Essay thirteen: Alternative materials to leather: environmental impacts and cost
The impact of alternatives to leatherThere are many options available to designers and brands who, for whatever reason, prefer not to work with leather; plastics, including polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and canvas are among the most widely used. As Steven Jesseph, from consultancy firm ICG, discusses here, however, any arguments based on perceived environmental or health advantages on offer from canvas or plastics require serious examination and are unlikely to stand up, at least in comparison with leather.
In writing this essay my singular focus was to examine the benefits and negatives of alternatives to natural leathers, which means products made from oil-based materials or cotton, linen and so on, and the difference in “cost” between the two. It is no secret that creative designers, chemists and manufacturing professionals have been able to replicate various leathers so well that it can be virtually impossible to tell real leather from a fake through visual examination or touching the product. Only by carefully examining the backing can one tell if a faux product is built up of several layers of textile backing, polyurethane, lacquers, varnishes and more.
In many cases, faux leather (PU “leather”) can have some advantages over real leather, and can be less expensive. Faux can be more waterproof, resistant to scratching and wear by rubbing, fading from the sun and more. It can be cut and sewn into virtually any shape and used for all manner of clothing, furniture, automotive, aviation and marine interiors, equestrian, military, footwear, wall and floor coverings, bags and luggage, purses, belts, watch bands and more. The uses seem to be only limited by the creativity of the designer and manufacturer. PU “leather” may cost less, but is it really less expensive in the long run?
Financial cost is only one measure of total cost. It likely does not account for the environmental cost of obtaining the raw materials or component parts of a product. How much damage is done to the environment in extracting natural resources, either renewable or non-renewable? How much pollution is added to the atmosphere (air, water, soil) in the process of extracting, transporting and converting the resources into usable components? If that pollution is harmful to humans, as we’re seeing in China and other developing economies (as they continue to add heavy pollution from burning coal to create power), what is the medical cost and human cost of the pollution? How many people have become ill or died as a result of being poisoned by airborne pollutants, or have respiratory problems that require medical intervention?
If the pollution damages marine environments and kills marine organisms, how do we calculate the cost of lost fish and other organisms which are part of the marine food chain? What happens if that pollution kills whole marine ecosystems as we’ve seen in Jamaica, areas in the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay, Lake Magadi in Kenya and many, many more around the world?
Recently, my laptop crashed. First, the screen died, then the fan went out, then some other electronic gizmo inside failed. In the three-plus weeks it was in the shop waiting for one part and then the next, and the next, a number of other articles appeared which led me to reconsider the focus of this article – articles in the New York Times, Financial Times, Reuters, Footwear News and more about the growing problems of water scarcity, pollution caused by ever-increasing use of fossil fuels, global warming, rising sea levels, and more. We’ve had these warnings for several decades but there is a much greater urgency with the latest reports.
We’re polluting the atmosphere at a rate faster than anticipated, glaciers and the polar ice caps are melting at an increasingly faster rate which is leading to sea levels rising faster than anticipated. The growing use of fossil fuels has pushed the CO2 levels above 400 ppm which, scientists tell us, is having a significant influence on our weather as we see longer droughts and excessive rainfall in other parts of the world as weather patterns shift. The current projection, unless we take dramatic and immediate action, is that we’ll see 500 ppm by 2050, or possibly sooner.
The chart (Panel 1), courtesy of the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows atmospheric carbon dioxide levels over the past 650,000 years. The upward trend started during the Industrial Revolution when large-scale manufacturing began in earnest along with the invention of central heating systems for homes and office buildings, all burning an increasing amount of fossil fuels, most notably coal. Then came the internal combustion engine (gasoline and diesel) for the automobile, trucks and trains.
The addition of 5,000,000,000 people to the planet since 1950 is the prime driver to all of these issues: we simply have more people on the planet every day who want quality of life, and as a result, we’re adding millions of tonnes of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHG) to our atmosphere. The increase in gases drives increased global temperatures, which wreak havoc in weather patterns, cause the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps, in turn increasing global sea levels. The oceans are absorbing about half of the GHGs which are increasing the acidification of the top layers and are beginning to affect the viability of the oceans to support marine life upon which we depend for food.
Note in Panel 2 that the current world population is around 7.2 billion. In 1950, the population was about 2.5 billion. Since then, we’ve added of 4.7 billion people, or almost doubling the population in the past 64 years, and it appears we’ll add two billion people in the next 36 years. Beyond that, we can only extrapolate how large the Earth’s population might become.
According to a November 2013 news release by the US Energy Information Administration (USEIA), the global supply of crude oil, other liquid hydrocarbons, and biofuels is “expected to be adequate to meet the world’s demand for liquid fuels for at least the next 25 years”.
This statement begs the question: What happens to our ability to meet the demand for liquid fuels after 2040?
In a July 2013 report, International Energy Outlook 2013, the USEIA projected: “World energy consumption will grow by 56% between 2010 and 2040. Total world energy use rises from 524 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) in 2010 to 630 quadrillion Btu in 2020 and to 820 quadrillion Btu in 2040. Much of the growth in energy consumption occurs in countries outside the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), where demand is driven by strong, long-term economic growth. Energy use in non-OECD countries increases by 90%; in OECD countries, the increase is 17%.”
For me, the issue isn’t whether faux leather products are better than real leather products. The issue is: which product (real or faux) uses the fewest non-renewable resources in terms of oil and petroleum-based inputs, and which product is the least costly to the environment? Does it really make sense to use oil, when industry experts tell us reserves are depleting at an ever-faster pace, to make a fake product that can be made from “the real thing”? For this author, this is a no-brainer and the answer is no.
