When it comes to the fashion industry, leather is one of the biggest threats to animals and the environment. Leather kills one billion animals each year – one billion lives lost, no less – which mainly concerns cows, but also sheep, goats, pigs and, believe it or not, dogs and cats. Leather is also a massive eco-villain: the 2017 Pulse of Fashion Industry Report found that cow leather is the most polluting material for cradle to gate impact (meaning from material extraction until the it reaches the final consumer) – double the impact of vegan leather.
This is all pretty depressing news if you, like me, are a big fan of the leather look. But fear not: the solution to your dilemma is here. The Vegan Tannery is a new online boutique offering exclusively products in cruelty-free and often eco-friendly vegan leather materials.
Founders Jen and Lee Poynter owe their business story to…their Dalmatian, Freyja, a former breeding- and show dog rescued by the couple. Jen explains: “I was sat watching a video about the leather industry one evening, with Freyja curled up
on the sofa next to me, that I just suddenly realised she was like the cows. Her sweet
spotty face and big eyes looked exactly like theirs. And yet she was sleeping peacefully in
comfort, while those cows lived and died in misery. It was an epiphany moment I suppose.
I knew there was no going back and I had to become vegan.”
And Jen was correct to make the connection between our animal companions and the leather trade: the horrifying industry of dog skins in Asia is alive and well, churning out accessories that are vaguely labelled as “leather” and sold on the European market.
The UK-based online boutique features men’s and women’s ranges of handbags, belts, wallets and other accessories in innovative and sustainable materials such as leaf leather, cork, and recycled rubber. Will the variety and innovation be enough to change the public’s perceptions of animal-derived and vegan materials? “I think that a lot of people view animal leather to be a premium product, because (according to the stereotype) it’s ‘hard-wearing’ and ‘ages well’ – plus it’s a co-product of the meat industry” says co-founder Jen Poynter. “But firstly, with an an approximate 10% of an animal’s worth at slaughter being their skin, that is actually a significant amount, and the meat industry is therefore essentially subsidised by the leather industry. The leather industry is in itself an enormously profitable business worldwide. In addition, many animals are specifically bred and slaughtered for their skins, regardless of whether they will be used for meat. We don’t think that any of that justifies killing an animal, whether the product is hard-wearing or not. And many good vegan alternatives to using leather are really hard-wearing anyway. For instance, we stock some bags and accessories made from recycled truck tyres and inner tubes. They’re tough and rugged, with a unique patina, and make brilliant use of a waste product.”
How will Jen, her co-founder Lee Poynter and their shop make vegan leather cool? “These days, there are loads of lovely alternatives to animal leather, which have a similar look and function, but are more sustainable, less polluting and wear well. Innovations include fabrics made from leaves with a vegan resin coating, the aforementioned recycled rubber, various coated fabrics and natural fibres, cork bark made into a leather-like material, and more. Even the plastic-based products are better than they used to be, with PU material being much less toxic to produce than the old-style PVC. Many of these options are breathable, water-resistant and look great.”
As for any multi-brand retailer, sourcing is key. “When choosing the brands we stock, we first and foremost require them to produce totally vegan products,” explains Jen. “We also like if they are interested or involved in environmental protection, and they must have high standards when it comes to their supply chain. We are keen that the products we sell are not made in a way that harms the people making them, and appreciate transparency in this regard.”
And the eco appeal of vegan leather is truly celebrated by The Vegan Tannery: “One of our favourite materials, used by a couple of brands we stock, is cork. The bark of cork oak trees is unique in that it can be harvested whilst the tree remains alive, and this can be done every decade for hundreds of years. When processed (with water, no nasty chemicals like in leather tanning), the resulting material is lightweight, strong, and looks beautiful. The trees are also a vital part of ecosystems in countries such as Portugal, Spain and France, with their unique properties including helping to prevent the spread of wild fires. So it is an all-round sustainable and beneficial material.”
Brands stocked by The Vegan Tannery include Wilby, Thamon, Paguro, Corkor and Hetty + Sam.
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All photos courtesy of The Vegan Tannery