This Is Why Stella McCartney’s Shoes Are Not Leather

The designer talks about the bigger impact leather has on the environment—and why she hopes others in the fashion industry will join her.
May 26, 2015·
Kelly Bryant is a Los Angeles–based freelance writer covering fashion, pop culture, and parenting for a variety of national publications.

Over the years, the fur industry has been justly ostracized for its cruelty and senselessness, but leather has largely skated by under the misnomer that it’s a by-product of the meat industry.

Truth: It’s a coproduct.

In The True Cost, a fashion documentary film, designer Stella McCartney shares a staggering statistic: More than 50 million animals are killed each year for leather.

If you’re struggling to wrap your head around that number, consider also the effects of leather on the environment and the people who live near tanneries, which have serious implications.

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“Leather is extraordinarily harmful to the planet—the chemicals that are used to tan the leather,” says McCartney in the video above. “It’s not biodegradable. It’s very harmful to the water it contaminates in the local communities; therefore, they’re in contact with that. It’s a very destructive industry. The water that is being used is inefficient, the land that is being used, the grain that is being used to feed the animals, and, on top of that, it’s extraordinarily cruel.”

In 2012, Human Rights Watch released a report about the health ramifications of working in Bangladeshi tanneries. Men, women, and children as young as 11 described contracting skin diseases and respiratory illnesses due to exposure to tanning chemicals, not to mention amputations after accidents with hazardous machinery. It doesn’t stop there: Those who live in the communities have suffered the harsh side effects of residing nearby.

“Residents of Hazaribagh slums complain of illnesses such as fevers, skin diseases, respiratory problems, and diarrhea, caused by the extreme tannery pollution of air, water, and soil,” reported Human Rights Watch. “The government has not protected the right to health of the workers and residents, has consistently failed to enforce labor or environmental laws in Hazaribagh, and has ignored High Court orders to clean up these tanneries.”

Bangladesh was also the scene of the 2012 garment factory fire that left 1,100 dead.

McCartney, who has reportedly not used fur, leather, skins, or feathers in any of her designs since she was a student at Central Saint Martins, has been openly critical of the fashion industry’s careless habits and a champion of increasing sustainability among fashion houses.

For designers and brands looking to implement such practices, she suggests first gathering information by looking at where garments are being produced and where they’re sourcing.

“Just look at your raw materials and trace the journey, then question if they need to come to you in that way,” she said in an interview with CNN. “I wouldn’t use PVCs, and I’d definitely cut out fur absolutely first and foremost, because there’s no reason to do it. It’s extraordinarily cruel and destructive material to use in fashion. And I would seriously look at alternatives to leather, because it’s doable. Nobody knows that my shoes aren’t leather.”

The True Cost, which delves deeper into this subject, is set for an international release on May 29.