Leather, Tanning, ‘Slink’ and Shoe Labels: What You Need to Know

Leather shoes are something I only gave up purchasing a few years ago. I must admit, I used to be one of those people that if I loved a shoe so much, I would just buy it, regardless of what it was made of (oh god, the shame, the shame!). Even back then and being a life-long vego, I still did not have the ability to make the connection and just ignored the fact that I was wearing dead skin on my feet and funding the needless slaughter of more animals. Despite what people say, leather is not simply just a ‘by-product’ of the meat industry. It is a subsidy and a multi squillion dollar entity on its own.


In most cases, the general rule of thumb is the softer the leather, the younger the animal at the time it was killed. Often it isn’t even labelled what type of leather a garment is. Leather can be cow, sheep, calf, lamb, ostrich, kangaroo, alligator, snake, crocodile, seal, lizard, and even dog and cat if it has come from China. To add insult to injury, a disturbing trend at the moment is seeing the skin of an unborn baby calf (its mother is killed while pregnant to obtain the calf whilst still in the womb), which is referred to as ‘slink’. ‘Slink’ is used in products such as leather gloves and other ‘luxury’ items. There is NOTHING luxurious about that. Absolutely rank!


Some of the most toxic, environmentally damaging places on earth are leather tanneries, which are a crucial part of leather production. To prevent the natural breakdown of the skin of an animal which is intended for leather, it must be treated and tanned otherwise your pair of leather shoes would literally rot on your feet or in your wardrobe. It is skin after all!

Leather tanneries are ranked in the top 10 of the most toxic polluting factories in the world. In developing countries, like Bangladesh, the United Nations and various environmental groups have raised red flags over the level of damage these eco-damaging hell-holes are actually causing. In Bangladesh for example, an estimated 50 TONNES of contaminated toxic liquid waste are emitted by tanneries into the Buriganga River every. single. day. The Buriganga River is used as the main water source for Dhaka. How is that not a criminal act? Disposing toxic waste into a natural resource?colours-of-water-bangladesh1

Image: Colour of the water, Bangladesh. Source: United Nations University, Our World.

According to the World Health Organisation, over 90% of people employed by leather tanneries don’t live past the age of 50. In Kentucky, USA, the rate of leukaemia amongst leather tannery workers is five times the national average. At the same time, workers in Italy and Sweden have a rate of cancer between 20-50% greater than what is expected. What does that tell you about the chemicals they’re using, that you are then wearing?

To make matters even worse, there is also a procedure called ‘brain tanning’. I’ll give you one guess what the main ingredient of this method is……No shit, it’s brain. Thankfully it makes up only 10% of tanning, but if that’s not one of the most mangled things you’ve ever heard of, I don’t know what is.colours-of-water-bangladesh-2

Image: Leather tannery, Bangladesh. Source: United Nations University, Our World.

How to read a label and spot a cruelty-free shoe

Always check the bottom or the inside of the shoe for a sticker. Most brands of footwear will put a sticker on the shoe stating what each part of the shoe is made of. When I am out shopping and I see a pair of shoes I like, I am pretty quick to recognise if it contains animals products or not. Even though there is always a level of uncertainty in regards to the glue, thankfully the use of animal-based glues is slowly being phased out in favour of glues made from plants. Plant-based glues are more durable and less prone to cracking.

Alternatively, be a weirdo, and put your snout in them. Smell them (and pray no one has had their dirty, sweaty, mingin’ feet in there beforehand). You can nearly always tell by the smell whether a shoe is leather or synthetic. Further, most of the time, the cheaper the shoe, the more chances it has of being leather-free.

Over time you slowly start to learn brands to steer clear of. Peep Toe, Sophia Webster, Tony Bianco, Alexander Wang, Jimmy Choo, the list goes on and on and on. Most of these brands will very rarely, if ever, feature a shoe that doesn’t have leather in it. More often that not as well, the high-end luxury designers are the most likely to feature leather that is ‘rarer’ and more ‘valuable’ i.e. calf skin.how-to-spot-a-vegan-shoe-material-symbols-guide

Image: The Good Fashionista

Making the Switch

If phasing out leather is something you are considering doing, don’t go all psycho, completely lose the plot and throw out all of your leather shoes. If there are leather products you can give away, great, but it is an expensive process going back to square one so I recommend doing the most important thing first and foremost, which is not purchasing any more leather products. Hang onto the ones you’ve got until it’s time for them to hit the road, and then slowly start introducing vegan-friendly shoes.

Another important point to note is don’t always believe what a salesperson tells you about a shoe. If there is a level of doubt, always go home and research the product, especially if it is a brand you are unfamiliar with. The last thing you want to do is buy a pair of shoes which you believe to be synthetic microsuede (for example) only to find out that it’s actually real skin. Not cool and take them back if that ever happens.

If you are truly eco-conscience and want to give yourself the best chance at ensuring the shoes you’re buying are completely animal cruelty-free AND human cruelty-free, then do your research and try and make sure the shoes you are intending to purchase are made in the US or Europe where there are also much stricter guidelines and labor laws.
Where can I shop?

I will admit, vegan fashion up until about five years ago was not very desirable or fashionable. But now, times are a’changing! Below are some great places to hunt for cruelty-free shoes. Cruelty conscious people no longer need to be unfashionable.
Stella McCartney

It was a given I was going to write this one. My favourite designer. I absolutely love her! Whilst she is very expensive, the good thing about Stella McCartney if you’re after designer goods is that you are guaranteed to get a cruelty-free product whatever the accessory.


Zara stocks leather shoes but they also have a fantastic range of stylish synthetic alternatives all at very reasonable price points.

Ivana Basilotta

A women’s shoe brand entirely dedicated to the best in eco-sustainable contemporary fashion using organic, eco, biodegradable and recyclable fabrics.

Steve Madden

Again, leather shoes are widely stocked at Steve Madden, however every so often synthetic options are available.


Huge range of vegan shoes with international shipping.

Melissa Shoes

All vegan with a mountain of designer collaborations such as Vivienne Westwood, Jean Paul Gaultier and avant-garde architect Zaha Hadid. Bonus – all the shoes smell like bubblegum (even after you’ve worn them for weeks!)

You can read more about the leather industries and different skins here.


  • Yvette Campbell says:

    Hi Anna,

    How do I know if I am wearing slink? That is completely sick, but I’d say that the big designers wouldn’t have it labelled.

    Many thanks,

    • Anna says:

      Hi Yvette,

      Good question! Slink is normally very, very smooth and soft and most designers won’t often label it. Unless gloves are clearly labelled as synthetic or a specific type of leather, then I would be avoiding them altogether. Hope that helps!

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