HISTORICAL RELIED UPON
In 1991 archaeologist made one of the most significant discoveries to date; the “Iceman” or “Ötzi”.What made this discovery significant was how well Ötzi and his belonging/artifacts were preserved due to centuries of thawing and re-freezing. Among Ötzi’s belongs were a coat, belt, chaps/legging, an arrow quiver, a loincloth, a cap for his head and shoes – all made from leather.
Additional leather strands were used to create hand-grips on his tools and for ties to hold together his various baskets. This discovery demonstrates that animal hides – and leather – are one of man’s earliest and most impactful discoveries having been an important resource for over 5 millennia, offering versatility, protection and durability.Leather still offers versatility, protective qualities and durability/longevity but – like many natural resources – now competes with artificially created resources.
The answer to the “why leather” question begins with another question. Is our modern world fundamentally more ecologically sustainable than past eras of humankind?
The answer is overwhelmingly “no.” Population growth, industrialization, consumerism, travel and other advances have led to an improved quality of life for most societies, but these advances have come at the detriment of our natural world and the significant depletion of natural resources across the globe.
Fortunately, nations and companies are taking steps to reduce their environmental impact in accordance with the Paris Agreement and UN Sustainable Development Goals. Similarly, consumers are seeking to learn more about the source of their products and the processes by which they are manufactured, pressuring companies to reduce their environmental impact.
Where does leather and other product reliant on animal remains fit into our ever-changing world and the drive for more cleaner practices?
The drive for more ecologically sound practices can be guided by those common in hunter/gatherer and many other indigenous cultures’ relationships to animals – use/consume only what you must and avoid waste. While animals were hunted primarily for meat/food, other parts of the animals’ remains – the byproducts – were used for a variety of purposes. Horns, teeth, bones and hooves were used for tools, plates/bowls and weaponry while the hides/pelts were used for clothing, armor, footwear, satchels, shelter, parchment, etc. This resourcefulness, to utilize the less valued areas of the animal, are our first examples of upcycling.
Animal farming has replaced hunting as a means of food production but the same drive to utilize all resources the animals provide continues. While meat products are the primary resource of animal farming, animal byproducts are utilized in other ways, many which may surprise you, including:
- Hides/pelts transformed through tanning into leather for automotive, footwear, hand-bag, apparel, accessories, etc.
- Hooves used for gelatin to coat photographic film, in dog treats, adhesive, keratin protein in fire extinguisher foam, etc.
- Fat/tallow used to produce glycerin for soap or for stearic acid used in rubber tires to maintain elasticity, anti-freeze/coolant for car engines, soap and shampoo
- Hair/fur used for brushes, plaster binder, insulation
- Adrenal glands used for medicinal purposes such as in steroids and other pharmaceutical drug
These examples represent a small fraction of the products reliant on animal byproducts today. The agricultural sector not only provides the majority of food consumed today but the byproducts from those primary food sources help to create hundreds of additional products that impact our day-to- day lives. Non-animal byproducts are abundant as well:
- Bran is the byproduct of milling wheat into refined flour
- Gasoline began as a byproduct of oil refining before becoming the more desirable commodity used for motor fuel
- Plastic shopping bags are byproducts of natural gas production
- Virtually all manufacturing, harvesting, chemical reactions, etc. yield byproducts which if not used for another purpose are considered waste. As depicted from the previous examples these byproducts can offer value for other consumer products.
AN ABUNDANT REOCCURRING RESOURCE
The demand for meat and other food sources continues to increase with global population increases. In a 2021 Statista Global Consuming survey of people in 39 countries, the diets of 86% of the participants contain meat.
In the US over 90% of the population have diets containing meat, while only 4% describe themselves as vegetarian and less than 2% as vegan.
While variations in diet are becoming more common, the demand for meat derived from animal farming remains a primary food source throughout the world. And, while it is essential that farming practices become far more environmentally responsible, the use of animals as a food source will continue to yield useful byproducts that should not be wasted. If not utilized, these byproducts would be discarded (contributing to environmental degradation) and synthetic products, likely requiring the use of other natural resources, created as replacements.
