The use of leather and fur in the fashion industry

A few years ago, I managed to find the perfect leather jacket in a charity shop in Cambridge. It was a very lucky find and has become one of my favourite pieces. My love for this jacket made me think about the increasing popularity of leather in the fashion industry and the serious issues that the use of real leather creates. Leather jackets have become a staple piece and it is difficult to come across someone who does not, at least, own one. However, animal-derived clothing such as fur and leather raise ethical and environmental problems. It is important to explore the shift away from fur in the fashion industry, the major role leather plays in the industry and the vegan-friendly alternatives that exist.

Historically, fur was used for warmth and then, became a symbol of wealth. Fox and mink fur became incredibly popular for coats and hats. However, these products were the result of cruel processing methods with the animals involved subjected to inhumane conditions. The International Fur Trade Federation has reported that “wild fur represents about 15-20% of the world’s trade in fur”. This means that roughly “85% of the fur industry’s skins originate from animals living captive in fur factory farms”. As animal rights have come to the forefront of debates about the use of fur in fashion, the perception of fur clothing as luxury products has changed to them being symbols of cruelty. Due to PETA’s intense campaigning and protesting, the industry has moved away from the use of real fur to faux fur. For example, The Prada Group announced, in 2019, that fur will no longer be used in its products. As well as that, the British Fashion Council, has announced a fur ban from the London Fashion Week Schedule from 2024.This showcases how the use of real fur is no longer in style.

However, this same shift has not yet fully materialised when it comes to the use of leather. Leather has been consistently used as a staple for belts, shoes, jackets and bags. When it comes to animal rights, the processes involved are as equally cruel as with the use of fur. In the Animal Welfare in Fashion Report 2020 by FOUR PAWS, it was estimated that “over 2 billion animals are used in the wool, fur and leather industries”. There have been arguments that leather is a by-product of the meat and dairy industries and so, not as directly damaging. However, this fails to capture the economic value of the leather industry and how it is responsible for the deaths of millions of animals each year. The leather industry is “worth $212 billion globally and is expected to increase by 6.6% by 2030”. The factory farming and waste produced in the processes involved also contribute to pollution. PETA are now focused on banning leather though there has been more resistance from the industry due to the popularity of leather products. At Coach’s Spring fashion show for New York Fashion Week in 2023, two PETA animal right activists went on the runway. One of the activists had red body paint and the other held a sign that said “Coach: Leather Kills”. The animal rights issues that exist in the prevalent use of real leather is slowly attracting attention, suggesting change will be enacted.

Alternatives are being developed to decrease the use of animal-derived products. This is due to consumers becoming more socially aware of the ethical and environmental issues inherent with the use of fur and leather in the fashion industry. A 2017 study by Unilever found that “a third of consumers are now choosing to buy from brands they believe are doing social or environmental good”. Therefore, to please its market, the industry has to change. Some brands have moved to using pleather and other vegan-friendly materials. However, an issue with this is that pleather is made out of plastics which are damaging to the environment. The industry is developing though, and it is possible that more-environmentally friendly options will be available. For example, Hermès is experimenting with plant-based leather. Also, the fashion brand Ganni created a jacket made from bacterial cellulose during the Global Fashion Summit in Copenhagen. The designer Stella McCartney is an advocate for cruelty-free clothing and displayed a sustainable fashion exhibition at COP28. Her brand does not use leather, fur or any animal skins as well as being PVC free. This highlights how there is considerable potential for cruelty-free leather that it also environmentally friendly.

Fur and leather have played a significant role in the fashion industry, and they still do! However, the damage that the harvesting of these materials has to animals and the environment means that the shift to vegan alternatives and cruelty-free textiles should be embraced. We have already seen a change take place in relation to the use of real fur, and it is likely that the same will happen with leather. Whilst researching for this article, I couldn’t help feeling guilty and saddened by the cruel practices linked to my prized jacket and I was relieved that it was a second-hand find. However, the purpose of this article is not about creating guilt or to villainize people who wear fur coats or leather jackets. Rather, it is to highlight the importance of understanding and looking further into the wider impact of the clothes that we wear and the values of the brands that we buy from.

Featured Image: Néo Rioux on Pexels 

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