Is it time to give up leather?

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Cows have long been farmed to fuel the fast food market. Now, by turning leather into a seasonal style, they are becoming part of fast manner. Soon we will have to kill 430 m every year. Lucy Siegle gets to grips with life without leather( well virtually)

After months of trotting around with a broken handbag, I ultimately find somewhere to mend it. It was a basement shop called Clever with Leather in Brighton. The proprietor examined the piece and announced that cheap yarn was the problem. He stitched it beautifully and its now back in service.

Among his heavy-duty machinery for the punching, sewing and repairing of some of the toughest hides known to mankind I spotted a reddish leather embossed pouch, such as a New World postman might have carried. It reminded me of the cavernous, buckled handbag my mum once had. This pouch( along with her) was a constant reassure presence at the school gates for the length of elementary school. From it she was always able to produce tissues, change for the bus and hair pins on the occasion of Wednesday night ballet class, like a 1970 s Mary Poppins.

There is likely to be no such jumpers-for-goalposts memories for future generations. The leather handbag once a coming-of-age gift that held almost as much significance as a wedding dress has been swept up in fast manners relentless pursuit of the microtrend. In the past 12 months 31% of Britons bought a handbag or manbag, building them our favourite accessory, with UK sales reaching 1.34 bn last year.

To fans, leather is the ultimate heritage material in which the patina only becomes more interesting during its long life. Thats the trade off, if you like, for killing an animal( that and the fact that the skin is a byproduct of the meat, like the tallow cow fat being implemented in cosmetics and toothpaste ). But the leather handbag is no longer a bag for life. To luxury manner homes, leather goods are the rocket fuel of their huge expansion over the past decade. To high street fashion brands they represent an unrivalled cash cow. To consumers theyre simply another disposable fashion product. The fact that they are made from the scalp of a beast is incidental.

Hell for leather: men struggle to control a cow at a cattle market in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo: Getty Images

A rising global middle class means more crazy-ass intake of containers and more kine. Currently around 290 m cows are killed every year from a global herd approaching 1bn. Projections tell us that in order to keep us in billfolds, handbags and shoes, the industry needs to slaughter 430 m kine annually by 2025.

Leather is the material of the moment. Its grip widens throughout the wardrobe: from patchwork leggings( Chanel) to Kanye Wests joggers. The style to manner credibility is apparently to pile on animal skins( the other current favourite is shearling ), so you look like an extra from The Revenant .

And you can do this almost without censure in a way that wouldnt clean if you were swaddled in fur. Despite a defiant surge in fur-wearing, it still remains a mainstream taboo. However luxe the put, were more likely to interrogate current realities of a fur product and think of fluffy animals trapped in cages. When it comes to leather, frankly, that actually thinks about kine?

Pop star Leona Lewis does. Since she came to reputation via The X-Factor she has continually spoken up for animal rights. She now fronts a new Peta campaign video, Hell for Leather , which, unsurprisingly, is a grim watch. Filmmaker Manfred Karremann, a seasoned campaigner, tracks a pathetic caravan of livestock between India and Bangladesh as they are driven along dusty roads for hours and hours, abused and tortured with every mile. Ultimately the animals are scalped( in front of each other) in the back streets of Dhaka. The scalps are processed in makeshift tanneries with employees, including children, knee deep in toxic chemicals.

Its not leather: vegan brand Bourgeois Boheme. Photo: Suki Dhanda for the Observer

Jason Baker established the Indian branch of Peta in 1999. He claims this film represents the reality of leather production in much of the region, rather than a horrifying anomaly. He himself has find these kind of conditions again and again. But what still shocked me, he says of this latest footage, was that the Bangladesh leather industry doesnt simply entail cruel conditions for animals. We documented employees, including children, performing hazardous chores such as soaking hides in toxic chemicals and using knives to cut the skins.