Generally, people associate leather with craftsmanship and value for luggage/handbags, saddles, upholstery, clothing/apparel, belting, footwear, etc.Beyond those products leather is commonly used for sporting equipment, such as; baseball gloves, footballs, basketballs, etc. This versatility stretches throughout history – as outlined by Otzi’s artifacts/belongings – demonstrating the value added from the leather supply chain.
Some lesser known used of leather include:
- In medieval times leather was used to adorn walls to offer insulation and high-end/rich aesthetic meant to symbolize wealth.
- During the automotive revolution the original car engine oil filter was “chamois” – which is deer suede. Chamois offers a unique lightweight and breathable structure, and moisture absorbency. Additionally Chamois was used in cleaning leading to the term “sham” or “shammy”.
What other organic substance/material offers this level of versatility and beauty?
To offer high performance characteristics for sporting equipment or armed service footwear, anti-soiling properties for accessory covers and/or automotive seat covers, water-resistance, stain resistant properties and weather resistance properties for all weather wear, softness and delicacy needed for gloves, the durability and ruggedness for horse riding saddles, footwear outsoles, belting, etc.– the list stretches on.
The only other materials/substances/compounds that can offer this level of versatility are created in labs, not found organically. Many of these artificially created materials have been heralded for their versatility and cost effectiveness when in reality an organic material has existed for centuries that could serve these purposes.
DURABILITY & LONGEVITY
The leather tanning process has been engineered to protect against heat, water, micro- organisms, chemicals and putrefaction. These features allow the leather to survive thousands of years without degradation unless subjected to certain enzymes and bacteria found in soil. The water, chemical and heat resistant properties allow the leather with withstand various industrial manufacturing and/or naturally occurring environmental conditions. For instance; the extreme heat used in footwear manufacturing can cause shrinkage and/or warping of plastic based products, even causing change to the material’s molecular properties – whereas chromium-based leather can withstand high heat without any impact to its physical or biological makeup.
LEATHER VS OTHERS
Leather vs. plastic offer an interesting economical and ecological case study with regard to the value or longevity and durability. Polymer based material (plastics) are championed by vegan product manufacturers because they do not contain animal product/byproduct. But these products are often part of the fast-fashion movement based off from speed to market and producing disposable 1-season or 1-year use product. The expectation from these brands/manufacturer’s is their customer will use the product for 6 months to 1 year and then dispose of them and purchase a replacement product.
According to the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA) the average United States citizen purchases 7.5 pairs of footwear product annually. This market structure and strategy is unsustainable by nature because it is reliant upon production of product ultimately destined for landfill.
This only creates more waste in landfill, waste that – in many cases contain plastic content which will not decompose but instead degrade into millions upon millions of micro- particles which can cause considerable health risk to the population – including us.
An Environmental Engineering study conducted by Wichita State University in Kanas, United States, estimates that 300 mil. pairs of footwear product enter landfill annually. From this study they have determined that it takes around 40 years fo r the footwear product to break-down.
Another important find from this study was the behavior of plastic and adhesives used on footwear constructions. These material/compounds took longer to breakdown and resulted in contamination in waterways – possibly seeping into drinking water reservoirs.
Shouldn’t the drive be to produce longer lasting product?
Product that reduces the need to purchase new footwear product each year and minimize the amount of footwear products disposed of each year. Wouldn’t that be more ecologically responsible? Unfortunately that is not how the current market is positioned. Consumers would rather purchase a pair of less expensive product each 6-months than more expensive product which could last for twice as long (if not longer) – even though investing in quality would prove to be more economical as well. Because of this consumer purchase trends the expectation is speed/output rather than quality and longevity. Even when leather is being used the overall footwear product may experience failure due to other – less durable – components.
The rubber outsole may wear down or tear, the adhesive bonding may fail, the plastic finish/coating may crack or burst under hot or cold temperatures, zippers or threading could fail leading to the product deconstructing, etc. Among the materials used in footwear leather provides the longest life-span and the easiest maintenance.
The path to a more ecological friendly supply chain is investing in organic, durable, long- lasting material and building product to last a lifetime vs. a season. This will reduce the wastefulness of over-consumption. Leather meets all the necessary criteria to support this more ecological path forward.
