Gear Shift: Why I've chosen vegetable tanned leather as a sustainable material

I'm aware that leather use is a contentious issue. Using the hides off critters backs is something I've fluctuated between for a while - as a crafter and consumer - however having done some research with more to come, there is a decent argument towards leather. It all comes down to process.

How an animal is raised to produce leather, how the rest of the animal is used as well as its hide, and how the hide is then processed, all are critical to the ethics behind using animal parts as a material in production of goods.

Where I stand, is that if there is an attitude of consideration for animal quality of life, a minimal waste policy throughout the supply chain, and every effort to use environmentally friendly mechanics and chemistry to turn hides into leather, then we have a winner for ethical material supply.

On the other hand, leather alternatives chasing the same desirable aesthetics pose a number of cons. Largely, unsustainable and toxic production chemistry often involving plastics - secondarily, it lasts nowhere near as long in a product, while being much harder to maintain and break down as waste. The burden of its negatives long outlive the material.

As a product, leather - particularly vegetable tanned - can be maintained and preserved by good stuff with a relatively small eco footprint like beeswax. It's tensile strength means we have many options for construction without needing additional materials for linings, or even stitching and hardware in some cases (part of my own design interests). It's a very practical and minimal material to use for small to moderately sized items with an intent for durability and longevity.

I personally am against using large amounts of leather unneccesarily for items like dresses or floor coverings or wall cladding - only maybe if the animals byproducts are fully used as well - since I feel it starts being wasteful, and becomes harder to care for and preserve the material. I think maintenance is an important part of leathers sustainability, since it can have a longer life at a higher intensity of use compared to other organic materials like cotton. This is also partly why I am against furs and sometimes shearling - the chemistry to preserve them on vintage items can be pretty nasty. Wool, on the other hand, I love - easy to harvest, the animal stays alive and happy (so long as it is not bred into disfigurement just for the sake of its fibres), and technically amzing and comfortable in basically all the uses. I'm a fan of merino and hope to find some good Australian sources in the future.

Back to leather. In favour of my cause, I am additionally lucky enough to live in a country where our local pest and national icon happens to have an amazing capacity for breaking ouf of inhospitable enclosures with its supreme bounciness, and a very strong and flexible quality of hide. Plus, we have been known to eat it - we get a plus for the use of byproducts. I have testing to do (waiting for some offcuts to arrive), and further research into our tanneries processes, but I hope to use locally vegetable tanned kangaroo hides for all my leather goods in the future.

On the matter of tanning - even the vegetable tanning process can include some not-so-great steps, such as methods of preservation before the tanning itself (one tanner I've read about just freezes them - so then all we have to do is wait for renewable energy sources), and other steps to strip and prepare the hide. The tanning itself is great, it uses tannins from barks and vegetation. The end product is amazing to work and craft with, very flexible and malleable as compared with chromium tanned, which uses horrible stuff which is pretty much done once it is tanned. Not much room for the enjoyment and care in handling and finishing on the creatives end. As a less treated material, veg tan does need more maintenance by the consumer - but this also adds to its longevity. If you wreck a chrome tanned or patent leather good for example, it's harder to restore to that particular finish, and usually requires more affronting than eco-friendly chemistry.

Now one part of my process which I have recently discovered and would find hard to let go of, is the dying and beautiful colouring effects you can get due to veg tans porosity. The options which sink in are oil and spirit based dye (rather than surface finishes and paints). For now, I feel that alcohol and spirits are not something the world will let go of any time soon, and I do love a good shot of whisky myself. I find that oil dyes - though leathercrafters prefer the evenness of application, seem to be a bit less tolerable. But again, more research is required, since solvent based and oil based things can both be environmentally unfriendly.

Finally, waterproofing and sealing. Spirit based dye tends to be pretty resilient unless you have at it with acetone - hopefully you wouldn't do this to your wallet or belt. Water and leather conditioner are generally safe as water and natural oils tend not to disturb the colour. This means you are free to keep the leather open to aging with the odd waterspots and handling marks. Alternatively, you can apply a beeswax or carnauba based finish, or an acrylic based sealant. Out of all the other available options, I think these three are reasonably sustainable. I'll have to look further into carnauba solvents (which make it an applicable cream) and acrylics. I've seen no issue with acrylic as an artists medium, even being safe for kiddies. However in my use case I would not be churning out factoryfuls of treated goods. Since each item is handmade I feel this is an ok option just for my workshop. However I can't say if everyone used acrylic sealants, or natural waxes and oils (if blended with other preservatives or solvents) on their leatherwork it would necessarily be a good option. It depends on the ingredient listing, which is frequently not there.

So vegetable tanned leather has ticked a lot of my boxes for a durable, sustainable, attractive and adaptable material to use in accessories, and pairs well with garments made from sustainable wool. I think my material choices are covered! But like I said earlier, it's all about process to make the use of animal hide an ethical and sustainable option. I'll have to do my research into suppliers and tanneries around Australia, both for cow and kangaroo leather, as well as my workshop treatments to ensure I'm holding up my end of the deal.

If any person has a rebuttal or notices a consideration I've missed, please comment below!
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