With the animal cruelty issue aside, as a vegan brand we are continually asked the same question: vegan shoes are great, but which is worse for the planet – faux or real leather?
There is a huge amount of contradictory discussion on whether faux leather is or isn’t more eco-friendly than its real leather counterpart,so as a result it has become hard to discern the more detrimental. So let’s explore the pros and cons of both materials…
PU regularly comes under fire for its raw material being derived from a petrochemical (fossil fuel) and therefore not being environmentally sound, yet the main and rapidly growing arguments against animal hide is the dubious environmental and ethical standards along with their huge resource consumption.
Of course, every manufactured product inevitably has an environmental cost, and there is a myriad of aspects to every stage of both leather and faux leather production that can cause serious harm to both people and the environment. After looking at the evidence, the better choice will become clear.
Nowadays most synthetic footwear is produced with PU (polyurethane), which is made by bonding a plastic coating to a cotton backing. Although PU is derived from a petrochemical, many people confuse it with PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride), but it has some important differences.
PVC, which was very popular in footwear in the 60’s and 70’s, created the persistent myth of plastic shoes being non-breathable, which gave it the reputation of causing a sweaty foot. PVC also uses toxic substance chlorine in its manufacturing process and releases a great deal of harmful dioxins, as can be seen in the image below. However, PVC production decreases year on year, and the EU demand for PVC in 2013 was below 5 Mtonnes, which is around 10% of the total plastics demand.
Today’s PU is a far superior synthetic alternative as over the past decade a lot of innovation, research and development has gone in to producing it. It is durable, completely breathable and, more importantly, much safer and less toxic to produce than PVC. Manufacturers in the EU are required to have vent controls to keep emissions/fumes as low as possible. Obviously safety is dependent upon the regulations of the country in which it is produced, and its compliance with environmental law.
However, it is not completely squeaky clean. PU is prepared from chemicals called isocyanates that are acutely toxic and thus pose a hazard. But there is good news! It can now be manufactured without these dangerous raw materials with a new approach that uses bio-based polymers that completely replace the isocyanates.
Bio-based raw material is a by-product made from plant oils and can reduce several chemical hazards associated with making PU. This new process means PU can be produced in a less hazardous way that makes it easier to break down in the environment, also rendering it more biodegradable. Recycled PU has excitingly also come to market featuring a sustainable plant-based faux leather finish – great news for us ☺.
The production of leather involves three different industries: animal husbandry and slaughter, tanning and product manufacturing.
Many have argued that leather is a by-product of the meat industry, but uncomfortably in the case of some animals, meat is the by-product. Kate Carter writes in the Guardian that leather from ostrich farms accounts for 80% of the value. Exotic leather from lizards, crocs, snakes and sharks, are often farmed or hunted specifically for their skin. O Ecotextiles claims that without the money made from the leather industry, many factory farms would not be able to make profit selling the meat alone.
The first stage of leather production is obviously rearing the animals. Animal agriculture produces greenhouse gases, mainly in the form of methane produced by the cows themselves. Of course there is also the aggressive clearing of land (deforestation), often in vulnerable regions, caused by the excessive demand for cheap animal fodder and for livestock to graze. As the recent documentary Cowspiracy explored, this process in itself makes a significant contribution to climate change.
According to UN report Livestock’s Dark Shadow, the livestock sector is a major player in climate change. It is responsible for a staggering 18% of greenhouse gas emissions (a higher share than that of transport), and a shocking 33% of arable land is dedicated to producing feed crop. Rearing livestock currently accounts for an alarming 30% of the land surface of our planet.
Overgrazing and erosion has made deforestation another major problem. The greatest so far attributed to Latin America where 70% of previous Amazon forest is now used for pastures or growing feed crop.
Not forgetting the farming of livestock uses up a hefty amount of water, not only for consumption but for the irrigation of feed. Animal farming is also one of the largest sources of water pollution, which comes from animal waste, antibiotics, hormones and fertilisers and pesticides used for growing fodder. According to the Centres for Disease Control, food and water contaminated with livestock manure has led to 76 million Americans becoming infected with associated illnesses.
