Leather. The Ultimate Upcycled Material
Increasingly, our daily actions significantly influence our planet, necessitating collective efforts to reduce this impact. Choices related to our holiday destinations, our choice of vehicles, our clothing preferences, and our dietary habits all play a part. The global demand for beef is rising and is expected to continue growing in the coming decade and beyond. Consequently, the generation of non-meat components, such as animal hides, is also on the rise. Without the leather industry, this waste component would find its way to landfills, decomposing and emitting methane gas.
Leather has been produced for thousands of years, with the earliest examples of leatherworking tools dating back to 5,000 BC. Leather, renowned for its timeless beauty and remarkable durability, embodies the ethos of "buy once, buy well”. Over the last few years, billions have been spent trying to invent lower-cost alternative “fast fashion” materials to look like leather ($450m in 2022 alone), with most of these materials heavily reliant on fossil fuels like PU or PVC to make them. One might question why such significant resources are allocated to reinventing something that already exists.
These new materials have been labelled as planet-saving alternatives to leather when the truth is the opposite. Leather is part of the circular economy, where every part of the cow is used, and nothing is wasted. The hides are upcycled into leather, a natural material with a biogenic carbon count of over 80%. Leather has an exceptional lifespan, boasts remarkable durability and easy repairability, and upon reaching the end of its life, it can be composted to enrich the soil. This, in turn, nurtures the growth of grass, providing sustenance for the very cows that initiate this regenerative cycle all over again.
Compare this to most new leather alternatives that are linear. Commonly, a plant-based material, like mushrooms or pineapple husks, is mixed with fossil fuels like PU or PVC (in the region of 80 – 90% of the total) to create a composite material. There is no simple or cost-effective way to recycle these products, so they end up in landfills, a “Take, Make, Waste” approach with a tangible impact on the planet, but we are led to believe they are more sustainable. It's virtually impossible to find any mention of it containing PU or PVC or the percentages contained in the materials as the marketing teams ‘greenwash’ the credentials found on websites or labels.
In 2022, the Market Institute at the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) claimed “Leather is entirely a by-product of the beef and dairy industries”, with the farmer receiving between 1-2% of the total value of the cow from its hide, yet leather must take an unfairly large portion of the CO2 impact of downstream farming when calculating its carbon footprint. Compare this to ‘vegan leather’, where the heavy impact of adding plastics and micro-plastics to an already polluted planet is not taken into account in the CO2 calculations. We need to take a look at the whole impact and not just a single number often taken out of context.
When we consider the "cost per use" comparison between leather and alternative materials, it becomes clear that leather outlasts the rest, retaining its quality and functionality while others need to be discarded and replaced. This enduring performance gives leather a substantial edge in terms of sustainability credentials.
The ’fast fashion’ materials have come under fire recently, with government watchdogs and mass torts calling out the greenwashing of the sustainability of these materials. There have been, and continue to be, demands to protect the consumer from deceptively calling alternative materials “leather”.
The influential rating system, the Higg Materials Sustainability Index (MSI), was launched by a group of fashion industry heavyweights and maintained by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. They introduced a suite of tools created for the fashion industry to assess the sustainability of the materials used in their products. They have been said to strongly favour synthetic materials made from fossil fuels over natural ones like leather, cotton, or wool. The consumer portion of the MSI was suspended following a legal challenge to review the figures and get more accurate data independently, something the leather industry has collectively been calling on for a long time.
Many are unaware of the remarkable advancements in automotive leather manufacturing over the past 25 years. Today's automotive tanneries operate under strict regulations, utilising cutting-edge machinery to drastically reduce water and energy consumption, an area that has historically faced criticism, albeit wrongly. Furthermore, there's a notable shift in the use of tanning chemicals, with tanneries actively exploring options incorporating higher or entirely biobased content. This transition aims to diminish their carbon footprint further while maintaining the performance standards demanded by automotive OEMs.
So, when choosing a material for the interior of cars, should we select a fossil fuel-derived product that will end up in landfill or a natural, beautiful, circular by-product destined for landfill? The choice should be yours.
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