Pineapple and Petri Dish Leather, Alternatives to the Toxic

Hail to heifer. We use cow products for many facets of our lives, but is it time we reimagined our relationship?

I own a little leather satchel that I wear every…single…day. It’s a belt equipped with a small pocket and it contains all my essentials (cell phone, ID, chapstick, keys, etc.). Originally purchased as a means to stop losing my s***, it turns out that it really works! I am lucky to have been able to purchase this beautiful belt from an Oregon based leather maker who supplies his leather from a “good source.” I treasure it because it’s handmade with beautifully intricate detail, sturdy, and possesses a symbolic beauty to me — one representing an ancient tie back to the land. It’s truly a work of art. Shamefully, I cannot say the same for the rest of my leather goods, many of which were purchased or gifted on a whim. In my closet they sit dying, torn due to chintzy machine “craftsmanship,” and outdated. You might have seen my article on making environmental confessions. Here I present another confession to share with you — another dirty little secret — I own lots of leather. My aim is to confess this to you for good — to take baby steps that repair a relationship with Mother Earth. By sharing with you new ways to reanalyze your relationship, we can explore new technological innovations and possibilities.

Most of us wear leather on a daily basis, but do we really understand the implications of our decision?

You crave cows. You might not realize it, but you do. From the milk you purchase to the leather you wear, you embrace this monumental beast for all it bestows on a daily basis. But have you ever stopped to realize the impact your decision has on your body, the people who produced the good, and lest we forget, the cow who sacrificed the hide? Leather is, after all, a millennia old tool, but we utilize cruel and archaic means to procure it. What long-term environmental implication does this leave us? Fortunately, we can still have our leather and wear it too due to that latest innovations in this space.

We utilize leather beyond our bodies, taking shape and form through our accessories, our furniture, interiors, and [nice] cars. Just as we have made food cheaper and more affordable through industrial agricultural, we have done the same with leather production. Leather is sliced and diced on an assembly line, dipped in chemical vats, dyed, and cut by workers. This systematic process has made leather more affordable than it once and feeds our global demand. US demand alone is expected to reach 247 billion by 2019. This is all despite the fact that we are oftentimes jipped by our leather purchases. More often than not, the leather we buy is no longer leather. It is so overly processed that it becomes no longer recognizable as leather. Leather composite is another way they fool you in the form of cheap trickery. I’m sure you’ve seen bonded leather sofas that eventually peel and shed particles of animal hide mixed with polyurethane plastic all over your home. Why do we bother on resource intensive materials that point to so much destruction — destruction of the material itself, harm to the worker, disease to the animal (and in turn us), and devastation to the environment? And how might we address this issue moving forward?

Leather accounts for resource intensive, virulent production that takes its toll on the environment and the communities it involves.

Toxic chemical gases are released in the production of leather goods; including chromium and aluminum salts which end up in landfills and pollute water sources. Common tannery chemicals such as arsenic, formaldehyde, and sulfuric acid pose serious health threats to leather workers. This is especially common in India off the Ganges where high levels of arsenic laden effluent poison the population. In many countries, common salt used in tanning, sodium chloride (NaCl), makes its way to rivers, lakes and ground water, rendering it unsuitable for drinking and washing. Workers suffer from painful eye and skin diseases. There is a lack of environmentally acceptable practices for disposal and cost-effective solutions for solid waste disposal. Tanning also utilizes high levels of water consumption. More often than not the majority of waste hides get thrown away! Only 50% of hides become acceptable leather pieces. How wasteful!

This one might strike you as odd — but if the cow is considered a sacred animal in India, why has the country become one of the largest global exporters of leather?
The caustic chemicals used in leather production seriously threaten factory workers around the world.

One might argue that leather goods are a rightfully consumed byproduct of our meat consumption. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, farmers gain more profit from the production of leather than they do from meat. And the finer, more supple leathers do not come from the meat industry at all. Needless to say, all leather production is a product of inhumane treatment, not just to the cows, but to people. It doesn’t stop at the cow either, leather demand is up for ostrich, snake, and alligator. The practices are cruel here too. I will spare your from the details, but note that reptiles experience pain in a different manner than mammals do. Their “discomfort” is still in effect after dismemberment. I leave the rest up to your imagination. I can (and most likely will) comment on my viewpoint on sentience at some point in time, but for now I will leave it at this — our demand for leather, amongst most animal products, is outdated and archaic.

Luxury goods made from leather are often not a product of the meat industry, but instead sourced directly from young calves.