The second largest impact of the leather industry is the toxic tanning process. Many don’t realise that an animal hide needs to be treated in order to prevent it from naturally decomposing. According to the Scientific American, the tanning of leather is the fifth largest pollution threat in the world, directly affecting a shocking 1.8 million people – a pretty epic stat! Hides are tanned using a cocktail of dangerous chemicals, which produce an array of waste with a high concentration of pollutants. The most popular way of tanning leather (more than 80% of all leather produced), is with chrome; other options are aldehyde and vegetable tanning.
According to the BLG Technology Centre, “none of the three tanning technologies offers a full environmental advantage over the others when considering all the key criteria that characterise the impact on the environment. Many assume that vegetable tanned leather should have a preferred environmental profile, but evidence does not support this”.
Chromium contamination is a typical problem associated with tannery effluent and poses serious risk to the environment and human health. Pure Earth estimates that 16 million people are at risk for exposure to chromium globally, with an estimated burden of disease of 3 million years lost due to ill-health, disability or early death. This is particularly common in countries that do not have adequate environmental protection standards. The liquid and solid waste from tanneries is often dumped untreated in rivers and is a huge environmental threat. The areas in which this mostly occurs are where the majority of the world’s leather is produced, in countries such as India, Bangladesh and China.
In Kanpur, India, also known as the ‘Leather City of the World’, only 20% of the water is properly treated before being released onto local farmland and in to the River Ganges. This water is laced with dangerous levels of chromium, lead and arsenic. The Buriganga river in Hazaribagh, Dhaka, pictured below, has been classified as dead, because the pollution from the many tanneries have killed the fish and plant life.
Aside from the environmental issues of leather tanning, the tragic human cost can be deeply shocking. Those who tan the leather are exposed to hazardous chemicals often to a life-threatening extent. Bangladesh’s Ministry of Environment says that tanneries collectively dump 22,000 cubic litres of toxic waste into rivers each day, that are often key water supplies for the local residents. According to Gizmodo, when chromium waste is offloaded into regional water systems, it can cause respiratory problems, infections, infertility and birth defects in local residents.
And the workers are at risk too. Without adequate health and safety protection, they are continually exposed to dangerous chemicals on a daily basis and the list of medical problems linked to chromium is worryingly long.
The facts highlight that leather is a significant contributor to water pollution, human illnesses, water usage and land usage, not to mention the questionable methods of animal slaughter in developing countries with little or no regulations. As an industry it seems to have a poor level of responsibility towards its continuing environmental impact and the repercussions. Information around leather production and traceability is conveniently suppressed. The environmental impact and worker conditions is information that is not often available on the labels of fashion items, or even on company websites.
In comparison, the production of PU requires no grain to be watered and harvested for feed; no animals to be reared and then slaughtered; it is not a major contributor to water pollution, and merely requires the land of the factory used to produce it.
Synthetic materials have also come a very long way since their PVC predecessors and manufacturers will continue pushing the boundaries as the industry strives for sustainability. However, the leather industry will always involve animal agriculture with its heavy environmental footprint.
Ultimately, it is up to the consumer to make informed choices about their purchases and demand traceability and hold each industry accountable.
Please be reassured that, here at Beyond Skin HQ, we only use PU’s produced entirely within the EU. This gives us peace of mind that our shoes are as ethically produced as we can possibly make them.
As an ethical fashion brand, we embrace innovation and so will always strive to be at the forefront of sustainable and ethical fashion without compromising on quality and style.
For Spring Summer ’16 collection, we are delighted to introduce a more sustainable lining throughout our collections using 100% recycled PU with a vegetable bio-polymer coating made in Italy. To us, traceability of where the material has been produced is paramount.
With so many high quality leather alternatives on the market, it begs the question why isn’t everyone using leather alternatives?…
Images: Greenpeace, Allison Joyce & Alamy