Does leather also use non-renewable materials such as fossil fuels and certain minerals? Yes, but we’ve seen remarkable progress in the use of renewable energy at the tannery level with some tanners moving toward full renewable energy. Significant progress has been made in the recovery of chromium for reuse in the process, and an increasing number of tanners are moving toward renewable vegetable dyes and renewable tanning chemicals. In 2007, the Indian Central Leather Research Institute developed a process to basically reverse engineer the tanning process and was able to reduce 83% of chemicals used and eliminate 40% of the energy. Further progress is expected.
In its March 2013 Group Sustainability Report, the Scottish Leather Group highlighted numerous waste and energy reduction programmes, including a goal of zero waste, by replacing fossil fuels with energy from its own waste-powered thermal energy plant. It said: “The thermal energy plant operated in excess of 99% compliance to the IPPC emission standards for approximately 4,000 hours during last year, processing more than 15,000 tonnes of waste.”
In addition, the Scottish Leather Group is purchasing more than 95% of its hides from the British Isles in an effort to reduce the “hide miles” travelled and thus reduce carbon footprint, but also to provide better traceability and assurance that the hides come from farmers that demonstrate compliance with the Five Freedoms principles as promulgated by the Farm Animal Welfare Council.
Large tanning groups in China and Vietnam have also managed to reduce their water usage by up to 50%, are incorporating solar panels to heat water, have installed reed-beds as part of their water treatment processes, are using bioreactors and more.
Is cotton a good alternative to leather or PU? Through various weaving and treatment methods, it can be made to look similar to leather and have good functionality. However, it is not a good alternative in this author’s view. The amount of “organic” cotton available on the world market is negligible leaving us with traditionally grown cotton which requires massive amounts of water for irrigation, pesticides and heavy doses of fertiliser. Decade after decade of fertiliser use has polluted ground water supplies all over the world, and the use of pesticides has had a drastic impact on butterflies and honey bees that fertilise our food crops. It is estimated that in the US alone, 65% of feral bee colonies have been wiped out due to overuse of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides sprayed on virtually every agricultural crop known to man. Unless farmers make a drastic switch away from the use of these chemicals, we may very well face the extinction of wild honey bees in the next decade or two.
The Center for Environmental Health carried out a comparison between leather and PVCi focusing on women’s handbags purchased from 100 retail stores. The study found that many of the bags harboured high levels of lead, a known toxin linked to cancer, infertility, Alzheimer’s, and a host of other health problems. The levels of lead in some PVC bags were 100 times higher than the safe level of lead set for children’s toys (though many scientists suspect there is no safe level of lead). In addition to lead, some of PVCs disturbing ingredients include: chlorine, petroleum, phthalates, and the carcinogen DEHP.
The production process puts harmful chemicals like these, along with dioxin (linked with immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine system damage), and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). VOCs are associated with headaches, fatigue, nose-and-throat discomfort among other ailments; some are suspected to cause cancer.
Responding to this Center for Environmental Health study, social network Care2 commented: “Since PVC is a number-three plastic, it’s usually not recyclable. Either it sits in landfills, or people try to recycle it, which ends up ruining the recycling of other plastics. Either way, PVC is a waste nightmare.”ii
In 2014, World Leather launched this important new series of essays under the title Nothing to Hide. It is a series that will make the entire industry sit up and take notice. It has already run for two years and the material will now be released free of charge, under an open-source agreement for journals, universities and companies all over the world to use. We believe it will become required reading for everyone involved in making or buying leather. This is a world in which “nothing can be hidden so organisations that want to prosper have to make sure they have nothing to hide”. The phrase comes from Greg Page, the executive chairman of Cargill, in a speech about his company’s main area of business: producing and marketing food. It can just as easily apply to the leather industry today.
Incorrect and obsolete information about the leather industry continues to be published or broadcast on television and radio, in newspapers and magazines, even in reports from respected organisations including the World Bankiii and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)iv. Campaign groups, often with anti-leather agendas, have used this material to further damage perceptions of the leather industry. The Nothing to Hide collection is designed to combat this head-on by sharing accurate, up-to-date information and explanations of how and why tanners and their upstream suppliers work the way they do. The best in the industry have nothing to hide; they have much to be proud of, as this exciting series proves.
Started in 2009, the Global Tannery of the Year programme and World Leather magazine have also highlighted the excellent work tanners around the world are carrying out in terms of corporate social responsibility and sound environmental practices. Tanneries from Europe, the Americas, Asia (excluding China), China and Africa are identified. As a member of this programme’s panel of judges, this author can attest that all entrants to the contest have demonstrated a massive commitment to the reduction in the use of chemicals, reduction in the use of water, and reduction in the use of energy.
In my 40 years in business, and in my travels to 65 countries visiting hundreds of factories across industry categories from military hardware to paper products, food and footwear, coffee and clothing, I have never seen any group of companies, nor any industry as a whole, devote so much time, money and energy to reducing its carbon footprint and becoming responsible environmental citizens. Does the industry deserve a “gold star” for its present behaviour? Certain companies certainly do as they are stellar examples of “how to do it right”. However, there is still much progress to be made. The industry does deserve massive credit for the work it’s already done, and for being a leading example for all industries. For this author, there really is no debate. For the sake of the planet, and for all living on it, leather purchased from responsible manufacturers is the clear choice.