As the world’s resources and values have shifted, leather has become an increasingly controversial material. In many places around the globe, factories farm animals for the sole purpose of leather, skinning the animals and leaving the remains to go to waste. However, there are even more factories doing the reverse: farming animals for meat and leaving the skins to waste. In these factories, hides are a mere byproduct of meat production. Aside from the ethical and environmental hazards of farming animals, the typical chrome tanning and dying process can be chemically toxic. The hormone disrupting toxins result in excessive pollution to the air at large, as well as the workers and wearers of leather.
Despite the controversy, there are several ways leather can be used in a low impact, socially conscious manner. Although our society’s respect towards the environment is progressing – more innovation, more vegans, less fossil fuels – the end of the meat industry is far in the distance. In order to reduce the carbon footprint of the industry as it is, using the entirety of the animal is essential. Several of our brands on EcoHabitude assist with this slow progression towards a zero waste industry, concurrent with other socially conscious initiatives.
NATEISS, for example, is a London based company that handcrafts totes, clutches and belts from sustainable ostrich skins from the Klein Karoo region in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. The historic Klein Karoo region is where ostriches have been farmed for over 150 years. This is the origin of ostrich meat and also the world’s source of ostrich leather. Klein Karoo supplies companies like NATEISS that utilize the skins that would normally go to waste. NATEISS’ luxurious inventory is limited, making each bag all the more special.
Fajwah Jacobs, Founder & Creative Director of NATEISS, was born and raised in South Africa and has a strong and direct relationship with the tanneries. Jacobs elaborates, “I grew up surrounded by ostrich leather and know the industry players quite well from a previous business. I visit the tannery to hand pick our skins.” The personal relationship between designers and craftsman is another crucial part of ethical business. For companies that mass-produce, there is a large disconnect between the designers and manufacturers, leaving the company responsible yet unaware of harmful practices such as sweatshops. After careful selection, the leathers are taken to a specialist factory in Cape Town where artisans with years of experience in working with ostrich leather turn the skins into beautifully handcrafted handbags and accessories. In NATEISS’ case, they are also more informed about their products because of this relationship. Jacobs goes into detail about the ostrich: “The challenge we face is consumers’ perceptions of ostrich leather, which is undoubtedly classified as an exotic skin. However, the misconception is that it is associated with other exotic skins, which come from endangered species.”
When making the decision to use leather, all other aspects of production must be consciously considered – especially where and how the material comes from. Unnur, for example, uses the scales of salmon and perch, resulting in a durable leather. Despite the environmental taboo of using anything explicitly animal, Unnur utilizes a by product of the fishing industry that would otherwise be discarded. The fish as a leather is also a less chemical-filled process because there is no hair to be removed, as their normally is with hides. Their unique dying process is also environmentally friendly, using hydro-electric power and natural geothermal energy. Ultimately, the innovation at play results in beautiful colors, using the bare minimum of chemicals and waste. The low-carbon bags are made in Los Angeles, California.
Another strategy for wholly utilizing the resources that already exist is recycling. Platinum Dirt, for example, upcycles leather from the interiors of automobiles and home furnishings. They often seek out the leather personally from local salvage yards, before they are handmade in Oakland, CA. Every one of their bags has an original design, unique to its origin. What Daisy Did practices a similar form of recycling, in which they collect end-cuts from factories who would otherwise throw away the remains. Their upcycled bags are handmade under fair trade practices – Bafts registered out of Northampton, United Kingdom.
Phoebe Gillan is from San Francisco and has lived in Manhattan for a year. She is studying Strategic Design & Management at Parsons School of Design, in her second year of their Bachelor of Business Administration program. When she’s not working on EcoHabitude’s blog or social media platforms, she loves to explore New York City rooftops, upcycle her clothes and learn new languages.
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