As Autumn is in full-swing and we again turn to this reliable cold-weather material, we decided to share our thoughts on leather with you. If you’d like to find out more about why we use it and what we take into consideration, we invite you to read on.
Leather as a material has a high environmental footprint, which we fully acknowledge. Unlike most materials though, leather has a smaller environmental footprint during the use phase, because it hardly ever requires washing or other forms of care (you can read about caring for leather here). Whilst cloth garments might last two or maybe three decades of regular use, leather garments can be regularly worn for many decades and continue looking good.
It is our commitment to pieces made to last that keeps us from using so-called “vegan leathers”, at least for the time being. Every leather alternative we have so far encountered, including pineapple, apple and mushroom based “leathers”, is essentially plastic. Most commonly used leather alternatives are PVC and PU, both of which are toxic and almost impossible to recycle. Vegetable-based leather alternatives mix plastic and a vegetable component, which reduces the environmental impact of the plastic but still results in materials that don’t last, are toxic and cannot be either composted or recycled. We hope to see better materials emerge in future years, but currently these don’t meet our values.
We have looked into many different leathers of European provenance to ensure that we are using a material that is aligned with our values and which will serve our customers well and last a very long time. Using leather that comes from Europe keeps our supply chain short and makes it easier to ensure that our suppliers are ethical and keep to our Code of Conduct.
Vegetable Tanned Leather
When it comes to leather tanning, Vegetable tanning (which uses vegetable extracts) is the most sustainable and traditional. The very process of ‘tanning’ derives its name from tannins, which are polyphenols that bind to proteins, commonly obtained from tree bark to help preserve leather. They also lend a unique warm colour to leather. Vegetable tanning is the most time and labour intensive.
Chrome Tanned Leather
Chrome tanning has attracted negative attention for a few important reasons in recent years. First up is that chromium being a heavy metal it can be very toxic, therefore it needs to be used in controlled environments and any “waste” needs to be carefully handled. Unfortunately chromium salts and other metal salts are sometimes used in developing countries within informal processing sites, where workers don’t have the training and equipment necessary to safely operate. This results in dire health consequences for the workers, the contamination of the surrounding soil and waterways, as well as any animals living there.
In contrast, chromium salts are a controlled substance within the U.K. and Europe and all companies using them operate under strict regulations and are regularly audited. In these factories, chromium and other heavy metals are filtered out of the waste water and collected to be recycled. The filtered water that results is often circled through production multiple times, and when it leaves the factory it is as clean and safe as it was at the start of the process. The chromium that has been filtered out is used within construction and other industrial applications.
Chrome-tanned leather from the U.K. and Europe is chemically inert and perfectly safe to handle and use.
Chrome-free Tanned Leather
Chrome-free leather goes through a very similar tanning process but relies on other salts such as cadmium, iron, aluminium, lead and zinc. Chrome-free tanning is sometimes a more water intensive process than chrome and doesn’t achieve the same performance, colourfastness or finish. To achieve better colour and finishes, tanneries will often use a PU or PVC based finish, which adds to the chemical impact of the product, doesn’t biodegrade and will peel off in time.
Metal-free Tanned Leather
Metal-free tanning is a process that requires a more complex use of chemicals to effectively preserve the leather. This is a relatively new technique and as such is still being improved on. One of the current problems is that the chemicals used here are harder to filter out from the water baths, often being impossible to recover at source and can result in water pollution.
So far, it is impossible to achieve the same performance as what we have come to expect from chrome and chrome-free leather. Metal-free tanned leather doesn’t have the same stretch and recovery, it can currently be used in handbags and other applications where the material isn’t put under stress but doesn’t result in long-lasting pieces if used in clothing. Again, metal-free tanned leather often comes with PU or PVC based finishes.
Our priority is to ensure that the garments we produce are as sustainable as possible but also of the high-quality that our customers have come to expect from us.
Therefore we continue to use chrome-tanned leather in some of our garments, knowing that we have full transparency of our supply chain from farm to garment, and that our suppliers operate safely and ethically.
For AW21 we are for the first time launching leather jackets made with vegetable tanned leather. These three new garments are very dear to us, as they have a fantastic feel to them and have a bigger connection to the tradition of using leather. Whilst they come at a price premium, the result is a true piece for life that will gain patina and character over the years.
We will continue working closely with our suppliers to improve on the environmental footprint of our leather and testing different materials to always deliver our best to you.
It is our hope that this level of transparency is reassuring to you and sheds some light on our material choice. If you have further questions, we’d be happy to hear from you.
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