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They had us at O my 😍
👫 : Men + Women
🌎 : Sold online with worldwide shipping, and offline in store at their showroom in Amsterdam + retail stores around the world.
💸 : Approx $65 – $425
🌐 : omybag.nl
WHAT WE ❤️
Textile: The Sheong Shi Tannery which O My Bag works with sources leather locally from less than 100 km away and only from cows that died of old age, illness or as a by-product of the local halal industry. They also use very little finishing on their leather, which means it can get a little scraped up, but we’ll take that awesome vintage look over nasty chemicals any day.
Labor: O My Bag works with World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) suppliers. They visit their suppliers 2x a year, and also shared the names of all their suppliers with us (which you can check out on their brand page!).
Environment: The tannery they use, Sheong Shi, seems to be trying to avoid chemicals – the leather takes 8 weeks to tan because they don’t use heavy chemicals and purify their wastewater. The tannery has also built a water reservoir to collect rainwater during the monsoons. And we love that they’ll repair products and replace parts for you.
Innovation: Given the amount of leather that is used in the production of shoes, bags and other types of clothing, we were excited about O My Bag’s work with Sheong Shi Tannery to develop new methods of tanning that had less of a negative impact. They’re also thinking holistically about the raw materials: sourcing from local cows and avoiding harmful treatment of animals. We think they’re building a sustainable model that can be replicated for brands that still choose to use natural leather.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
We would like to see a bit more transparency about the environmental impact of the bags. O My Bag shared that they use “wet white tanning” with “bio-synthetics” instead of chromium. They state these treatments aren’t harmful but we need to understand a bit more about this process. However, they did share with us that they weren’t using a lot of the bad stuff (chromium, heavy metals, formaldehyde, short chain chlorinated paraffins, volatile organic compounds and alkylphenol ethoxylates – phew that’s a mouthful of GROSS 😖). They’re also working with consultancy firm Avance to conduct a Tannery of the Future assessment – results out in 2017. And finally, we love that they recognize they still have work to do! 👍
This brand is ON FIRE 🔥
👫 : Men + Women
🌎 : Sold online with worldwide shipping, and offline in retail stores around the world.
💸 : Approx $30 – $360
WHAT WE ❤️
Textile:This brand uses only reclaimed materials including genuine decommissioned fire hoses, flawed parachute silk, off-set printing blankets, leather scraps, coffee sacks and auction banners. Cool 😎 Elvis & Kresse has also decided to tackle the world’s 800,000 tonne a year leather waste problem by creating a system of shapes which are handwoven to effectively make new hide.
Labor: 95% of their production is done in their own workshops, where they employ eleven workers. Elvis & Kresse items are handmade, outsourcing is for trim and accessories only, which equates to less than 5% of their total materials. 100% of their workers received a bonus last financial year. 💯
Environment: Their workshop is powered by renewable energy! ☀️ They collect unwanted shoe boxes to use for their packaging, and they monitor their water use with specific reduction targets. Elvis & Kresse both limits its water use and treats its own wastewater in order to preserve surrounding water sources.
Innovation: Elvis & Kresse was certified as a founding UK BCorp. They have two small workshops, but are profitable, which means they have an effective business model that we hope can be replicated by others. We love the materials they’re reusing – the products look super cool 👌 They also donate profits to charities related to the materials they reclaim: 50% of profits from the fire hose range are donated to the Fire Fighters Charity.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
Elvis & Kresse also do not use any toxic chemicals while treating their reclaimed materials.
A true blue artisan 💙
👫 : Men + Women
🌎 : Sold online with worldwide shipping, and offline in retail stores around the world.
💸 : Approx $5 – $1200
WHAT WE ❤️
Textile: The leather used in all Tanner Bates products is a by-product of the meat industry, sourced from a few select family owned tanneries across Europe that use traditional natural techniques to treat their leather – all of the leather is vegetable tanned. The owner of Tanner Bates, John Hagger, says that he knows all the people by name who make their raw materials. ❤️
Labor: The connection the brand has with its suppliers is strong – they truly know the people at the five suppliers they work with: three tanneries and two small companies who supply hardware and tools. Tanner Bates also pays its workers the national living wage or higher.
Environment: The leather used in Tanner Bates products is almost strictly tanned in the traditional method, using tannin from trees.🌲 One of their tanneries in East Devon supplies oak bark tanned leather – they use four ingredients: the hide of the cow, oak bark, Devon River water and time – the transformation process can take 12 months or more. Check out their brand page to learn more about this process. Other tanneries are in Florence, Italy and Chicago, USA. Products are made to order, minimizing waste.
Innovation: The brand can tell a shopper exactly where their products have originated, including when possible where the cows lived. We also love that they are modelling an ancient technique and showing it can work for modern production. 👏
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
To hand dye its products the brand uses aniline dye. Aniline is toxic when the vapor is inhaled and has been linked to bladder cancer. We’d like to know to what extent it’s used and how they make sure it’s not harmful.
RISING STARS 💫
There were a few brands out there which were total standouts, but due to their young age, we’re waiting to give them the seal until they stick around for two years or more. Nonetheless – check out these brands, keep any eye on them, and show them some love 💛
We loved everything about their leasing and return concept, their circular business model and the vision of this brand! Unfortunately, still a young’un with only six styles available at the moment, but we’re excited to watch this company grow and prove their model!
Check out their brand page on Project JUST.
A FEW NOTES ON THIS CATEGORY
1. Researching and assessing leather was dirty business. 🙈
As many of you are aware, leather production is nasty – one of the nastiest. So while researching natural leather, we had to dig through all the issues out there. But being the investigators we are, we also looked into the impact of the many alternatives that exist to modern day leather, including traditional techniques, vegetable dying, artificial replacements like vegan leather, and more. With the multiple issues we had to cover, particularly with respect to types of materials and chemicals used in production, there’s a lot to wrap our heads around. We encourage you to read through the research we did below.
This also means that there are a ton of issues for the brands themselves to think about, to truly make a sustainable product. Which is also probably why, TBH, we didn’t find many established brands who were truly thinking about sustainability and ethics holistically, let alone trying to operationalize it or actively improve their practices across the board, which leads us to Point #2…
2. This time we only had three brands we truly felt were meeting our standards. 💯
But we’ve recognized two young brands that we’ve highlighted as Rising Stars: they’re two years old or younger, with really interesting models and techniques but with limited product ranges, small teams and shorter supply chains – which equals less stuff for a brand to worry about. Great for them, but hard to judge against brands with wider product ranges and more supply chains.
We acknowledge that as a brand grows and scales its production, it becomes harder to stay true to its original commitment to sustainability, but we’re willing to take a bet on these rising stars and want to champion their commitment to sustainable and ethical production from the start.
3. But where’s vegan leather?! And what is this veggie tanning stuff? 🍆
Surprisingly, a lot of vegan leather is actually made from plastic. And while we fully understand the choice that many vegans make not to buy or support anything to do with natural leather, plastic waste by nature is also destroying the habitats of many animals. Our vote is for reclaimed materials, or a different type of material entirely, like cork.
On veggie tanning – buyers beware. 👀 Many veggie tanning practices still use a lot of the same chemicals used in modern day tanning methods, and could include alcohol, coal tar, sodium sulfate, sulfuric acid, chlorinated phenols (ex. 3,5-dichlorophenol), azo dyes, cadmium, cobalt, copper, antimony, cyanide, barium, lead, selenium, mercury, zinc, polychlorinated biphenyels (PCBs), nickel, formaldehyde and pesticide residues (more on that below!). EWWW. Check up on brands who say they’re doing veggie tanning to make sure its the real deal and entirely au naturel.
Author + Journalist
Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion
Context Expert + Style Expert
Before we do a deep dive into any brand, we look at the environmental and social practices of each of the nominated brands and whether or not they share enough information for us to research. In some cases, brands are doing great work from an environmental perspective, but share little or nothing on their labor practices, and vice versa – which isn’t enough to get them shortlisted. In addition to looking at how transparent the brand is, we also consider availability, accessibility (size and price) quality and aesthetic. Unfortunately, even if a brand self identifies as ethical but doesn’t share how, we can’t shortlist them for in-depth research.
Looking for information on the APPROVED process + criteria?FIND OUT MORE
WE HAD 5 SHORTLISTED BRANDS. WHO DIDN’T MAKE THE CUT?
Nisolo: We LOVE the story of how this brand works with artisan partners. They own their factory in Peru and locally source all their leather. But with APPROVED, we look for brands who are working to have a positive impact across every aspect of their supply chain. We weren’t able to gather enough info about this brand’s environmental practices, particularly a concern with the nasty nature of leather production. But we’re hoping to learn more from them in the future!
Timberland: A big brand that has done more than many in taking major steps towards making leather’s impact less negative, Timberland is a founding member of the Leather Working Group, and helped develop a certifying and grading process for tanneries. However at this time, we don’t see enough from a brand of this size on addressing labor practices in their factories or pushing for game-changing innovation in leather production and business models. But keep an eye on this brand! They do have stuff in the works and we hope they’ll take even bigger steps soon 👣
For more information on how APPROVED brands are shortlisted, click here.
We had 76 nominations for handbags and leather+. Want to see the full list?VIEW THEM ALL
As we said before, leather production is nasty business. 😖 It’s fraught with so many complex and layered issues – from animal cruelty to greenhouse gas emissions – that it took us a while to wrap our heads around it. Apart from the intensive research our team did on understanding the leather context, we listened to as many perspectives on the industry as we could – and boy are there many 🙆 !!!
We’ve tried to highlight a few of the issues here that we think are extremely important, but for a more comprehensive take – check out the context research framework here. Whatever your own opinion is on leather, we encourage you to read through both the issues as well as the steps being taken to address them outlined below – because more information = better decisions. Let’s change the way we shop!
• • •
The primary raw material required to produce “real” leather is animal hides, and as a consequence of that, the leather industry is closely related to animal agriculture. Let’s take a closer look at the issues around irresponsible animal husbandry.
DEFORESTATION & LAND DEGRADATION
Issue: Clearing room for animals to graze and for land to grow animal feed involves mass deforestation. According to Greenpeace, the Brazilian cattle industry alone accounted for 14% of the world’s annual deforestation. Rodrigo Baleia’s series of aerial photographs (featured above) bear witness to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest from 2000 to 2012. To make matters worse, over-cultivation and over-grazing to feed livestock threatens the quality and utility of soils, frequently leading to land degradation or desertification.
Innovation: The Leather Working Group has now introduced a section in their audit on “Hide Traceability“, which allows leather manufacturers to know where their raw materials are originating from, and that they haven’t been sourced from cattle ranches that have contributed towards deforestation in different parts of the world. ✅
GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS
Issue: Animal agriculture accounts for a staggering 18% of greenhouse gas emissions – more than all transport emissions combined! A single 🐮 emits 19.3 pounds / 8.75kg of methane (a super potent GHG, which causes 25x more global warming than CO2) annually.
Innovation: Eco-leather – a breathable, bio-based leather alternative invented by former University of Delaware professor Dr. Richard Wool. Unlike some other leather alternatives, it’s breathable because it’s made with natural fibres like flax or cotton mixed with plant oils like palm and soybean, eliminating the need to to use substances like polyvinyl chloride (PVCs) that make you feel sweaty. Note: this eco-leather is different from the eco-leather used by O My Bag – check out their brand page to learn more! 🌿
Issue: Much of the world’s leather comes from India and China, where animal welfare laws (if any) remain largely unenforced or blatantly ignored. Questionable methods used by slaughterhouses in these countries have lead to frequent protests by animal rights organizations like PETA.
Innovation: there are now some really interesting alternatives to leather, including Piñatex™ (commonly referred to as “pinapple leather” 🍍), MuSkin (100% biodegradable and non-toxic leather from mushrooms 🍄) and fish or eel leather (sourced as a by-product of the food industry and dyed and tanned naturally 🐠). Additionally, some brands have taken steps to only source their leather from tanneries that use hides of animals that have died of natural causes.
📷: Pete McBride
• • •
The production of leather involves multiple steps, but arguably the most chemically complex and contentious stage is the tanning process. Below we’ll take you through an extremely high level view on tanning, and why the chemicals involved in the production of leather can be so tremendously harmful for both people and the planet.
