutique, Ethical Gallery.

Australia has made great in-roads into the prevention of commercial cruelty. The bill presented to the House of Representatives earlier this month to officially ban animal-tested cosmetics is a fantastic example of Australian society’s stance on animal cruelty.

Ethical Gallery Founder Drieli Roveda

Ethical Gallery Founder Drieli Roveda

Ethical Gallery Founder Drieli Roveda said while consumer awareness of the animal cruelty endemic within certain industries continues to grow, the leather trade has largely remained under the radar.

“For many women who would always choose free range meat products, non-animal tested cosmetics and avoid fur, there is still a lack of association between their leather handbag or shoes and animal cruelty.”

“With a greater knowledge of the real impact, not only in terms of animal cruelty but also the harm caused to the environment and to the people who work in the industry, it becomes clear that there is no such thing as ‘ethical leather’,” said Ms Roveda.

The ethical dilemma and environmental impact buying leather goods

Eco Lifestyle website Eco Warrior Princess author Jennifer Nini agrees and outlines the ethical and environmental dilemmas in her article, Why there’s no such thing as “ethical leather”.

Leather is often a byproduct of meat farming, which is inherently inefficient to produce. To produce a single kilo of beef takes around ten kilos of feed grain. And that’s not even factoring in water and energy!

Now to turn animal hide into leather, tanneries use toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, and some cyanide-based oils and tars. The energy intensive process not only produces 75,000 litres of industrial water waste for every tonne of raw hide, but it also creates 100kg of dried sludge.

And as modern tanneries use harsh chemicals, it leaves workers in a vulnerable position, exposing them to numerous health risks and increasing their likelihood of contracting cancers, infertility, tuberculosis, blindness and respiratory problems.

Eco Warrior Princess goes on to list 14 Ethically Made Bags & Wallet Brands

The Ethical Wardrobe: Is it OK to wear leather?

Another oddity is that demand is rising for organic or free-range meats, as an increasing number (though still a tiny minority) of people try to source their food as ethically as possible. Yet many of these same people will happily buy cheap leather. This makes no sense: if you won’t tuck into a steak that came from a miserable animal, why buy its skin? Given much of the leather we use comes from countries where animal welfare is firmly at the bottom of the list of priorities, don’t imagine your handbag previously led a happy life.

The softest, most luxurious leather comes from the skin of newborn or even unborn calves, cut prematurely out of their mother’s wombs. Sometimes it will be from the same veal calves whose lives of misery are well documented. Many committed carnivores draw the line at veal: why then wear calfskin?

You may want to consider the environmental issues before making a decision. The process of tanning leather is incredibly toxic. Most is chrome tanned, which results in carcinogenic chromium (VI) being pumped into the water table. While most factories in Europe and America can no longer get away with this practice, the same cannot be said of the vast leather industry in China, where many bags, jackets, and shoes begin life – including many bound for the luxury market. While leather can be tanned used non-toxic vegetable dyes, chrome tanning is faster and produces a flexible leather that’s better for high-end bags and coats, so there’s no incentive for factories to switch.

Source: The

So is Vegan Leather an ethical alternative?

According to Sydney Morning Herald contributor, Jen Valk, the dark side to “vegan leather” is far from ethical.

So far, so on trend, but scratch the rather vast surface of the vegan leather industry and a decidedly murkier image emerges. Take that tote bag, for instance. Clicking on “materials” I see that it’s made out of “PU” – polyurethane. Okay, that’s certainly been around for a long time, but what exactly is it?

A chemical website tells me that “polyurethane is formed by reacting a polyol with a diisocyanate or a polymeric isocyanate in the presence of suitable catalysts and additives”.

Pardon my ignorance, but this seems about as natural as a turducken. But it’s what PU puts back into the environment that’s the bigger issue here, such as the solvents that are used in producing polyurethane-based synthetic leather which are highly toxic.

And unlike leather made from, say, a cow, a product made out of PU also won’t biodegrade anytime soon, either, and neither can it be recycled.

Vegan leather sits at the top of an industry riddled by inconsistency, irregularity and ambiguity.

But it’s not fair to tar all vegan leather product with the same brush, and this isn’t good news for either the consumer or the industry.

What does the RSPCA say about fur and leather?

RSPCA Australia is opposed to the use of any animal where the purpose of their death is primarily to produce a non-essential luxury item like fur or skin. Fur and leather is sourced by either trapping or farming an animal just for its fur, or as byproducts of the other production industries. In Australia, the only animals farmed for their skin are crocodiles. Fur and leather produced in Australia from other animals, such as cattle, are byproducts of the meat industry and the animals are not killed primarily for their skin.

What does PETA say about the leather trade?

Most leather comes from developing countries such as India and China, where animal welfare laws are either non-existent or not enforced. In India, a PETA investigation found that workers break cows’ tails and rub chili peppers and tobacco into their eyes in order to force them to get up and walk after they collapse from exhaustion on the way to the slaughterhouse.

With every pair of leather shoes that you buy, you sentence an animal to a lifetime of suffering. Instead, you can choose from hundreds of styles of nonleather shoes, clothing, belts, bags, and wallets. Check out PETA’s cruelty-free clothing guide for great tips on where to find fashionable yet compassionate clothing. Fashion should be fun, not fatal!

Balance Team

This article was written by the brains trust of Balance . We are a talented team of writers and contributors with real life experience and a passion for finding balance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *