Can Leather Be Better?
Updated: Aug 3, 2020
The options for sustainably and ethically produced clothing and accessories, from jeans to sneakers and everything in between, has rapidly increased in recent years. The fashion industry is known for setting trends, and now it’s working on the most important one yet: sustainability. This trend is one that everyone can get behind; it will help the environment in its greatest time of need AND ensure that people who produce clothes work in good conditions with liveable wages.
But is this all just a trend, or a change in preferences that’s here to stay?
On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza tragedy killed over 1,100 garment workers in Bangladesh and wounded over 2,200 more. This incident sparked a mass awakening for consumers all over the world, wondering who makes the clothes we wear and in what conditions.
It led to the creation of Fashion Revolution, a movement and collective of people from all over the world who are involved in the fashion industry; both those who purchase clothes and those who make them. Their vision is to remodel the global fashion industry into one that conserves and restores the environment, valuing people over growth and profit. Beyond this, there are countless sustainable fashion bloggers and activists that are demonstrating how easy it is to find trendy clothes from thrift shops, or pointing their followers in the direction of the sustainable brands they love.
As consumers have become increasingly aware of what they purchase and whether it aligns with their values, they are leaning towards clothing brands that are dedicated to ethical and sustainable practices. Research demonstrates that 88% of consumers want brands to help them be more environmentally friendly.
However, the fashion industry is still known for wasteful practices that are damaging the environment. The facts don’t lie… in total, fashion production releases 10% of the world’s carbon emissions. That’s more than international flights and maritime shipping COMBINED. And it gets worse. The fashion industry is responsible for 20% of all water pollution worldwide. Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water globally and it takes around 2,000 gallons of water to make a typical pair of jeans. Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned.
At this rate, if the fashion industry makes no changes, it will produce a whopping 26% of the world’s carbon footprint by 2050. Clearly, something more must be done.
It’s an overwhelming and depressing topic to put it lightly. Let’s break things down and take a closer look at one piece of the puzzle… leather.
As one of the world’s most traded products, leather is part of a booming US $80 billion industry. Ethics aside for a moment... The production of leather can be particularly wasteful, as the minimum amount for sampling a product is 300 square feet, which sometimes produces far more leather than is actually used. Some brands will sample many fabrics, casting a wide net, then only buy a small stock of that fabric, meaning that the rest is disposed of.
The carbon footprint of leather is difficult to determine, because each brand has a different way of producing it, but the part of the process that produces the most emissions is raising the livestock that is used to create it. A 2009 study estimated that CO2 emissions from a square metre of average thickness leather would be 151.9 kg CO2e (the ‘e’ stands for ‘equivalent’ and means that this calculation takes into consideration other greenhouse gases such as methane, and converts them into the equivalent amount of CO2). That can be compared to a return flight from London to Paris (200 kg CO2e).
So what can we do as consumers (aside from buying less)? Capture spoke to Dana Cohen, the founder of Hyer Goods, a brand that offers wallets, bags, and accessories made of leather sourced from factory scraps. Cool, right? By upcycling “trash”, they have eliminated the massive energy footprint needed to cultivate land, livestock, crops, and fertilizers while also reducing the amount of waste being disposed of landfills. It’s a win-win situation; less energy is being consumed and less waste being left behind polluting the earth.
She cleverly calls it ‘better leather’. Dana has always had an interest in sustainable fashion, having developed a business plan for a sustainable clothing line while she was at Parsons from 2005-2007, with a friend of hers - the idea being to use only leftover materials, buttons, and trims. Launched in November 2019, Hyer Goods is the fruit of her labor, and the business she has been dreaming about since she drafted that sustainable business plan. This is a one woman team; she is in charge of the entire enterprise, from social media to marketing, inventory, design, website creation, and more recently, modeling, given that the COVID-19 outbreak has forced people to self-isolate.
But what about non-animal leather alternatives for our vegan and animal-conscious friends? Unfortunately, vegan leather isn’t perfect, sometimes having just as many environmental downsides as the production of leather itself. This is because the most commonly used materials for synthetic leathers are polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU), which are plastic based materials.
Although the avoidance of animal skins is an extremely important benefit for animal activists, the manufacture of synthetic leather can be harmful to the environment and humans due to the toxins in the plastics used to make them. The synthetics used in vegan leathers also rarely fully biodegrade, although they can be broken down to a degree, they can also release toxic particles and phthalates, which can affect the health of animals and the environment. It’s a complicated issue, and The Good Trade has a great feature article going into further detail on the topic.
