2017 was a good year for the leather-goods market. But, if the practices in the leather industry are just as unethical as, say, those of the fur industry, how do we justify our love affair with leather?

woman looking at leather shoes in store

It is no secret that the fashion industry still runs on rather unethical supply chains. As a result, brands highly publicize their commitments to implementing more ethical and sustainable corporate social responsibility practices. For years now, there has been a debate amongst industry insiders regarding the ethics of the fur industry. Many luxury fashion brands such as Gucci and Versace joined the Fur Free Alliance. Throughout May and June of 2018, several fast-fashion brands such as Forever 21, Zara, and H&M have banned mohair from their product lines after PETA’s exposé on the mohair industry went viral. On June 18, 2018, ASOS announced that the e-commerce website will no longer sell items containing silk, cashmere, or feathers.

This current wave of corporate social responsibility efforts marks a new era for the fashion industry’s ethical code. Some brands, such as Stella McCartney, have been committed to solely creating ethical, animal-free fashion products and never used materials such as animal fur, feathers, and, most significantly – leather.

With the exception of this piece published for the Guardian, the ethics of the leather industry are rarely publicized in highly-circulated media publications. Writer Lucy Siegle cites the unethical practices that uphold the Bangladesh leather industry. Siegle reminds of this unsettling truth about the likely origins of our leather handbags:

Nearly half of the global leather trade is carried out in developing countries – from Ethiopia to Cambodia and Vietnam – where, despite a backdrop of exploitation of animals and humans and the extraordinary level of pollution caused by unregulated tanneries and processors, the pressure is on to produce more.”

Dropel Fabrics founder Sim Gulati weighed in to note that the fashion industry is the “second most polluting industry in the world so it’s clear that we’re seeing a level of awareness, engagement and involvement by forward-thinking brands to educate the consumer and to have a positive impact.” Yet, the leather goods industry is as prosperous as ever. This phenomenon can be explained by three interrelating main factors: social media, the rise of the accessible luxury market, and, ironically, sustainability.

Girl in black leather jacket

Social Media

We all use social media show off our highly-curated highlight reels. As any millennial knows, a brand’s or an individual’s social media presence is indicative of her personal brand and personality. Especially in light of Instagram’s everchanging algorithm, we all try to find new ways to shine and stand out from the crowd – how can this be better done that with the aid of a bold leather accessory?

Today, with the rise of social media influencers and their luxury looks, we see our personal social media equity in relation to the equity of the brands that we endorse in our Instagram posts. In other words, we aspire to live the luxury lifestyle of social media influencers. What better way to emulate them than by wearing copying their ensembles?

The Rise of Accessible Luxury

Management consultancy firm, Bain and Company’s recent report confirms that sales in the luxury personal goods market are on the rise. In our social-media-centric age, we all want to look as if we live luxuriously, even if we do not necessarily have the financial means to do so. As a result, many millennial and generation z shoppers buy into the luxury accessories market due to its lower price barrier to entry. Most of these accessories – handbags, shoes, belts, keychains – are made of leather. This implicitly glorifies the use and purchasing of leather. This love of leather also lured its way into the fast-fashion brands’ premium labels. For example, H&M labels all of the leather shoes as premium quality, which suggests that animal leather is more fashionable than its faux leather counterpart.

Sustainability

In our environmentally-conscious age, millennial consumers prioritize quality over quantity. Quality products tend to be associated with the luxury brands and, historically, leather epitomizes luxury. By this logic, and recent trend reports, it seems that as the luxury industry grows, so does the leather goods industry.

However, as I’m writing this article and Gucci loafers are still on backorder, it seems that the leather shoes make may finally be taking a [un]surprising turn, and the marketplace might be in the midst of a sustainability shift. As fashion moves on from mohair, can we let go of our lust for leather while still being in love with luxury?

Elisa Lewittes is a contributing editor and marketing strategist at Grit Daily. She specializes in the luxury fashion and lifestyle fields. Her other professional interests include business, entrepreneurship, and psychology. Elisa lives in Manhattan, New York.