Building a Responsible Leather Supply Chain for a Greener Future

As the fashion industry slowly becomes more ethical, we are seeing brands like Chanel changing their ways when it comes to the use of exotic skins. We are also witnessing fashion businesses publicly frowning on the use of fur, but the thing is, when it comes to leather, it seems that many brands are still using it in their collections. One of the reasons given is that stopping the use of leather supply chain is not so easy because it is a “complicated ethical knot to untie”.

 When it comes to real leather, it is either a byproduct, co-product, or sub-product of the meat industry. Although it is a material that remains popular with fashion brands, the more innovation-forward brands are turning to vegan leather. The good news is that leather alternative offers the industry another option, but the problem is that some have argued that vegan leather is made from petroleum and is mostly plastic. 



Known as synthetic leather, vegan leather is mostly made from polyurethane, a versatile polymer made from fossil fuels, or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), another form of plastic. This makes the alternative to real leather, faux leather, a material that comes at a high environmental cost. Ellie Pithers who investigated the environmental impact of synthetic fabrics for Vogue wrote, “Both polyurethane and polyvinyl chloride must undergo chemical processes to make them flexible enough to mimic leather: the former involves painting liquified polyurethane onto a fabric backing, which requires a toxic solvent to render it fluid; the latter requires plasticizers such as phthalates, which are also toxic”. So what other options are there? Well Timberland, a company best known for its original yellow boot, might have found a solution. 


 Can Traceable Hides Be An Ethical Alternative? 

Global outdoor lifestyle brand, Timberland recently announced its goal to build a responsible leather supply chain by sourcing from ranches that employ regenerative practices. Working with Other Half Processing (OHP), a company that partners with farmers, ranchers, and tribes to source hides and other identity-preserved, Timberland’s commitment is designed to send a strong message to the fashion industry that there are ways to produce leather ethically.

Ranchers and farmers who use regenerative grazing practices manage their cattle in a way that mimics the natural movement of herd animals. Such grazing allows for more rest and re-growth of grasses, which can lead to better food for livestock and healthier soil, as these grasses pull carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the ground. In theory, this makes the land more productive with higher resistance to both drought and heavy rain.

On their collaboration, Jim Kleinschmit, CEO and co-founder of Other Half Processing, said, “We’re thrilled by this partnership with Timberland. As a major global footwear brand, it’s time people across the industry get serious about addressing the impact of leather production, which includes where the hides come from and how the cattle are raised.” Adding, “We look forward to partnering with Timberland and other companies to grow leather supply chains from regenerative systems, to the benefit of the producers, animals and the environment.”

 The brand, which has banned the sourcing of hides from certain countries or regions where they have learned of animal husbandry concerns, believes that a greener future is a better future. The company has a longstanding commitment to making products responsibly which is built on sourcing traceable hides from regeneratively grazed cattle in the U.S. Set to hit the market in fall 2020, Timberland will be releasing a collection of footwear and accessory made from traceable hides.

On influencing widescale change Colleen Vien, Director of Sustainability at Timberland, said, “At Timberland, we are committed not only to minimize the negative impacts of leather production but to drive environmental benefits through our sourcing approach and ultimately develop a net positive fashion supply chain. We are proud that our consumers will be able to buy products where the leather has been sourced in this way, and hope to inspire others in the industry to move in this direction as well.”

Aspiring to ensure hides are sourced from acceptable locations, Timberland has achieved this by supporting farmers, ranchers, and tribes who raise their livestock in a regenerative system. The great thing about Timberland’s green efforts to build a leather supply chain from regenerative ranches is that they are not only making an effort to minimize the negative impacts associated with leather tanning, but they are also doing it for the industry as a whole. Also as part of their pursuit for a greener future, Timberland announced this month that they had made a landmark commitment to plant 50 million trees over the next five years.

So what is the better version of leather? Is vegan leather, which has been described as an ethical alternative to real leather the way forward? Or should we commit to growing our leather-like NY based company, Modern Meadow? I do think that building a responsible leather supply chain like Timberland shows us another way forward, but first, we need to be educated on what kind of leather options are out there and question how ethical they really are. With education comes knowledge to help us make conscious decisions that could, in the long run, pave the way to a much more sustainable future.


Written by Muchaneta Kapfunde


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