While shopping for shoes or handbags, you may have seen an increasingly available species of product made from “vegan leather”. As you can imagine, vegan leather, also known as synthetic leather, is not derived from animals, and it can be made from a variety of materials, including cork, waxed or glazed cotton, paper, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane. It has been touted as an ethical and environmentally conscious buying decision. However, assuming that these materials are making the most environmentally-friendly choice may be accurate. As it turns out, while most “eco-friendly” products are “animal friendly”, not all “animal friendly” products are “eco-friendly”. The reason? PVC and polyurethane are the most common materials used for synthetic leather, but are criticized for their carbon-intensive footprint and lack of biodegradability.
Animal activists, vegans and other fans of non-animals products may not realize that synthetic leather may actually be more hazardous to the environment than genuine leather products. PVC and phthalates have met with growing concern among environmentalists. PVCs release chlorine gas and dioxins during the combustion and incineration cycles necessary for production. As a rigid plastic, PVC also requires that plasticizers like phthalates be added to make the material flexible. These materials are heavily dependent upon petroleum and can “leach” out as they break down over time, which has added to their scrutiny. Even those products made from plant-based leather alternatives still require something to adhere the fibers together and therefore often rely upon plastic-based adhesives, the production of which utilizes fossil fuels.
Polyurethane, while arguably a better alternative than PVC from an environmental standpoint, has its own challenges. Polyurethane, as a microfiber-based synthetic, requires a chemical-intensive production process, is not biodegradable, and has a shorter shelf life than genuine leather or PVC products.
The bulk of hides used in leather production is a byproduct of cattle raised for beef production. While the leather tanning process has been criticized for its use of chemicals like formaldehyde and coal-tar derivatives and water pollution, leather may have the edge over PVC and polyurethane due to its sustainability. Leather lasts longer and the leather products that develop wear or patina are still found to be attractive and usable, leading to longer use and recycling. Faux leather does not breakdown like real leather and is subject to “down recycling” meaning that it cannot be made into another item of faux leather.
Recyclable and renewable products aren’t new to the fashion industry. Shoes made from post-consumer plastic water bottles and recycled tires, hemp, cork and natural and recycled rubber are gaining mainstream appeal among even those consumers who do not have an ethical or philosophical objection to wearing real leather.
The edge for synthetic leather may eventually go to those products that aren’t made from PVC, polyurethane or products with environmentally-problematic production effects, such as those made from fruit. A new product in the synthetic leather market, called “Pinatex” is made from waste pineapple leaves. Pineapple fibers apparently have the strength and flexibility needed for the manufacturing process. As a byproduct of agriculture, the pineapple leaves are a categorized as a “total waste product”. By taking a waste product and “upscaling” it into something of value, no additional land, water, pesticides, or fertilizers are necessary in the initial production phase. According to the Pinatex website, “the leaves are the byproduct of existing agriculture, and their use creates an additional income stream for farming communities”. Handbags, shoe, and other accessories using Pinatex have already hit the marketplace.
We previously blogged about the development of lab-grown or cell-cultured meat and how this may impact the agriculture industry. Like the agriculture industry, fashion manufacturers are also turning to the laboratory to develop technology for lab-grown leather. Modern Meadow, a company with headquarters in New Jersey, focuses on “biofabrication”, which is essentially the development and growth of living animal cells in a lab to utilize it in the production of materials to substitute for genuine leather. The key is the growth of collagen proteins that form the basis for their materials. The collagen proteins are then formed into sheet material and then minimally tanned according to an “ethically mindful process”. Modern Meadow intends to bring its biofabricated material to the marketplace in the next few years.
The long-term growth and success of synthetic leathers will ultimately come down to consumer’s preference, the companies’ abilities to scale up their production to dominate the fashion industry, and the environmental and sustainability issues that accompany the materials. However, whether a product is truly “environmentally friendly” remains a complicated and multi-factorial analysis.