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IS LEATHER ENVIRONMENTALLY SUSTAINABLE?

In our educational blog post from October 2020, 'Should Tanned Leather Be Called ‘Natural’'? we promised a part two to this topic, exploring the  impact of intensive animal agriculture on the environment - and how this has a direct link to the profitable co-products that are outputs of slaughter when it comes to measuring impact on the earth.

 

As always, we look at this through the filter of fashion. As a non leather brand (sans = without, beast = animal), we focus on the negative impacts of animal derived leather, both as a standalone observation + in comparison to non animal derived materials. Emma Hakansson is our guest writer for this piece.  Emma has created campaigns and written articles for animal rights organisations about the leather industry, while consulting with fashion brands, helping them transition from cow skin to sustainable, vegan leather alternatives. Today, Emma is the the founder of Collective Fashion Justice + Willow Creative Co.

We hope it will spark a conversation with friends, family (or us!) about intensive animal agriculture + the negative impacts it is having. For the purpose of this article + given the inordinate search volume for ‘vegan leather’ in online research, we have used this term throughout.  We are not fans of the term + believe if the vegan fashion movement is to have impact, we need to claim other words with comfort + honesty, as being the materials of choice.  CW X

Over to Emma...

An image of Emma Hakansson snuggled next to a beautiful cow and touching it's face.

When we as a community talk about animal agriculture and the environment, we tend to think about food - it’s even the topic of the important and controversial documentary, Cowspiracy.  But what about fashion? Just as enormous greenhouse gas emissions are tied to the beef industry, they are also tied to the leather industry. Just as large swathes of land are cleared for the sheep meat industry, they are too, for the wool industry.  It’s critical that fashion not be left out of these conversations about how animal agriculture affects the environment. It’s relevant to include leather in these discussions, because  as we’ve detailed before, leather is not a by-product, but a profit-driven, negatively impactful, co-product.  It’s also important to highlight that at a world population of 7.67 billion, and with consumption on the rise, a change in thinking is required; our natural resources are in peril. 

An image with the words 80% of deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest is due to cattle ranching.

 

 In the last article, we mentioned how shockingly high the  carbon footprint of leather products are compared to their ‘vegan leather’ counterparts, but what else is there to this conversation? Whilst I can talk about the ethics of intensive animal raising, in this article, I’ll focus on environmental impacts - such as deforestation, land clearing, biodiversity loss, excessive water use, and water pollution associated with industrial animal agriculture, and so leather.

Forests are our lungs.

The majority of discussion around causes of climate change in Australia and around the world, particularly in relation to animal agriculture, tie into greenhouse gas emissions (GHG emissions). Specifically, we tend to hear about enteric fermentation, and the amount of gas passed by ruminant animals like the bovines we skin and wear. 

 

While it’s confronting to learn that these emissions are  more significant than the exhaust from all planes, cars and trains in the world combined, there’s more to this story.

Every six seconds in 2019, we lost a football pitch of precious forest. While the spread of COVID-19 may have slowed that harrowing statistic down a little bit, our destruction of nature doesn’t ever truly rest. The majority of land clearing associated with animal agriculture is for rearing cattle - who are artificially bred, mutilated, milked, slaughtered and sold as meat and leather. In Australia,  54% of all land use is tied to grazing animals. In Europe, that’s  63% of arable land. In the Amazon Rainforest, a massive  80% of deforestation is directly tied to cattle ranching. Brazil is the world’s  largest beef exporter, and in the top three bovine skin 'producers'.

What’s land clearing got to do with greenhouse gas emissions and climate change? Trees turn carbon into oxygen, and trees themselves are about one third carbon. When we cut them down, that carbon is released into our atmosphere. The Australian Climate Council states that averaged over 2015 to 2017,  ‘global loss of tropical forests [like the Amazon] contributed about 4.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year’. The more animal leather we demand, the more trees we need to clear. The less trees we have, the less oxygen and the more carbon in the atmosphere we breathe in. 

Biodiversity is our best friend.

When we lose forests and bushlands to cattle ranching for leather and beef, we need to worry about biodiversity loss, too. Only  4% of animal life today is made up of free animals out in nature - rather than those we raise for slaughter, or humans ourselves - because yes, we too are animals. Loss of habitat is a leading cause of extinction, endangerment and threat for many species, from many of our  closest primate cousins - including  all great apes - to birds, small mammals, large herbivores, some big cats and reptiles. 