Issue: There are 3 main methods of tanning leather: chromium, aldehyde and vegetable tanning; but the most popular by far is chrome-tanning, accounting for over 80% of all leather produced. Animal hides and skins are dipped in chromium baths to prevent decomposition and increase durability. This is hugely problematic because exposure to chromium (a carcinogen and lung irritant), and its particularly toxic form Chromium VI, can have extremely negative health effects, including severe respiratory issues, skin problems and cancer. 😷 Not only are tannery workers at tremendous risk working directly with chromium, but over 90% of the water pollution caused in the production of leather is due to the tanning process.
Aldehyde tanning, which essentially uses formaldehyde (a highly toxic substance) – although chrome-free, is not much better. Which leaves us with vegetable tanning, frequently considered the most “eco-friendly” method. But beware ⚠️ – although chromium is replaced with bark or plant tannins, look out to see if other nasty chemicals including antimony, azo-dyes and mercury are used in the process as well.
Innovation: Using natural tanning agents like cod oil or wood-smoke, or wet-green® OBE, which is a plant based concentrate produced from an aqueous olive leaf extract (!), as well as combinations of enzymes and non-toxic chemicals eliminates the use of chromium from the tanning process. Regulations have recently also been put in place in the EU countries restricting the use of Chromium VI and formaldehyde in products – however labor and environmental regulations in leather producing countries like India and Bangladesh remain woefully behind.
DYES & OTHER CHEMICALS
Issue: Azo dyes, sometimes used to produce brown and black leather, are basically poly-azo compounds that can rub off easily on skin, sometimes causing skin allergies, dermatitis and reportedly even cancer (!). Apart from the hazard these compounds place on our own bodies, the dyeing process is hugely resource intensive, producing highly toxic and colored effluents that are responsible for massive water pollution; Bangladesh’s Ministry of Environment says that tanneries collectively dump 22,000 cubic litres of toxic waste into rivers each day, polluting the local water supply for residents and exposing them to serious health risks including infections, infertility and birth defects.
One thing to definitely keep in mind when considering leather alternatives, particularly artificial ones, is whether or not they’re made using nasty chemicals with complicated names like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU). A by-product of the production of PVCs are dioxins, a terrifying substance that has been called “the most potent synthetic carcinogen ever tested” by the USGBC. 😨 What’s more, since PVCs aren’t fully biodegradable, when broken down they release phthaletes, yet another scary toxin with health effects ranging from cancer to reproductive issues. PU microfibers are just as harmful – not only because of their toxicity to human health, but also how adversely they affect marine life.
TL;DR: think twice about synthetic leathers (including some vegan options) as being eco-friendly! And ask all of the questions. 🙋
Issue: Child labour, forced and bonded labour and lack of freedom of association are all hugely prevalent in the leather industry. The direct exposure to chromium endured by tannery workers who wear little or no protective equipment can have terrible health consequences, depending on how the chromium is absorbed. Inhalation can trigger respiratory ailments including asthma and bronchitis, but can also act as a carcinogen, causing lung / nasal / sinus cancer. Unprotected handling of chromium has caused skin diseases and ulcers, and can sometimes also lead to allergic dermatitis.
In 2012, Human Rights Watch interviewed children as young as age 11, who were working at the time in tanneries in the Hazaribagh district in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Many of these children were employed to carry out highly dangerous activities including “soaking hides in chemicals, cutting tanned hides with razorblades, and operating dangerous tanning machinery.”
Innovation: IndustriAll and COTANCE have developed an “Online Risk Assessment Tool” on Safety and Health at Work for small and medium sized tanneries in the EU. Steps have been taken by the ILO to improve working conditions in leather producing countries, including India and Bangladesh, however it remains to be seen how effective governments are in enforcing these regulations.
Knitwear! 🐑 Submit your nominations here by October 22.
To continue to provide you, the shopper and member of our Project JUST community, with credible research and analysis, we have partnerships with some of the APPROVED brands to serve as their affiliate. Once and only if a brand is selected, do they have the opportunity to participate in our online shop and we at Project JUST receive a small percentage of the sale if a reader discovers and chooses to shop a APPROVED brand. This allows you to directly shop from sustainable, ethical APPROVED brands and allows Project JUST to continue our due diligence and research work. If you have any questions or comments about our partnerships with APPROVED brands or Project JUST, please send them to email@example.com.
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