When it comes to leather – does it really matter if it’s “American-made”?

Some readers will see this gorgeous bag and think “Oh, look at that FABULOUS, made in USA leather bag!” while, others will say, or more like grunt, “Why is a self-proclaimed environmentalist showing a leather bag on an eco-blog? Yuck!!”

Hear, hear.

Leather is not exactly an eco-friendly material (more on that later), so why am I blogging about a bag made of just that?

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Satchel: Handcrafted in Georgia. Worn well in Texas.

Easy. Because I hate seeing individual and stylish women go to Coach, Michael Kors, Fossil or Cole Haan and end up with the same Chinese-made bag everyone else has. This blog is a space of options, and when I say that I mean a space where I am trying to help consumers make better choices. Is an American-made, small business, handcrafted, locally grown leather bag a better choice than an imported Coach bag is? Absolutely!

This one is my friend Mary Beth’s and made by Satchel: three female artisans in a small Savannah, Georgia design studio, handcrafting leather goods and custom handbags. If you’re interested, you’ll have to call and place an order. Though there are some styles in their studio for sale, nothing is “ready to buy” online.

It’s always good to have an excuse to talk about leather too, isn’t it? Ever thought about what the word actually means? Us humans are good at coming up with words that distance us from what we’re actually dealing with. Kind of like how we eat “beef” not cows and “pork” not pigs. Current generations are farther removed from nature than ever before, so it makes sense that when we talk about animal skins or hides, we just call it “leather”.

Leather is the processed and polished version of the skin of the animal, the end result if you will. It’s important to remember that as a conscious consumer.

You may have run into companies that handcraft their goods in USA of Italian leather? Italian leather is known to be good quality and it has a nice ring to it, so businesses like to flaunt it, however the animal that became that “Italian leather” may have emigrated after death; it could have come from any other country, but it was processed in Italy. So, in other words, we have no idea where the hide came from (China? India?).

What we are looking for as conscious consumers in the USA, are key words like “native” or “domestic” hides. Some small businesses will be open about their sources and proudly promise to only use domestics. Cattle is not slaughtered for hides in USA but for cow-meat (see what I did there?), so essentially with current demand, domestic hides are a byproduct of the beef and dairy industry.

It’s hard to argue about or measure a byproduct’s impact on the environment. “Since beef is bad for the environment and its production contributes excessively to climate change, then cow skin must be also” sounds like too easy of a conclusion. Do the fashionistas consume more skin than the steak eaters left behind? No way! But, what about when animals (other than cows or cows in other countries) are raised for their skin or fur alone? Well, then we have a whole new set of ethics and environmental impact to consider. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about that.

The processing or “tanning” (what turns “skin” into “leather”) on the other hand is extremely toxic and for that reason alone; leather is indeed a bad eco-choice. No matter where it’s from.

Vegetable tanning is probably the least environmentally damaging process and you’ll see some brands promise that their leather has been tanned that way (it’s expensive though, not stable in water and can discolor over time), however 90% of hides are tanned using chrome (think Erin Brockovich!). That’s what leads to toxic rivers and polluted lands, as well as serious birth defects and cancers in countries with lax regulations, like India and China. (Make no mistake, chrome tanning is used everywhere, here too, it just pollutes a little bit less where laws are stricter!) Processing one ton of skin produces up to 80 cubic meters of waste water, with high levels of chromium, sulfides, fat and other solid wastes, and notable pathogen contamination. Producers often add pesticides to protect hides during transport as well.

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Leather bags and shoes last a long time, and despite the fact that leather biodegrades faster than plastic, which is good, I don’t see either product group disappearing anytime soon. That’s why I love to take the opportunity to talk about this, present some facts that might help a reader out who is looking for a new leather bag. There are small businesses out there offering small batch, American-made styles. A bag like this one from Satchel can be yours for around $250 to $300, pretty much the same price as the imported bags sell for. (I’ll have to blog about vegan handbags soon!)