2020 provided a glimpse of what would take place if meat demand continued or increased, while the demand for products reliant on animal byproducts decreased. According to the Leather and Hide Council of America (LHCA) 33 million head of cattle were processed in 2020. 5 million hides (or 15%) were discarded – either destroyed through incineration or send to landfills to degrade.
It proved to be more economical for meat packages to discard the raw hides than to clean, salt, pack and ship them to tanning facilities.Not only were valuable resources wasted but as the hides decompose they emit greenhouse gases.An estimated 120,000 tons of greenhouse gases were emitted by these discarded hides.Making full use of animal byproducts for leather and other products make good ecological sense.
VEGAN ≠ SUSTAINABLE
A common misunderstanding exists that “vegan” is synonymous with “sustainable.”Unfortunately, many vegan and animal-free product alternatives contain plastic.Within the footwear industry the most common leather alternatives are “synthetic leather” or “vegan leather.” These products generally consist of polyurethane (PU) and/or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and other harsh chemicals, such as the softening agent dimethylformamide (DMF).
Polyurethane consists of two major ingredients – polyols and isocyanates – which are both heavily dependent on petroleum. Both polyvinyl chloride and dimethylformamide leach toxins into the air throughout their lifespans.These toxins are harmful to humans especially children, can interfere with animal and human hormones and cause cell mutation (cancer).These toxic traits have led to PVC becoming known as “the poison plastic.”
Unlike organic compounds, plastic cannot decompose once discarded.One hopeful outcome is for plastic to be recycled which would allow for reuse and slow the production of new plastic.
The importance of recycling cannot be overstated but there are limitations to what types of plastic can be recycled today.
The three common types of plastic that are broadly recyclable are polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high density polyethylene (HDPE) and low-density polyethylene (LDPE).
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the United States discards over 35 million tons of plastic annually (and this continues to increase). Of this discarded plastic less than 9% is recycled.
Adding further challenge to the recycling process is that plastic can only be recycled a finite number of times (generally once) and a considerable amount of water is required to cleanse and decontaminate the plastic in preparation for reuse.
Though it is possible to utilize recycled plastic in the substrate of synthetic leather, synthetic leather cannot be recycled.
After use the plastic will be discarded into landfill will disintegrate over time.As the plastic disintegrates it break into tiny fragments referred to as “microplastics” which release further toxins into the air – bisphenol A (BPA) and PS oligomer.Because plastic cannot decompose it will continue disintegrating into even smaller fragments – “nanoplastics”.As this process continues to repeat over and over an exponential amount of nanoplastics can be created.Both the toxins and small fragments of plastic leach into the air, soil and waternanoplastics ever day causing irrecoverable health detriments such as; infertility, neurological disorders, cancer, increase risk of infection and they attract pathogens.
If the rate of plastic pollution continues by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. This plastic will then remain in our ecosystem for thousands of years harming an endless number of sea creatures every day. Plastic came into prominence to provide an economic means to curb use of natural resources. But in turn plastic is causing irrecoverable damage to the natural world and its inhabitants – which includes us.
More than 8 mil. tons of plastic is discarded into our ocean and sea ways each year – equivalent to dumping one garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean each minute;
According to a report presented at the 2019 United Nation Marine Conference as many as 51 trillion micro-plastic particles – 500 times more than starts in our galaxy – liter our ocean and sea ways;
When the plastic breaks down into micro-plastics fish mistaken than from plankton – their main food source – and consume the plastic which lead to the animals death;
80% of the liter found in our oceans are made from plastic and this liter is contributing to the death of over 1 mil. sea birds, hundreds of thousands of sea mammals and an unknown amount of sea turtles and fish;
Less than 9% of all plastic gets recycle;
More plastic was produce in the last 10 years, than the last century
50% of all plastic produce (380 million tons per year) is for single use purposes – used for just minutes and then thrown away.
- Last life long;
- Give You Value for Money;
- Leather is Durable;
- Leather was once use as Wall Paper in the 17th century;
- You can get salmon leather;
- Leather has been popular since 3000BC;
- The leather business in Italy is renowned all over the world;
- White leather is the most difficult to produce;
- The first leather shoe made with a shoelace and holes was invented in 1790;
- Leather is a naturally renewable resources;
- An average person is wearing 2-4 articles made of leather everyday;
- Leather is a by-product;