This research serves to highlight Indias particular contradiction. Each year some 34 m bovines( including buffalo) are slaughtered, which builds it one of the engines of the global leather trade, attracting millions of dollars. But at the same time in 24 of 29 states cattle slaughter is illegal, as framed by the constitution. So how can a country such as Rajasthan, which has the only government cow department to look after freely roaming sacred cows, and one of the biggest gaushalas ( shelters for stray cattle ), also be home to hundreds of tanneries?

For centuries, low-caste Hindus( untouchables) have been left to deal with dead cows and beef has been widely( though clandestinely) ingested, with scalps going to the chiefly Muslim tannery proprietors. Sometimes slaughter is undercover, in informal slaughter homes. The system is fraught and suffers from a lack of transparency. The religion overtones of beef consumption are frequently played for political gain. Last September a human in Uttar Pradesh, Mohammad Akhlaq, was killed by fellow villagers, lynched for storing and feeing beef. And its a system that creates the situation exposed in Petas film where an estimated 2m kine a year are driven into Bangladesh for slaughter.

I know what youre thinking: I would never buy anything made from leather produced in these hideous conditions. But in reality we buy leather goods without knowing where the hide originates or what conditions the animals were kept in. Were comforted by Italian leather postages, but this could mean that the leather was imported and finished in Italy. Im fond of went on to say that if all the Italian leather merchandise was of true provenance you wouldnt be able to move for cows in that country. Theyd be drinking from the Trevi fountain.

On track: Kanye West takes the streets wearing his leather joggers Photograph: Bobby Bank/ WireImage

Skins are bought and traded across the world, from Ethiopia to Brazil, processed into the soft, buttery leather we associate with upscale European-made accessories. Nearly half of the global leather trade is carried out in developing countries from Ethiopia to Cambodia and Vietnam where, despite a backdrop of exploitation of animals and humans and the extraordinary level of pollution caused by unregulated tanneries and processors, the pressure is on to produce more.

This shouldnt only perturb vegans, but anyone with a pas regard for the planet. We know that creating livestock in increasing numbers is unsustainable, purely from crunching the numbers around greenhouse gas emissions. But in 2009 a seminal Greenpeace report, Slaughtering the Amazon , made a direct connection between leather and the environment. Researchers utilized satellite imagery to show how the Brazilian kine industry( with around 200 m head of cattle) was responsible for 14% of the worlds annual deforestation. Moreover, associate products, including leather and tallow induced in deforested rainforest, were discovering their route into the render chain of major brands.

This is where Ill make a example for eco-pragmatism. It is unlikely that the worlds consumers( an ever-increasing demographic) will be immediately dissuaded from buying leather( and feeing beef) wholly, so part of the answer is to stimulate the product more sustainable and to buy only pieces we can cherish and wear throughout our fashion lives, like our mothers did.

This is the stance of ethical manner campaigner Livia Firth in her new eponymous collection for M& S, which includes two leather pouches, a roomy handbag and a clutch. The bag carries its own passport, detailing the viability of the leathers Brazilian furnish chain. I am wholly wedded to the idea of using the same classic pieces for ever, she explains. If you use the same handbag every day, like I do, it has to be simple and it needs to be roomy without being huge.

To make the bags she spent hour with rancheros on giant ranches in the state of Mato Grosso. It might sound like an odd place for someone designing fashion, but for me its key to getting to grips with the supplying chain. For 40 years the ranchers were told to settle the land by the government and to chop down as much rainforest as is practicable. Now they have us telling them to stop. But the thing I learned is that there is huge capacity for change, and that change works.

Raw conceal: a leather worker in a tannery in Dhaka poses with hundreds of skins. Photograph: KM Asad/ ZUMA Press/ Corbis

Im not the only one searching for a more ethical approach. On weekends throughout the spring in Dartington, south Devon, youll find people intently focused on hole-punching and riveting as they learn the ancient art of leather running. The weekend I visit, Leather School has never been busier, as people from a broad range of professions decide that their route of taking control of this issue is to get their hands dirty.

