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The dark side of animal materials part 2: leather & fur

In a time in which small environmental footprints and ethical work conditions are being demanded from manufacturers, more and more designers and material clients believe we should also be aware of animal well-being when it comes to material resources. In this series, we discuss issues you might not (want to) know about these great materials, but should when selecting materials. Today: leather & fur.

Unlike wool, which we previously talked about (click here), leather and fur cannot be made without the death of an animal, since its skin is included.

Leather
Leather is a popular material because of its durability and many uses, and has been used since at least 2200 BC. The material is made from the hide or skin of animals. Most leather comes from cows, supplemented with sheep, goat, and pig skin. For the most part, leather is a by-product from the meat industry. However, that doesn’t necessarily make it more sustainable. A lot of leather we buy here comes from animals that were raised in countries that often don’t care about animal cruelty. But even under our very noses, animals from the meat industry are mistreated. In the Netherlands, stomach-churning stories recently surfaced of animals being boiled and skinned alive before they were slaughtered.

Then there is the case of exotic leather. This includes skins from snakes, ostriches, crocodiles, etc. These animals are not slaughtered for their meat, but only for their skin, much like in the fur industry (see below).

If you want to use real, new leather, try to find it from an ethical source. Alternatives to ‘normal’ leather are new leather types based on what are commonly seen as waste materials, such as fish skin, which makes a beautiful, exotic looking leather, or leather made from animal intestines, like this cow stomach leather.

Aside from the animal cruelty associated with the leather industry, the tanning is an environmental issue of its own. While it is possible to vegetable-tan leather, using materials such as tree bark, this type of leather is not stable in water and tends to discolour (though, depending on your requirements, this can be aesthetically appealing).

To make the most of leather, you can also use recycled leather. The brand Ting and EcoDomo, for instance, make floor tiles out of discarded belts. While it is possible to dismantle an old leather bag or raid your closet for belts, if you need larger pieces of leather, you can also opt for bonded leather. This material is made by shredding waste leather and bonding it, preferably with a natural material like latex.

There are also major strides in the field of lab-grown leather. This material looks and feels like real leather, because it is, but made without killing an animal. To make the material, only a few skin cells are necessary, which can humanely be taken from an animal. The cells are coaxed to make collagen, a natural connective tissue between cells. The resulting sheet can be tanned like real leather.

If you want to go all vegan, but also plastic-free, there are also plenty of possibilities. One rising star in this aspect is Piñatex, a non-woven fabric made from waste pineapple leaves. Malai is another option, made from organic bacterial cellulose, or mushroom leather, made from mycelium, and you can even make leather-like material from tree bark. We can wait to see what other alternatives will come tot he market in the future!

Fur
One of the most prominent opponents of fur is animal-rights organisation PETA. They used to use actions like throwing red paint, reminiscent of blood, on fur coats, though these actions have toned down lately. However, campaigns like ‘I’d rather go naked than wear fur’ is paying off. Many large brands, including Gucci, Armani and Burberry, are announcing they will no longer be using fur.

Before fur became fashion, it was used for its function. Since humans don’t have a lot of hair, they used the skin from the animals they hunted for food as clothing. The hairs provide great insulation. We have come a long way since we were hunters and gatherers, though, and fur has lost its necessity, as there are many alternative materials available.

Fur comes from animals including foxes, rabbits, minks, beavers, seals, and more. In most cases, these animals are raised especially for the use in coats and other clothing, and only their fur is used. The circumstances in which these animals live is often abominable and they are killed in cruel ways.

In addition to the cruelty, the fur industry is also bad for the environment. The farms breeding the animals release a lot of CO2, and the process of fur manufacturing includes waterways pumping waste and the toxic chemicals in to the surrounding environment. In Iceland, an isolated location, people started breeding minks for the fur industry. Some minks escaped and turned into an invasive species. In a country with hardly any natural predators, they had free rein and nearly wiped out a certain species of ducks.

As an alternative to fur, faux fur or fake fur came to the market. By the 1950s, synthetic fur was extremely popular and also affordable. Nowadays, fake fur is often almost indistinguishable from the real deal. So why would you still want to use real animals? For one thing, it has to do with status. The fur industry generates billions of dollars each year, and brands like Dior and Chanel still use natural fur.

Then there are the environmental problems with fake fur. Fake fur is made using fossil fuels, contributing to micro plastic in the oceans when washed. Additionally, as a petrochemical product, the production releases a lot of CO2 and it does not biodegrade. Dyeing processes also add to pollution of waterways.

Some companies use recycled polyester or PET to make fake fur, but while that may look on good on paper and releases less CO2, when washed, these products still pollute the ocean with microplastic.

Real or fake, there are downsides to this material. Is it more ethical to kill a few minks, but have a durable and biodegradable material, or would you rather use fake fur, made from plastic, which kills countless of animals through indigestion of micro plastics and doesn’t biodegrade?

Fortunately, there is hope. Companies are working on biobased, vegan types of fur. Simplifi Fabric, for example,, offers a hemp/cotton/recycled plastic fabric, and Ukrainian company DevoHome even developed a plastic free fur made from hemp and viscose (find this material in our collection here). Strides are made as well in using 3D printing to make fur.

However, there are still much fewer plant-based fur alternatives than there are for leather. Let’s hope the future changes that.

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