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Green Is The New Black

The Great Leather Debate: Is Upcycled Leather Really Ethical?

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Woman holding upcycled leather shoe

Leather is both an ethical and environmental conundrum, often shrouded with misconception. So we caught up with Desi Hangover, who make conscious fashion for your feet from leather. And according to them, the upcycled leather industry is conscious, sustainable and embraces an ethical ecosystem. 

It’s the debate that’s been running for decades; can leather be ethical and eco-friendly? Vegans will tell you no. At the same time, vegans (and the rest of us) are committed to reusing and recycling, meaning there’s an argument to be had for upcycled leather. Upcycled often means the leather comes from older animals who die naturally or from skins discarded by the meat industry. Other times, it’s vintage or repurposed for extended use rather than being sent to a landfill. 

In principle, using leather alternatives appear to be the obvious solution. But pleather or faux leather has a dark side too. It can be far from ethical, especially where the environment is concerned; it’s made from pollutants like polyurethane (PU), a fossil fuel, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), vinyl or plastic. So for many of us, it comes down to it being the lesser of two evils – but of course, things are never really that simple. 

Desi Hangover makes a compelling argument for upcycled leather. Crafting unique shoes, they are upfront with the truth and fully transparent about their processes, every step of the way. So what’s their story? Coming from one of the most industrious corners of India, a village of traditional artisan cobblers (known as Kolhapur) lost their livelihood to the mass production revolution. Desi Hangover breathed life back into the village, and teach us that conscious fashion doesn’t mean organic hemp fabrics for life. Sometimes, that means leather, too.

We recently caught up with the team at Desi Hangover to chat all things upcycled leather, here’s the skinny.

What does upcycled leather even mean?

For years we have heard about leather being procured by killing animals — something that we believe is unfair and cruel. While we were looking for economically and geographically viable materials for our shoes, we came across tanneries in a small village in India. These tanneries source leather from meat sellers and sell it to people like us who make useful products from them. If not sold, this leather ends up in landfills and stays there for several years polluting the land and in turn, the environment. 

The term “upcycle” put simply, is giving a less useful or useless material some purpose or adding value to it, by creating a product of higher value. By using discarded/waste leather, to handcraft shoes, we add value to it and increase the life of the material. 

When people see your shoes, they don’t know the backstory — they just see leather, which people argue conditions society to believe they still need leather. As a conscious brand, why did you choose to use leather at all? Why not an alternative?

Well, the communities that we work with have been upcycling leather (from nearby meat industries and animals who die naturally) for over eight centuries. As we started our journey, we did not want to disturb the ecosystem. Having said that, as a conscious brand following conscious consumerism, we have been putting every effort into educating our audience about the process and being transparent. 

While we are eager for alternatives and looking forward to RnD and development of plant-based materials with similar tensile strength and longevity as leather, we also need to ensure that our artisan communities are not devoid of the trade. But the materials are a work in progress and will take a few years to be viable.

The current alternatives are petroleum-based faux leathers which, well, are fairly harmful to the environment. Whereas our leather upcycling is done in local tanneries using turmeric and bark, which makes it comparably environmentally friendly.

 

Labelling any kind of leather as ethical is a hugely controversial subject. Being that the leather still comes from animals, in general, what makes upcycled leather conscious?

Unlike exotic leathers like calf leather, snake leather, crocodile leather and others, upcycled leather is made from older animals who die naturally or from the skins generally discarded by the meat industry (as a by-product) as they are wrinkled and belong to older animals. Now the leather is treated with earth-friendly antiseptics like turmeric and bark of sal trees, making it environmentally conscious.

If you were trying to convince a strict vegan, what are your arguments for claiming that upcycled leather is ‘ethical’?

Well, the skins are upcycled from the by-product of another industry. And from animals who are not raised and killed specifically for use. Unlike in industries where calf leathers, fur, silk, and exotic animals like crocodiles are cultivated and raised specifically for the industry.

We understand that a strict vegan will still not want to buy it because of their firm belief system and they should be given a choice to evaluate it and not necessarily be convinced of the concept.

Is upcycled leather better for the planet than vegan leather? What’s the environmental impact of producing upcycled leather?