The teacher, John Hagger also known as Tanner Bates, the name of his leather brand and store is a third-generation leather employee who trained as a saddler in Walsall( the West Midlands is the home of equestrian saddlery ). He admits hes been asked to induce pieces before out of synthetic materials, but couldnt bring himself to do it. Theres something about the material he says, indicating me a piece of leather from a Devon cow tanned utilizing the bark of an English oak tree at Bakers, in east Devon, one of the last surviving British tanneries. His best-selling product is a an oak-bark tanned leather belt. Seem at the way it catches the illumination, he says lovingly. And the patina will change: you see this is now merely at the start of its life. Itll get better and better.

I wonder about the poor cow, whose life has been ended so the belts can begin. It is not a subject this craftsman takes gently. I was very aware from the start, when I knew I wanted to be a leather worker, that this wasnt just fabric I was working with. This was once the scalp of a living animal. I wanted to know where this amazing material comes from and that wasnt discussed at all during my training. As part of his quest he has driven animals to the slaughter house and slaughtered some himself. Some of his most beautiful pieces, big leather pouches, are made from roadkill deer.

I find his approach to provenance enormously respectful of the animal. For me its the antithesis of the chaotic global supply chain. It feels like the humane route forward. Not everybody is convinced. Simply set, says Baker, there is no such thing as humane leather. No matter where it comes from, leather is the product of a cruel industry. And with so many synthetic materials available today, theres no need to wear leather at all.

Im not convinced its possible to bypass leather completely. Surely Leona Lewis must find it challenging, especially when so many of the luxury brands worn by pop starrings on photoshoots are heavy on animal skins. Its truly not difficult, she says. I find a lot of innovative decorators and brands use beautiful cloths that dont involve animal scalp and that gives me hope.

Its true that there are quite a few fresh new brands staking their claim on textiles that dont bleed( a Peta phrase ). Faustine Steinmetz, the LVMH prize finalist for 2015, has been persuaded to apply her considerable talent to vegan purses. I saw animals being killed for fur in a video and I screamed, she says. Leather and fur are the same thing Its genuinely not sustainable to raise an animal for a purse, its crazy. I decided I had to stop wearing leather. But I think the decision has to come from the customer. If the customer doesnt buy leather any more, things will change.

Some longstanding UK vegan brands, such as Beyond Skin and Bourgeois Boheme for shoes, and Matt and Nat for pouches, have developed and grown in confidence in their designs. Bourgeois Bohemes look-book for the forthcoming season has a cool aesthetic and a lack of vegan gimmicks. Youd be hard pressed to discriminate between a chunky classic leather sandal and the Stella their cotton-backed microfibre cruelty-free version made in Portugal.

Montreal-based accessory brand Matt& Nat began making vegan leather container for the fashion marketplace 20 years ago. The UK was the brands first overseas conquering and remains the biggest market overseas. Co-founder Manny Kohli, who has just returned from a Berlin trade display selling their Fall 2016 collection, says they are the busiest theyve ever been. Were really now starting to make a case that theres just no need to kill animals.

Most brands cite Stella McCartneys eponymous accessories collection as a game-changer. Here you have a luxury brand where people are prepared to pay 1,500 for a bag, and its not made of leather, wonders Kohli. And anyone who has ever held a Stella McCartney bag and had a good look at one can testify that theyre every bit as alluring in weight and softness as a top-grade leather; that they do appear to be as good as the real thing better, if you factor in the environmental damage and loss of life theyve displaced.

Synthetic leather really is on the up. Many patents have been registered for potentially groundbreaking materials. These are worlds away from the plasticised synthetics of a decade ago. Kohli is especially excited by the biobased PU polyurethane leather that forms the new unstructured Loom collection for Matt& Nat. Its soft and supple, yet built to last. Sounds a bit like leather, without the mayhem.

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