Leather and sustainable fashion

Lee Mattocks conducted research into leather at Nottingham Trent University to evaluate the use of leather for fashion products.


The research led to strict choices regarding suppliers and design. Leather being a contentious issue, below you can read some of the information he collected to make ethical decisions and to help you with yours, when investing in a Lee Mattocks bag.

So what is leather?

 ‘A material made from the skin of an animal by tanning or a similar process’

This ‘animal’ category includes birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and mammals, all of which are used to make leather. Salmon, ostrich, pig, eel, cow, kangaroo, stingray, shark and snake are all available leather types, each with variables with regards to sustainable practice globally. If we only consider the mammal category, including cows, sheep, calf, lamb, pig and rabbit (considered leather in some species and locations) the specific international, regional, and local policies on ethical practice differ wildly in the farming and slaughter. This is before the material begins its transformation into leather through the tanning and finishing of leather using a variety of different chemical compounds at different tanneries globally and again with variable commitments to the environment. Lee Mattocks only uses leather from responsible sources. We source leather from the Netherlands from Wendell & Delten leather because they comply with the most severe standards of technical specifications, environment & health. You can find out more information about compliance with these standards on their website.


When current debates generalise the term ‘leather’ and whether it should be used or not, we need to be more informed with the variable issues relating to more specific information or sites of unethical production otherwise we may replace a historically sustainable material with a perceived fashionably ethical alternative. These may incur even greater detrimental impacts on the environment because when leather is:

‘Properly made and sourced it is a truly sustainable material’

Commercial materials derived from animals regardless of any variable practices evoke strong emotional responses that can only be paralleled by plastic. The media focuses on highly emotive images however most materials stories have negative impacts on the environment in a variety of ways. Yet with regards to leather we all have a heightened response and reaction to this material, because:

An animal is never neutral. Even animal remains barely recognisable as such like the leather of a motor cycle jacket’ 

Where does my leather come from?

Leather is often regarded as a waste product from the food industry so to simply incinerate it would not sit well with sustainable ideals and recycling. Our suppliers above source the raw material from European farms and again this helps us to ensure that strict standards of animal welfare have been achieved. Many ethical consumers make leather purchases on the grounds that skins are simply a bi-product of the meat industry. In reality it could be regarded as more of a subsidy in some cases depending on the profitability of the leather material. The leather derived from the animal is around 7% of the material used and recycled from the animal. oils and fats are also used to a higher percentage for candles and cosmetics alongside the leather hide. For more information you can access data and reports from 'Leather Naturally', a valuable resource for those wanting to make an informed decision and ethical purchase:


This ‘economic symbiosis’ creates another layer to unpick when sourcing the ‘culprit’. If the skin is part of the profitability and viability of the business, then it’s not an innocent bystander and needs an alternative argument. Ostrich skin economical; values has been described as 80% of the animal’s profitability whereas many/some? farms/abattoirs have to pay to have the skin removed to be transformed into a leather material. Calling it a bi-product would inaccurately identify leather as:

‘an incidental or secondary product made in the manufacture or synthesis of something else’ (Oxford Dictionary, 2015)

Globalisation and fast fashion have further removed us from sites of production and the ability to fully trace element of our products. The ability to trace material can be variable depending on the scope of production, the location and the type of material processed. Typically, those sourcing directly from slaughterhouses have good traceability as opposed to those that buy through traders or produce from semi-processed material. The 'Leather Working Group' considers the physical stamping of the material the most robust method at this time although the consumer has no access to this information so buying products that can evidence locally sourced materials would be beneficial. Further details about traceability and transparency can be found here: 


We source the material for our bags from the UK and also the Netherlands to avoid the damage caused to eco-systems outside our strict European regulations. The tanneries we work with in these areas of responsible production of leather are on the top of our priority list. Traceability is key to us, ensuring sustainable practice an d trying to source our materials close by that we use to handcraft our bags in Nottingham.

Use it, or lose it?

We are not going to stop eating meat anytime soon and the population will only continue to rise for the foreseeable future, so it would be detrimental to the environment to not use material that would otherwise be wasted in favour of using more energy to make an ethical alternative. Ethical alternatives or faux leathers are important to the industry but not as a replacement to leather. These materials work as an addition to a continued reduction of the consumption of meat. Some of these alternatives have no comparison to leather and offer no real alternative and also highlighted in Leather Naturally:

‘Synthetic materials made to look like leather are sometimes incorrectly referred to as ‘synthetic leather'

It’s really important to state here that I believe that I am an ethical designer because of what my values are. Being ethical does not always correlate to being sustainable. My ethics are derived from my research into a wide variety of issues relating to design, leather, longevity. There are certain elements that for me personally are more important than others. This is what creates my personal landscape of perceived ethical behaviour. This may be at odds with someone else who’s ethical landscape may be vegan where any use of animals would be prohibited by their personal beliefs. Being ethical is not a measurable framework of informed choices whereas sustainability is and it’s important not to get the two mixed up. But does the consumer have enough tools to be able to identify positive choices because alternative behaviours are required to deal with the real issue which is not leather but overconsumption and overpopulation of humans and the animals we farm to sustain ourselves. Leather and meat historically have been luxury items, something you would respect and appreciate ritualistically in some cases and treasure because you know its worth. This value has been degraded and also:

‘fast fashion has coincided with a world deluged by cheap, low quality leather’

Lee Mattocks is against the traditional production methods of fast fashion and here we make products that do not need to be mass produced. We make products that can be handcrafted using traditional tools and materials instead of intensive factory processes. We believe this will be important to our customers because:

‘In recent years the consumer market has moved towards requiring an enhanced level of responsibility from brands and retailers for their products’ (BLC, 2017, Online)