Whichever leather substitute consumers opt for, there are now humane and sustainable alternatives to animal leather if you go looking for them.
As a material, leather derived from animals has several environmental drawbacks. In addition to concerns surrounding animal cruelty, the raising of cows for meat is highly energy – and water – intensive, and leather is the most valuable byproduct. Rainforest in some countries is still being cleared for cattle farming.
In less developed nations, the leather tanning industry uses hazardous chemicals such as chromium salts. These are toxic to workers, sometimes with fatal results. This noxious brew is damaging to the environment when it is irresponsibly discharged. According to estimates, between 30–50% of leather is wasted due to imperfections, or because irregular shapes are being cut out.
Growing numbers of people are turning vegan, and are driving demand for synthetic leather alternatives. Here a different range of environmental issues often crops up. Plastic-like materials are commonly made from PVC and polyurethane, which are both derived from petrochemicals and have toxicity issues. However, there is some movement away from this type of high-environmental-impact leather substitute. Alongside this movement, work has been taking place on some innovative new eco-leathers. This is as part of a shift by the ethical fashion movement towards sustainable materials. One of these is Piñatex, a material developed by Dr. Carmen Hijosa, that is made from cellulose fibres derived from pineapple leaf waste. While working as a consultant for the leather goods industry in the Philippines during the 1990s, she was exposed to evidence of its un-sustainability.
Seven years were spent developing this leather substitute
This was as part of Hijosa’s PhD doctorate at the Royal College of Art in London. This challenging undertaking involved a collaboration between universities, institutions and businesses in UK, Spain and the Philippines where the pineapples are grown. Now in production, Piñatex is made by her company Ananas Anam which is headquartered in the UK. Hijosa was given the Green Heroes Award in 2016, by Kevin McCloud, presenter of the British TV show Grand Designs.
Every year, about 13 million tonnes of pineapple waste are produced globally. This is usually left to rot, or is burned, generating CO2 that adds to climate change. In the Philippines, sourcing the pineapple raw material involves dealing with farming cooperatives, whose members are able to earn an additional income from supplying it. To create about one square metre, approximately 480 leaves are processed. The outer layer is removed by machine, the fibre washed, then hung up to dry, before undergoing an industrial process that involves the creation of a non-woven mesh. Any waste biomass left over can be used as a fertiliser or as biofuel. The mesh is then sent to Spain, where it is coated and finished.
Being made almost entirely from a waste product, Piñatex is highly sustainable. It avoids a dilemma where resources that would normally be utilised as food are diverted into industrial processes, or where additional land is needed to grow the feedstock for eco-products. As an example of William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle design principles, it is made of materials classed as ‘biological nutrients’, and which are completely biodegradable. The only environmental downside is the substantial distance that materials are transported when they cross the world.
Piñatex has a number of desirable properties
It is strong, breathable, and flexible, and is considered to have a softer texture than many other synthetic leathers. Available in a range of colours, it has options including a textured surface or metallic finish. As this eco-leather finds its way into an increasing number of products, Ananas Anam has been cranking up the output. A select number of companies making footwear, fashion accessories, clothing, home furnishing, and car upholstery are all using some Piñatex.
At a cost of 50-58 Euros (AUD $79-$92) per lineal metre, depending on the finish, Piñatex is oriented towards the fashion end of the market. Prices of Piñatex products are presently high, but with a sufficient economy of scale will hopefully come down to the point that they are within competing distance of the mass market.
Among other sustainable leather alternatives being developed or manufactured, Zoa bioleather is grown from animal-free collagen in a lab. The process sounds a little Frankenstein-ish. In Italy, a company known as Frumat has figured out how to make leather from apple peel. It uses what would otherwise be discarded as food processing waste. Nevertheless, the nutritional properties of peel do potentially raise food-versus-industry-style-concerns surrounding edible resources. MuSkin is a luxury leather with a suede feel, made from mycelium sourced from the large Phellinus Ellipsoideus parasitic fungus found in China. However, production is restricted by a limited supply of the fungus.
Whichever leather substitute consumers opt for, there are now humane and sustainable alternatives to animal leather. You just need to go looking for them.
Photo by Anton Darius on Unsplash
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