PINEAPPLES & CO. : NEW SUSTAINABLE LEATHERS?
Imagine: you are strolling down the street. Saturday afternoon. You're on the main commercial street of the city you live in. The air is fresh and crispy, people are happy and birds are chirping. You are lost in your thoughts when BAAAAAAAM! While you're looking for "Cafe de la Oh la la" (OK... we are supposing it's a French one) where your Tinder date is waiting for you, you see it. Right there. On the window of the Borsache store (disclaimer: any resemblance to actual brands, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental). A beautiful navy blue crossbody bag, with light gold trimmings. Exactly what you've always been wanting.
And all of a sudden you have an epiphany and you get shivers up your spine: this bag is actually made out what previously was a living being, it's basically a corpse with handles, a cadaver with pockets, a carcass with lining ... and you can't stop bawling your eyes out thinking about the poor Gwenevier, the cow that died to become a handbag.
(Real footage of alive Gwenevier below, she's not dead, I just mentioned her for narrative purposes).
But please rejoice! Things have changed and now, to have your ideal handbag, shoes or wallet, you don't have to kill any other living being as, my friends, there are almost a billion (OK ... maybe less) options of VEGAN LEATHER. Yay! (says Gwenevier).
Before we start though, the question is: is vegan leather faux leather? Short answer: yes. Long answer: see below.
First of all, it's important to understand that "traditional" leather is not sustainable not only because it's made of animal skins but also because the procedures it has to go through to be worn can be very hard on the environment.
Leather has to go through a series of procedures not to rot and be colored and agents like chromium, salts, formaldehyde, and dyes are normally used to fulfill the tanning process. From wastewater to airborne solvents, the process releases a huge amount of non environmental friendly (not healthy) residue.
Unfortunately this way of tanning (called chrome tanning) is used for 80%-90% of the world leather usage since it's quicker and cheaper. Quicker and cheaper than a more "traditional way" of tanning called vegetable tanning that dates back to 6000 BC. Vegetable tanning uses elements found in trees and plants to give the hides the resistance to rotting, their durability and flexibility. The leather coming out of this procedure is totally biodegradable.
On the other hand, vegan leather is any material that can look like the traditional one, without using any animal products at all. Yes, that's it! A bit like @impossible_foods hamburgers (now I'm hungry...).
In general, they are clean, water-resistant, soft and pliable materials even if, unlike animal leathers, don't breathe and might be not as durable and resistant. Vegan leather also doesn't age or acquire a patina the way some traditional leather does.
Faux leather was invented at the U.S. rubber plant in Naugatuck, Connecticut in 1920, and given the name Naugahyde. That's how the first faux leather handbags were made. From that moment on, there have been a lot of micro revolutions in the vegan leather world and for sure we have nowadays many different types that, sometimes, sound even a bit weird (like WINE leather?? Hello??!! Happy Hours here we come!)
Polyurethane, Pleather, PU (call them as you please) are made with polyurethane coating applied to a base material such as polyester, nylon, or cotton. They are then treated to look like the grain of animal leather, generally with a textured roller pressed on the laminated side of the leather. As you can imagine, this material is SO not sustainable as made out of non-renewable fossil fuels and therefore non biodegradable. PVC (AKA Polyvinyl Chloride Leather) is PU's cousin as the resulting material is very similar to the latter. It is non recyclable, made of non-renewable fossil fuels too and when it breaks down it releases phthalates (if you can pronounce this, kudos, if you can't, watch this) into the environment while doing so. In sum, they both "ducking" suck.
Apart from above, many types of plastics and rubbers can be recycled and reused to make "new" vegan leather. This is less material consuming than producing PU or other devil products from scratch but during the process of recycling huge amounts of energy are used and chemicals are anyways released in waters and atmosphere. Recycling is not as good as it sounds unfortunately...
Apple leather is what you get out of food waste produced by juice and cider operations, which per se, is pretty awesome. Pulp from the apple residue is treated, rolled out into strips, and heated resulting in a flexible, hardy material that is 100% biodegradable. It requires only 1 liter of water during production, which is a fraction of the water required to produce bovine leather. This said, not all apple leather are made out of 100% apples only and the vast majority still needs to incorporate polyurethane.
Pineapple leather, unlike pizzas, is possibly acclaimed by everyone. No debate here. Pineapple leaves are normally discarded after pineapple harvesting and these are used to produce leather. Magic! Even if, as for apples leather, some pineapples lather required the addition of polyuretane, companies like Piñatex require no additional raw environmental resources to produce. Bravo!
There is also MuSkin, which is made from a fungus called Phellinus ellipsoideus. It's processed and treated with natural substances like eco-friendly wax and can also be used as thermal insulator that absorbs damp and releases it immediately, thus limiting bacterial proliferation. You'll never see funguses, fungi, fungae...well, that thing, ever again with the same eyes.
The list of vegan leathers is pretty much endless: banana, coffee, grape, red pepper or even coconut water, wood, cork or stone...and even WINE! Did we mention that already?
The Pulse of ths Fashion Industry report made by GFA in 2017 reporting that synthetic leather is positioned well below traditional animal leather in a list of fabrics ranked by environmental impact per KG. Faux leather is reported to have 1/3 only of the impacts of traditional leather based on below categories analyzed:
- Chemistry (eco-toxicity and human toxicity) - Abiotic resource depletion (physical resources used basically) - Global warming (emission of greenhouse gases) - Water scarcity provoked - Eutrophication (thanks Wikipedia for the definition)
Another report , found out that the annual emissions produced by cow leather manufacturing are equal to the yearly impact on the environment of 30 million cars, to add more "reasons" to ditch animal leather for good (also, think about Gwenevier)
The question is, though, is faux leather totally sustainable and guilty free? Unfortunately the answer is no. The impact on the environment depends of course a lot on the nature of the product used (as we saw before there are many types and origins) , the worse being as you can imagine PU/PVC. But also other leathers are not fully sustainable and above all, completely accessible on a mass scale. The moment they're produced massively and the first material (apples, coffee, etc..) is cropped intensively, it would create unfortunately a breech in the system with issues similar to the agricultural now has with wheat, soy, etc...
There are therefore theories backing the fact that it is more ‘sustainable’ to purchase one leather item that will last a lifetime, instead of multiple faux-leather items that eventually break and need replacing. The arguments for both sides remain open especially since there is unfortunately a big lack of data and miscommunication on the subject.
The only sustainable option remain and will always be NOT to buy but to swap and reuse. Sustainable, free of charge and with an unlimited ocean of options. I mean, do you need more reasons to join the movement? Gwenevier and I don't think so.