f15-dwell-sheenan-gravel-1This post by Kasi Martin originally appeared on The Peahen, a beautiful blog covering ethical fashion.

Choosing leather ethically can be tricky. I’ve deciphered some of the popular options and brands to help you cut through the marketing and get to the truth.

I learned these lessons first-hand when my mom asked for my birthday wish-list, and kindly obliged to my request for an ethical, faux leather handbag.

After some research, I settled on this bag from Matt & Nat. It’s supple, neutral and ladylike – it doesn’t get more classic than that. The company has been delivering designs under the umbrella of ‘vegan leather’ since 1995. Matt & Nat’s brand relies on recycled nylons, cardboard, rubber and cork. Their commitment is impressive in an era where chemical additives and man-made materials reign.

However, it turns out that Matt & Nat’s standard is the exception to the rule. Most vegan leather brands rely on cheap Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), a synthetic material that’s carbon-intensive, doesn’t biodegrade and leaches toxins when disposed in landfills. After 20 years of Matt & Nat delivering beautiful vegan leather goods at accessible price points, I thought other brands would have adopted their model. I was wrong.

All this time, if you’ve been buying vegan or fake leather as a conscious decision for the environment and animals, you’ve been lead astray. This misinformation leaves us in a bind. How do we, as conscious consumers, decipher what’s ethical and what’s BS when it comes to leather?

As with all consumer decisions, we don’t make purchases in a vacuum. There are some seriously complex forces at work in the leather industry – from the supply chain, to environmental principles to labeling and false marketing. If you’re detail oriented, see references number one and two below.

You might want to crawl under a rock at this point, but stay with me. There are two important things you can do to keep your ethics in line when buying leather: learn the lingo and adopt some new laws.

Deciphering the Leather Label


First off, mastering leather lingo is the best way to make informed decisions. Most people choose their stance on leather the same way they choose their lunch. There is a strong correlation between hamburger habits and leather boots and, conversely, soy-dense diets and faux handbags. I wish the issue were as simple as real vs. fake but the nuances of the label are critical.

Here’s what you should pay attention to:

nisoloReal Leather

Surplus leather (sometimes labeled ‘dead-stock‘) can be thought of as, simply, scrap leather. It’s the leftover leather from agricultural or manufacturing production. Buying surplus is technically still reinforcing animal agriculture; however, it’s a step forward to eliminate production waste.

Vintage leather is your best option if you want the longevity and look of real leather. Be aware: if you’re an animal rights advocate, you’ll be a walking, talking contradiction of yourself. Still, vintage leather is considered an ethical option because no new demand is created for animal skin, or other polluting materials.

Handcrafted/artisanal leather honors traditional – oftentimes slower – production and supports local craftsmen. Buying direct from artisans allows you to get closer to the supply chain and be better informed about ethical practices.

Local leather is the equivalent of local produce, with the same benefits. Buying leather from locally raised cattle removes the carbon impact associated with transport. Unless you live in an agricultural area, this type of leather will be hard to find.

Vegetable tanned leather is a natural alternative to industrial, chromium-tanned leather that leaches toxins into the water supply. It goes easy on mama earth.

Calfskin leather is leather produced from young calves touted for its supple feel and fine grain. This is the veal of the leather industry. I can’t write avoid it enough times.

Pelican Handbag in Black by GUNASAlternative leather is made from animal skin by-products that are cast aside as leftovers during food production. You may see the skins from eel, fish (typically salmon), sheep, ostrich and – even chickens (poulard) – on the label. Be skeptical of this type of leather unless it follows the surplus model.

Faux Leather

Microfiber vegan leather can be identified by PU or PVC on the label. Try to avoid these under all circumstances. If you must, the lesser evil options are made from recycled nylons or degradable polyurethane (PU). Take Kamea’s word for it, PU and PVC  are among the most polluting materials on the planet.

Natural vegan leather is hands-down the best option available. Look for cork, glazed organic cotton, paper, cardboard and barkcloth as the primary materials.

Pleather is the retro name for vegan leather. Those outside the fashion set will refer to it this way.

Read the rest of Kasi's tips on shopping for leather at The Peahen!