Photo credit: Maeya
Written by: Catherine Giese
With all the buzz about vegan leather, you may be wondering why we are even exploring the question of exotic leathers being ethical and sustainable.
The most common arguments cited against exotic leathers, which we are defining as primarily reptilian (crocodile, alligator, snake) are animal cruelty and the endangerment of both the species themselves and the ecosystems in which they exist. These are certainly valid arguments, and in some cases can hold true. But in some ways, exotic leathers can actually be more beneficial for the environment and for BIPOC (black and indigenous) communities than vegan leather.
Exotic Leather Traceability
Generally speaking, luxury brands are the best at promoting the ethical sourcing of exotic leathers. In fact, Kering, the company behind brands such as Gucci, Balenciaga, and Yves Saint Laurent, published ESG guidelines that outline their standards for exotic leathers. These seem to have set the industry standard, at least for luxury houses.
Exotic Leathers as a Conservation Tool
Conservation as a concept is evolving from one that is primarily based on protecting ecosystems and wildlife to one that recognizes sustainable use as an integral component to preservation. There are case studies on exotic animal farming that have shown it can contribute to a healthier wildlife population, as well as support local communities.
Take Nile Crocodiles, which supplies Crocodile skins to LVMH, owner of Celine, Fendi, Dior, and Marc Jacobs, to name a few. Nile Crocodiles, along with other farms in Kenya along the Tana River, have helped to mitigate the issues associated with animal-human conflict, including helping to create a healthy crocodile population. In addition to a healthier ecosystem, the farm has provided jobs for the community, and is pledging to be carbon neutral by 2021.
Not every exotic leather source can say the same, however. It’s important as always to do your research on where brands source their material. Most brands who are committed to sustainable and ethical sourcing will provide tracking capabilities for each of their products so that consumers can see where the materials come from.
Buying Sustainable Crocodile and Alligator Leather
As previously noted, many brands, especially luxury brands, will provide traceability information. And most brands who are dedicated to sustainably sourcing exotic leather will follow CITES guidelines or be CITES certified. If they don’t, stay away.
If you can track the source of the leather, then be sure that the farm is ethically and sustainably managed. Most farms who follow these practices will have an outline of their impact on their site. Check your values against their impact to make an informed buying decision.
Buying Sustainable Snake Leather
There seems to be little publicly available information on ethical and sustainable snake leather, but what is out there is alarming. Snake farms in Southeast Asia and China are apparently used to launder illegally caught pythons. The matter of wild-caught versus farmed snakes is equally fraught, as hunting can put pressures on wild stock. The Python Conservation Project produced a peer-reviewed study in partnership with Kering stating that wild harvest of pythons can be sustainable in Sumatra, Indonesia. The same study found that farming could be a good solution, specifically of Southeast Asia’s pythons, the Reticulated Python and the Burmese Python.
The best solution, as always, is to do your research on where a brand sources its skins. Given the low availability of information on snake farms, luxury brands will probably be your best bet for accurate tracking purposes. If the skins are sourced from the wild, be sure that they are not from endangered species, and that the source follows CITES guidelines. You can find this information on the CITES website.
What is Fish Leather and is it Sustainable?
In ethical innovation news, fish leather is all the rage, but it still only accounts for less than 1% of the global leather demand. According to Wired, “one tonne of fillets leads to some 40 kilograms of skin that goes to waste.” So long as the demand for leather doesn’t exceed the demand for fish, fish leather would actually reduce waste.
High fashion houses such as Jimmy Choo and Dior have started incorporating fish leather into their collections, and smaller brands such as Maeya focus on creating fish leather goods. It will be interesting to see whether fish leather becomes more popular, or goes the way of other short-lived fashion trends.
Last Word on Exotic Leathers
According to the research that’s out there, a sustainable approach to buying exotic leather would be to look at fish leather first, followed by crocodile and alligator leather, and snake skin as a last choice. As tends to happen with new trends, fish leather may end up having many problems associated with it, but for now, it appears to be a promising alternative with many great benefits to the environment and to local fishing communities. Crocodile and alligator leather is the easiest to track, and while snake leather can be ethical, it is often difficult to know if the snake leather you are trying to buy is ethical.
With that, I’ll leave you with a final consideration: that wearing clothing made from animals can be better for the environment and for humans, if only we consume less of it and do so mindfully.