Personally my leather bag shopping days are over. I have a black one (bought in ’07), a brown one (’09) and a blue one (’13) that I am sure will last forever. New boots or leather seats in a new car? Very likely to happen in my life still. It’s a journey. We’re on our way to having mainstream plant-based, “just-as-nice” alternatives to animal leather, but the market is not quite there yet. In the meantime, I will shop locally grown, well-chosen and only when absolutely necessary.

The sweater Mary Beth is wearing, if you are wondering, is by Tea N’ Rose, from its boho-chic Orange Creek premium line. (I LOVE the elbow patches!) Tea N’ Rose is not committed to American-made clothing, though the style we are showing off is, of course, made in USA.

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This is the second post in a four post series focusing on American-made style featuring the beautiful Mary Beth in her own locally made clothes, photographed in some neat Houston locations by our friend Ashley. Check out last week’s post on a cool t-shirt HERE.

8 thoughts on “When it comes to leather – does it really matter if it’s “American-made”?

  1. Well-written, informative article (yet again)! Thank you!!! Yes, I always try to NOT buy leather. Sometimes shoes are a challenge, handbags are easier, and my daughter even has a vegan “leather” jacket. But, as you mentioned toward the end of your article, car interiors are another topic. It has been difficult to even order my last 2 vehicles with a cloth or at least fake leather (vinyl?) interior. But the one I’m looking at now ONLY has leather seating, (and in every model). There are no options!? Do you know of any way around this?

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    1. Hi Valerie. We had the same issue when we got the Tesla. There was one option with fabric seats but the chair design was way less comfortable! I don’t know any way around this, but we decided to make it a point during the “sales evaluation” so it got noted that we thought vegan seats should be a available also in the premium designed chair. If enough people demand it, the car makers should listen! So just make your voice heard and go with the car you want would be my advice :)

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  2. A very interesting point. One problem I have, however, is the question of alternatives. What are you replacing leather with? Especially in items like shoes, most non-leather alternatives wear much less well and long than the sturdy leather ones, if well-cared for. Synthetics are usually the alternative chosen over leather: synthetics made from fossil fuels, the extraction and refinement of which is ALSO toxic. If you manage to replace leather with, for example, hemp fabrics – then yes, I’m in agreement that leather is the worse choice. The hemp doubtlessly lasts less long, but it biodegrades and has less impact in its harvesting and weaving and dyeing. Another factor to consider is dyes: whether choosing leather or fabric or synthetics, darker dyes are usually more toxic (black is the worst culprit, apparently). Try for undyed or ‘natural’ looks, which are likely to be treated less intensively or even be totally free of this impact.
    There’s a lot of factors to consider! I seek out leather because I take better care of it, it lasts longer, and I will enjoy it so much I won’t want to replace it (how many vegan or synthetic leather bags do I need to buy to balance out the environmental cost of leather? I’m not sure, the math is complicated).
    I also bought a vegan leather purse a couple years ago and am not very impressed with how the seams are wearing. They’re splitting and breaking off – I look forward to reading your post on vegan leathers! Cork purses seem promising, though again I’m concerned about durability…

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    1. Hi Teresa,
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Actually, what you are saying is what I am saying too. There are no good, eco alternatives on the mainstream market yet. (I know pineapple is being looked into, apparently the shell can become leather like…)
      What my point is, is this: who needs five purses? Who needs several black, leather shoes? Who is comfortable with imported leather goods – really?
      We should know what leather is, what is does to the environment, and be aware consumers. This should lead us to say: “I only need ONE bag and ONE pair of boots and I am buying them from a local craftsman”. There would be no stores like Coach if we truly only bought what we needed.
      I am not a fan of poly (plastic) anything. I have a cotton tote and old leather bags, that works for me. (Looking at buying a new cotton and cork handbag actually for carrying around all the baby gear, but haven’t committed yet!)
      Thanks for stopping in :)

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