Currently, vegan or faux leather comes from petrochemical industries and is harmful to the environment. Upcycling as mentioned above is taking the by-product of another industry, that is anyway produced and treating it to be made into a usable and lasting product (with leathers lasting decades if not centuries, thus reducing the need to replace them as often). We’re helping to use something that would have otherwise decayed and become an environmental hazard.

How are the materials sourced to make Desi Hangover shoes?

Apart from the leather, we use an array of natural ingredients for tanning and colouring. We use turmeric and the bark of the sal tree to create a mixture that refines the natural colour of the leather organically.

Where are the shoes made and who is making them?

A man's hands holding a pair of shoes

Our shoes are handcrafted in the homes of our artisans, who reside in a small village in the Kolhapur district in India. These craftsmen have a legacy in shoemaking but market demands and vicious circles of middlemen often left them at the brunt of either being not paid enough or sometimes not being paid at all. Our Desis are a modern rendition to the traditional Kolhapuri jutti — we borrow from the craft and make it contemporary — all by the help of our skilled craftsmen. We have about 70 artisan families, with a 50-50 male/female ratio.

Your shoes are beautiful and unique. Tell us the story behind the design and craftsmanship of the shoes?

When we first met our artisans, we saw them as exceptionally skilled craftsmen lost in the global market. But there was no fair remuneration for their art in the world market. It took us a few conversations to understand that their legacy in shoemaking was greater than we could ever imagine. Their forefathers invested effort, time and precision to create shoes that would eventually become world famous – ‘THE KOLHAPURI CHAPPALS.’ We thought of giving the design a contemporary touch which gave birth to our first ever Desi – THE HOLA. For us, ‘Hola’ was a way to say hello to the world and let them know that we’re here with these desi shoes that have a story to tell. 

In the long run, we want our story to be passed on as a tale of tradition, craftsmanship and gratitude. Most of our other designs derive their names from the royalty tier, considering that ancestors of our artisans were shoemakers for Indian Kings. Our weave draws inspiration from the 800-year-old Khavni weave that is our homage to the legacy of shoemakers in Kolhapur and elsewhere.

What led you to found the brand initially?

Founded in 2013, DesiHangover is a handcrafted, upcycled leather shoe brand that goes beyond just that. It hopes to create opportunities for a community of cobblers, and in time, become synonymous with “Conscious Fashion For The Feet”.

The idea was born during our AIESEC internship days in Egypt — where our traditional Indian Kolhapuri Chappals garnered appreciation from 25 nationalities. There! An idea! Handcrafted shoes from India for the world to wear!

Back home, we realised we had unearthed something bigger. A story that began with procuring shoes, and touched upon several topics from rehabilitating communities to reviving folk-art, to creating employment and empowering a sustainable future through education. Suddenly, the idea of selling shoes was overshadowed by the ambition of empowering an entire community of Indian artisans.

Today, DesiHangover creates global market access for over 70 artisan cobblers (50% of whom are women). And all are treated equally, be it pay scales or opportunities. We also adopted the village school, which tutors over 100 children.

As a brand, what are you doing that extends beyond producing shoes?

On our initial visits to the artisan village, we happened to go to the local school, where most of our artisans’ children used to study. We realised the school was in the backyards of a temple, and the kids used to sit on the cold floor to study. They were young and full of hopes and dreams. It didn’t take us long to decide that we wanted to build a school for them, and so we did. The school today teaches over 100 children, has qualified teachers, well-ventilated classrooms and more importantly, the laughter of hopeful young minds. We believe anything we do or earn would have no meaning if we aren’t able to give back to our society — and for us, the society begins with these young minds who are going to run the world when they grow up. 

Learn more from Desi Hangover via their website here or connect with them on social media here. 

This article is produced in collaboration with Desi Hangover

 

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Olivia is a bon vivant with an insatiable appetite for...everything. Upon being horrified at the amount of rubbish she produced in a single day, her journey towards finding a better balance between being extravagant yet sustainable began. Like most obsessions, down the rabbit hole she went and it wasn’t long before she decided to shift her sustainable preachings from Friday nights after too much wine to every day at Green Is The New Black. Olivia is still trying to figure all this ‘the end of the world’ stuff out, so she is keepin’ it real, one super small #LittleGreenStep at a time. Be like Olivia.

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