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Concerns around animal welfare as well as ethical considerations are the driving motif behind the vegan movement amid a wider environmental agenda and pursuit of a greener lifestyle.
Much of the narrative – or shall we call it propaganda – by animal rights organisations and vegans and vegetarians generally and their rejection of leather is because of the bad image animal farming and wider treatment of animals has; they think of battery chickens, pigs that are being transported across countries in crowded, overheated trucks and indeed, cattle abused and “farmed” (as inaccurate as this may be) for leather, and other atrocities.
The leather industry is getting better at promoting its sustainability efforts, particularly when it comes to the leather making process and its waste treatment, but I cannot help but think that in addition to promoting the virtues of leather and its natural credentials, it should also publicise its animal welfare standards along the supply and production chain more. Just saying that leather is a by-product is not enough.
This is not about converting vegans back to a carnivorous lifestyle. I fear this is one battle we would not win, and I for one have no problem with people choosing not to use or eat animal products. It is everyone’s personal decision. But spreading false information and basing much of the vegan arguments on misinformation is unacceptable.
A new, conscious consumerism
Despite the growing number of vegans, it is still unlikely that the whole world is going to turn plant-based any time soon. In the UK, for example, the estimated number of vegans is around 600,000 (2018 figures quoted by The Vegan Society) – that is less than 1% of the country’s population, and despite this being a growing trend, in reality we are still far from veganism being a mainstream, mass movement.
However, there is a growing number of people who are on the fence, who, as consumers want to live a more eco-conscious lifestyle and do their bid to save and protect the environment, and vegan lobby groups, anti-meat and anti-leather campaigns are doing a good job rattling them and making them question their buying choices. Even if they still eat meat, they might think twice about whether to buy that leather jacket, those leather boots or whether to opt for leather seating in their new car if they are presented with alternatives that on the surface seem like the better environmental choice. It is those people that need to be enticed back to seeing leather as part of their desired eco-lifestyle, before they get swept up in the anti-leather hype.
In retail, there is a palpable shift towards shopping locally again, to make considered choices and to know where the products that we eat or peruse come from. Meat is one piece in this mosaic; increasingly, consumers are opting for locally sourced meat, because they can ask their local butcher which farm their steak or chicken breast has come from and how it was reared. And even though they are still eating meat, they are making an educated choice with a good conscience. The same principle applies to leather, where it comes from and how it has been made. This is more than just about traceability, it’s a new approach to a more conscious consumerism, and the meat and leather industries have an opportunity to capitalise on this sentiment.
Yes, leather comes from animals, but we should show that these animals are treated well during their life-cycle and, indeed, killed ethically and humanely; there are of course black sheep in every industry; but where good standards are practised, animal welfare should be a bigger part of the narrative.
This is not just about singing the praises of the benefits of leather as a natural, durable and sustainable material, but about tapping into and addressing consumers’ concerns about leather and their fears that they are contributing to some form of unethical slaughter. We need to change perceptions and make consumers who are happy to still eat meat and peruse animal products aware that animal welfare has been at the core of their leather handbag as much as the steak on their plate. Too many products, particularly the vegan alternative ‘leathers’, boast the trademark “no animal skins used” just like beauty products boast “not tested on animals”, implying the same level of cruelty. Of course these are two completely different things, but the danger of this labelling is that consumers do not differentiate and buy into this misinformation.
The – relatively small - vegan lobby is making a lot of noise. The leather industry needs to cut through it and shout even louder!
Isabella Griffiths, Editor, ILM
About the author
Isabella Griffiths is an experienced b2b journalist and Editor, having joined ILM from the fashion and retail sector, where she spent 15 years as Editor-in-Chief of a leading national trade title in the UK, reporting on industry news and market developments within clothing wholesale, retail and e-commerce. Originally from Germany, Isabella trained as print journalist and started her career as reporter for one of the country’s largest newspaper groups.