If we must continue to use leather, there are processes for better recycling and manufacturing practices through cleaner technologies. Luckily, novel techniques are addressing adverse environmental hazards cause by leather production.

Reducing Water Usage:

As more tanneries are being constructed within pipeline distance to the ocean, the prospective to use desalinated water seems promising. Tanning requires immense amounts of freshwater. As a result, large amounts of wastewater need to be managed. One option is to utilize reed beds around tanneries to filter wastewater before it enters municipal sewage or potable water systems. Think of this as a manmade marshland. The root systems of marsh plants create a biofiltration layer that aids to rid wastewater of harmful petrochemicals.

Factories can integrate marsh species as a means of cleaning wastewater from harmful petrochemicals.

Reduction of Chromium Uptake

1–3% of the population is allergic to the main tannery ingredient — toxic chromium.

The amount of chromium present in leather depends on the environmental conditions in which it is stored, higher humidity causes higher concentration levels (Mathiason, F, Lidén, C, & Hedberg, Y 2015). There are new methods to stabilize leather using nanocomposite assisted chrome tanning. This method enhances chrome uptake and reduces the amount of chromium in wastewater concentration (Liu, M, Ma, J, Lyu, B, Gao, D, & Zhang, J 2016). Furthermore, by reusing wastes, anaerobic degradation processes can reduce biogas and methane release from factories. Basically, tanneries can opt into using readily degradable materials with their leather substrates. (Priebe, G, Kipper, E, Gusmão, A, Marcilio, N, & Gutterres, M 2016).

Dehairing with Fish Waste

Dehairing is an important part of the leather tanning process, but is also one of the most toxic, producing large amounts of organic hazardous waste. (Saranya, R, Prasanna, R, Jayapriya, J, Aravindhan, R, & Tamil Selvi, A 2016). Dehairing skins is typically done using lime-sulphide. Remarkably, fish waste can completely remove hair from the skin matrix in place of a chemical. This creates a much more eco-friendly solution by creating a significantly lower pollution load.

Novel fabrication techniques and biotechnology can answer our never ending consumption needs.

Animal Cell Culture — Growing Leather

You might have heard of Lab Grown Meat, but what about lab grown leather? The biofabrication of animal skin is here. By growing collagen from living cells, companies like Modern Meadow can grow leather without harming any animals. Imagine being able to produce leather in exact dimensions, textures, and colors. This will be an amazing feat for animals, for people, for the environment, and for fashion. Imagine if you could customize your leather to have the suppleness of calf skin, the color of snakeskin, and the quills of ostrich leather. Leather material techniques will be confined only by our imagination.

Companies like Modern Meadow are pioneering lab grown leather (Photo courtesy of modernmeadow.com).

Pineapple Leather — A Byproduct of Pineapple “Meat”

More often than not, pleather goods are no better than leather goods with regards to their durability and toxic derivation. Remarkably mimicking leather like texture, Pineapple Leather Piñatex™ comes from pineapple leaf fibers. The leather stems as a byproduct of pineapple production. It is breathable, durable, and pretty too. Plant based industries like this are creating new opportunities for sustainable methods of agriculture that work in tandem with the land. Pinatex™ claims to use chemicals that are not harmful to the environment, and the company pledges to eventually make all their products biodegradable.

Synthetic bioderived leathers are definitely a step in the right direction. It almost seems like a nobrainer. These materials are both sustainable and fashionable.

Pineapple leather by Piñatex™ looks like the real thing.

There is one last option to consider— to purchase engineered, or synthetic materials currently on the market.

Some might argue that the manufacture of synthetic fabrics can also be environmentally damaging. That is true for many petroleum derived products. But it just takes smart, conscious consumerism to really weigh in on the impact of your purchase. For example, if you travel with a Patagonia jacket that can be worn in many different climates, folded into your backpack, and last a decade, perhaps the decision is more conscious than leather jacket not seasoned for all conditions.

Analyze your garment before purchasing:

  • Take a deeper dive into the company from whom you are purchasing; do they value their workers, use safe materials, compliance etc.?
  • Inspect the material? Is it sturdy, or cheap?
  • Forget about cost for a second— ask yourself is the cost of this item due to branding only, or is it truly utilitarian and constructed from durable materials ?
  • Will this garment last the test of time with regards to its style, strength, and durability?

We so often purchase on impulse and the SALE signs that permeate our consumer mindset. Truly think about your purchase; about where it comes from, who makes it, how and why it is made, and will it last. This will have a lasting impact on your wallet, on your closet space, and on the environment.

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