Animal, Chemical, Radical: A Case For Leather

Kate Bryant

On the argument of sustainability, I've always sided with naturally-derived, preferably organic, fibers such as cotton, silk, wool and leather. But with the evolution of so many high-tech, lower-impact human-made fabrics — many of which can be recycled limitless-ly, is it time to reconsider?

Let's look at an agricultural fiber like conventional cotton which requires intensive water and heavily toxic insecticide use. Cotton is then cleaned, treated and dyed with highly toxic chemicals. The manufacture of leather doesn't score any better. Cow hides (where most leather comes from) require:

12,000 pounds of forage, 125 gallons of gasoline & other petroleum derivatives for fertilizer, 2,500 pounds of corn, 350 pounds of soybeans, 1.2 million gallons of water & 1.5 acres of farmland (to grow the crops for feed), plus various insecticides, herbicides, antibiotics & hormones to grow one cow from an 80 pound calf to its full size. [Treehugger]

It then requires removing hair, degreasing, desalting, soaking, the application of biocides and finally vegetable or mineral tanning. Cozy.

Silk and wool, while less energy-intensive to produce, biodegrade at a faster level (what I thought was a good thing).

But let's move on to the polys. Sarah Scaturro, textile conservator at Cooper Hewitt, has a love affair with the petro-derived stuff. Unlike the naturals, "polyester can be recycled efficiently and in such a way that the base polymer is not degraded," explains Sarah. Silk, on the other hand, breaks down on the polymeric level at a much faster rate due to oxidation, light exposure, etc.

As well, silk must usually be dry-cleaned after being worn one or two times, or if it is handwashed, it mush be ironed or steamed afterward. Polyester, on the other hand can be washed and then allowed to air dry, requiring no ironing or steaming. Polyester does not hold on to stains like silk does. [Sarah]

Ideally, polys would be recycled over and over until the end of time and never enter into the waste stream (giving truckloads of plastic soda bottles a much more glamorous second life). When you think about all the points which require energy — manufacturing, toxicity in production and growing, disposal and breakdown, longevity, quality and performance — Sarah believes it would be shortsighted to "villify synthetics as non-sustainable." However, this relies heavily on a perfect system where consumers always cycle every article of clothing back into the loop.

If both sides have their pros and cons for sustainability, what it comes down to then, for me, is the idea of agency. What cotton, silk, wool and leather offer is the ability to be handled by anyone, and fashioned into something wearable. I can't take a soda bottle and turn it into a dress. But I can take a cow, grimace mercifully, slay it, clean and tan the hide and shape it into something I can wear. And when it breaks down, it will decompose completely, becoming food for something else. The same can be said for  cotton, silk and wool — with hopefully less grimacing. These fibers, when sustainably sourced and handled, also remain in a closed loop, albeit a much-wider, organic one.

Sarah Scaturro curates Ethics + Aesthetics = Sustainable Fashion at the Pratt Gallery, opening Thursday, November 19.

Image by Lollyknit
Patagonia's soda bottle fabrics
Sarah Scaturro makes the case for polys in Fashion Theory.