So back to our eco-warrior Dana… how exactly do you get started with creating positive change in a large and established industry?
Having worked in the corporate fashion industry her entire career, Dana had no shortage of experience with brands being careless with wasteful behavior. She had difficulty finding people that had the same environmental vision as she did. Throughout this time, she did in fact lead some initiatives where she was able to bring in more sustainably made products, but creating REAL change within was challenging. The opportunity came around when a factory that she had worked with to design leather jackets reached out to her about developing an idea to eliminate waste. They brainstormed and decided to use remaining leather scraps to make accessories! Once Dana saw the samples, based on her designs, she knew she had to pursue this, thinking to herself, “That’s it - I’m doing this.”
She explains that the inefficient process of producing leather is mainly because of the shape of the skins and the fact that everything is natural, with deformities and defects that have to be cut around, resulting in a lot of wastage. However, the value in this is that these scraps can be used to make the best out of this situation. It’s simple; the factory will send her an inventory of scraps they have after an order, divide it into small, medium, and large pieces, and then tell her how much they have of each. Voila, she’s got the materials to design limited-edition upcycled products!
At first, she considered creating a line of biodegradable activewear, but put that on hold because she felt uncomfortable bringing more products into the world, especially with the high minimums required for it. She didn’t love the idea of inventory, and bringing a ton of products into the world. Ultimately, her idea with Hyer Goods has always been to reduce the amount of waste into the planet, instead of creating more.
On her own relationship with sustainability, she says it succinctly: “Being sustainable is about being better.” Better at what, exactly? She has made it a mission in her life to get rid of excess waste, and she lists examples like “bringing tote bags to the grocery store, composting, redirecting food waste to new meals and recipes, and using reusable products as much as possible.” Her life is all about minimizing waste wherever possible, and bit by bit, she is transitioning to a far less wasteful lifestyle, switching hand and dish-washing soap to Blue Land, natural and non-toxic cleaning products that live in 100% reusable bottles.
Hyer Goods ships globally, having delivered many orders to Australia and France. She’s even had a customer send her a picture of Hyer Goods merchandise from Beirut, which she posted on her Instagram. She has hope for the future of Hyer Goods, and the desire to develop more lines of products using leather scraps, saying “The sky’s the limit, I’m going to dream big till I can’t dream big anymore!”
Other brands producing waste-to-leather products include Pinatex, which turns unwanted pineapple leaves into a dark, leather like fabric. It’s not fully biodegradable, but is 85–90% biodegradable and turns an otherwise wasted byproduct of the agriculture industry into a fabric nonetheless (it’s coated with a petroleum-based resin, and the company says it is working on finding a bio-based coating). Another alternative is sneaker brand Veja, which has built a reputation on sustainability. For its new Campo shoe, the brand used a cotton canvas waxed with a corn waste-based lacquer that looks and feels almost identical to leather. We also stumbled across vegan leather brand Desserto. Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez have developed a method of transforming cacti into a vegan leather! It is made from cacti grown on their plantation in the Mexican state of the Zacatecas. The cactus is known for its rugged, thick skin, which makes it the perfect texture to simulate animal leather.
Another interesting innovation that our readers may be interested in comes from company Modern Meadow, which creates lab-grown leather. Unlike other vegan leather facsimiles, Modern Meadow’s lab-grown leather has collagen, the protein that makes skin skin, so it looks, feels, and wears much closer to real leather. The company is still in research and development, but they’re working with some global brands to hopefully one day bring the product to market.
Our advice when it comes to leather is to shop vintage/second hand leather (which are viable options), invest in products made of upcycled leather like Hyer Goods, choose transparent brands that use byproduct hides. It is important that this leather is also veg-tanned to avoid the toxic environmental pollution associated leather production.
We hope that this information has been helpful to you in your quest for more sustainable products! Capture is first and foremost a carbon emissions tracking app that enables users to track, reduce, & remove their emissions through offsetting projects based in reforestation and green energy. Nevertheless, we hope to be a tool for our users to better understand how to reduce their impact, no matter what aspect of sustainability it addresses; from zero-waste to sustainable fashion and plant-based diets!
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