Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Your Leather Leggings are Evil

For the last few seasons, I've been getting more concerned about the growing fashion trend for leather and feathers. Mind you, I think that the rocker-chic thang is great - I am a big fan of dark eyeliner, tight jeans and motorcycle boots, sprinkled with some vintage rhinestones.

Feathers have been used throughout history for accessorizing fashionable ladies, as you can see below in a painting by Thomas Gainsborough from 1777.

And some of the recent creations that have come off the runways have been just magical (I am thinking specifically of Alexander McQueen's red feather dress from his RTW FAll 2008 collection, which was featured, I think, in almost every fashion magazine that year). The photo below is from Harper's Bazaar (photo credit: Richard Burbridge). I just really love McQueen's aesthetic.

Anyway, if you have read this blog at all, you know that I am not a radical anti-leather, anti-meat person. For full disclosure, I have been a vegetarian for almost 20 years, but have been known, in moments of Italian-smoked-meat weakness, to indulge in some prosciutto. But rarely. And although I don't really like to wear real leather, I do have a small shoe-lust that does not exclude leather shoes. I also have used some vintage leather in a few jewelry designs.

But, back to the story at hand. I have never been into wearing leather except for shoes and a coat here and there. But, recently, on my first foray into Value Village (OMG! Who knew?) I came across a black leather Marc Andrew skirt for $10 (yes, that is what you can find at Value Village - totally awe-inspiring). I usually would not have bought a leather skirt, but the price and the recent deluge of leather fashion overtook my inhibitions. Since then, I have thought often about this skirt and the general trend toward animal by-products in fashion - so I decided to do some research . Here are my thoughts on this, in no particular order:

  1. Aren't leather/feathers just a by-product of the meat industry? I have always thought that most leather and feathers are a by-product of our society's ridiculous meat-centric diet. Isn't it better for us to use the remains of the animal instead of throwing it out? In a better world, more people would give up meat (since this would actually feed more people in the world and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental pollution), so there would be less leather/feathers. But, as leather/feathers become more fashionable and the demand for it increases, could it encourage more meat consumption (i.e., sell meat for less because you are getting more for the leather due to higher demand)? It would be an ugly cycle.

  2. Our meat industry is inhumane. It is true that our large-scale meat industry lacks ethics. Therefore, by wearing leather/feathers, we are supporting this. For instance, many goose feathers are actually plucked from live geese that are being raised for meat, but are too young to be killed for meat. I am sure this is painful.

  3. Some leather is NOT a by-product of the meat industry. According to several sources including, yes, PETA, some leather comes from cows raised specifically for their hides - though I am not sure what happens to the meat. Deer, alligators, crocodile, toads, ostriches, kangaroos, lizards, snakes and seals are also used for leather. In many countries, wild species killed for leather have no protection at all, they may be clubbed to death or caught in traps - quite painful ways to die.
  4. Leather production is toxic. The tanning process (which is the process that makes the hide soft and keeps it from decomposing) can involve cyanide, arsenic, and other chemicals linked with nervous disorders, asthma, skin and respiratory disorders, among others. Tanning produces waste, which is often dumped into the environment (esp. in China and India, the largest producers of leather, where environmental laws are only marginally enforced).
  5. Is pleather better? Well, it comes from petroleum, so it unnecessarily increases our dependence on oil. Also, PVC, a popular material for faux leather products, is incredibly toxic to manufacture. Polyurethane (PU) is considered better, but the manufacture of it still creates a lot of pollutants. Plus, neither will biodegrade and their decomposition will release toxic chemicals. Leather will biodegrade after about 40 years (depending on where it is since landfills are designed to keep things from decomposing), but will release chemicals as well when doing so.

  6. What about wearing vintage or thrifted leather/feathers? My only hesitation with this approach is that it promotes the wearing of these trends even more. Most people who see you will not know that what you are wearing is actually from your grandmom's attic or that you salvaged it from the $5 bin at a thrift store in Alabama. On the other hand, it is important to show that there is actually SO MUCH stuff already out there in the world - why do we always need to buy new things? There are plenty of NOT NEW things to fulfill your leather/feather dreams.

  7. You can get cruelty free feathers. It is possible to find people who sell feathers that have fallen naturally from their farm birds. Yes, these birds are probably being raised for their meat anyway (or at least for eggs), but at least they are not being plucked. Plus, many of these "cruelty-free" feather vendors are small-scale, therefore having less negative impacts on the environment and likely treating their animals in a humane way.

  8. Its the cumulative impacts, stupid. In essence, everything that we do is probably okay on a small scale. The problem comes when millions of people demand the same thing, it intensifies the various negative impacts of providing said thing on a smaller scale. For example, there is a big difference between a farmer raising cows for his own consumption and using the leather and the industrial meat and leather production industry.

I will be honest, I have gazed longingly at various leather leggings on sites like shopbop. I have. But, knowing what I do now, I won't buy any. But maybe I'll get a pair of PU ones - or find a pair of vintage pants and have them restyled. And perhaps I will wear my thrifted leather skirt again, but I will make sure to use it as a conversation starter about the many issues with leather production. And no feathers. I don't eat chickens, so I don't want to wear their feathers. (I mean I do, I do. But I won't.) As I have been, I will continue to reduce my new leather shoe consumption.

The most important piece, I think, is to be educated about where the things you buy come from.

But. I do wish more designers selected/bought into sustainable fashion trends (i.e., that don't involve numerous quantities of chemicals, environmental damage or mass execution of animals.)


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