All too often, these familiar claims are thrown around when condemning the use of leather:
"Is leather is a byproduct of the meat industry?"
“Are cows are killed for leather?”
"Is all leather-tanning toxic for the environment?"
"Is vegetable-tanned leather more eco-friendly than faux leather?"
Being a materials-driven designer, I grapple with the balance of creating with beautiful yet durable materials in a sustainable factor. I don’t think it’s a completely black and white answer when it comes to whether a material is eco-friendly. There's no one perfect material - it all has its drawbacks. As a pioneer of sustainable design for nearly 20 years, I have come to recognize the conflict of using vegan materials in my own designs.
Through my Venture Fellowship at BF+DA, (best known as a hub for ethical design) I was provided the rare opportunity to participate in first-person full-sensory experience to the cultural context of vegetable-tanned leather in its birthplace in a tiny village in Tuscany called San Miniato.
As an artisan, this invitation is obviously a bucket-list opportunity. And I won't lie: It is also a welcome catalyst to experiment - to stretch myself in ways I don’t usually have opportunity or resources to try.
I want to investigate further with an open mind, in a creative and explorative manner and to share with you all my findings.
Via the consorzio's website:
Vegetable-tanned leather productive cycle is strictly monitored to ensure a low impact on the environment:
No animal is killed for its skin. On the contrary, the raw hides used by the Tuscan tanneries are the discarded by-products of the food industry producing meat for human consumption.
Being tanned with natural tannins, a vegetable-tanned leather object can be easily disposed of at the end of its life, thanks to its chemical-biological characteristics.
Our tanneries have made huge investments in depuration systems and waste recycling that make them work in full respect of man and the environment.
Many of the substances used during the tanning process are recovered, recycled and reused in different fields. Hair removed from raw hides is transformed into agricultural fertilizer; sludge produced by the depuration plants is reused in the construction field to make bricks.
Vegetable-tanned leather, recognizable from its trademark, does not contain any toxic substance such as azo-dyes, nickel, PCP or chrome VI
This week-long program, and subsequent exhibition and competition, called Craft the Leather, is sponsored by Pelle Vegetale Consortzio. During this exploration of this ancient art, I explored ancient techniques of this luxurious material often called 'vacchetta', which is imbued with historical and social value. This lush agricultural region’s reputation to being connected to the land in a mindful way, will be my backdrop while I immerse myself in this experience. Hopefully finding out the truth behind those claims (and others) that are thrown around.
Along with a hand-selected group of 20 academics and students from around the globe, I visited vegetable leather tanneries to learn where the leather comes from, toured one of the most advanced water treatment systems in the world, met other small-batch leather artisans, and learned centuries-old techniques from master craftspersons from the region.