Biodiversity is important, not only because the lives of different species are intrinsically of value, but because ecosystems cannot thrive or even effectively function, without it. We (humans) are part of the earths' ecosystem - and rely on biodiversity to support healthy functioning of waterways, clean air + pollination of plants among other services provided by nature.  If there isn’t a diverse range of different plant life for example, there won’t be an array of different insects on them.That means there won’t be a variety of birds and rodent-like mammals there either, and so on. It’s why  protecting the bees - native ones particularly - is so deeply important. 

 

A horizontal bar chart shows that farmed animals are in far greater number on the plant than humans or all other animals.

‘Vegan leather’ - whether it be the lower comparative impact polyurethane that is most common, or vegan leather alternative materials like those we call cactus leatherpineapple leathermango leather, and even mushroom leather - these all require far less land than animal skins to produce. 

 

A study published in the Journal Science showed that global farmland could be reduced by 75% with one significant change - a transition to a plant-based agricultural system. When we compare the differences of animal agriculture vs plant agriculture, this is perhaps the most staggering statistic, showing just how inefficient and wasteful of the natural earth, producing fashion and food from animal bodies really is. 

Cattle eat a lot. They eat a lot of grass, and often they eat a lot of soy (80% of soy grown in the Amazon is fed to farmed animals). They’re large animals, and often, they’re killed at about 18 months old. In comparison, Mylo Unleather’s mushroom mycelium alternative to leather takes less than two weeks to grow, inside, in a kind of vertical farm. Synthetic leather isn’t grown at all, and the raw material that is used for ‘cactus leather’ is harvested from plants that continue to grow, on a far smaller amount of land, with only rainwater, and far less than cows need. What would happen to all this no longer cattle-filled land, should we make this transition? It could be rewilded, returned to nature.

 

'Vegan leather' + carbon sequestration.

Not only is the production of ‘vegan leather’ - even that which is synthetic - far less carbon emitting than cow skin leather, but it allows for more opportunity for carbon sequestration - long term, secure and sustained storage of greenhouse gas.

 

Another study, this time in the Journal Nature, shows that the use of land for inefficient animal agriculture incurs a ‘carbon opportunity cost’. This means that there is a cost to continuing with the current agricultural system we have today. The reason being, is that there is so much land out in the world with cows, sheep and other animals on it, that there’s a lot less room for nature, for forestry. As we know, trees suck in carbon and ‘breathe’ out oxygen. If we transitioned to a plant-based system, not only would we save land, but this rewilded, eco-restored land would help us to sequester greenhouse gases equivalent to 99-163% of our carbon emission budget. This action alone would go a long way to limiting our chances of seeing the planet warm another 1.5 degrees celsius, the temperature rise which The Paris Agreement aims for us to avoid, so as to prevent irreversible tipping points of climate catastrophe. 

With less animal agriculture comes more opportunity to rewild the land.

What about water?

An additional con to cow skin leather, is that it’s far more thirsty than its animal-free counterparts. Data from the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Material Sustainability Index suggests that cow skin leather has a 14 times greater impact on water scarcity thanthe  polyurethane alternative. UNESCO found that for every kilogram of cow skin leather produced, 17,000 litres of water is required - and that’s just from water use on farms, not in tanneries. 

1 kilogram of leather equals 17,000 litres of water.

 

Not only does cow skin leather require a lot of water - because cows drink a lot of it, and often the food they eat and land they graze needs water to help it grow - it disrupts the health of the water we have. Eutrophication often occurs when phosphorus from farmed animal faeces enters waterways, causing an excess of nutrients in them. Eutrophied waters often turn into dead-zones, which are as bad as they sound. To get an idea of just how destructive eutrophication can be, when the Darling River was eutrophied, hundreds of thousands of fish were killed suddenly, over a single week.

Only 2.5 percent of the water on this planet is fresh and drinkable, and only 1 percent is actually accessible to us for drinking and for our use in agriculture. The World Counts tells us that if we continue the way we have since industrialisation, we have just less than 19 years before there’s no freshwater left for us all. Wasting water for the sake of bags or hamburgers made from cows, when there are plant-based and man-made alternatives, just doesn’t make good sense.

Leather in overview.

While synthetic leather isn’t the ultimate answer to how to create a sustainable fashion system - there are new and innovative plant-based ‘vegan leathers’ in development for that - when we consider all of this information, we must surely see it in a different light. Yes, polyurethane is largely made from petroleum, and of course mining is no stranger to the emission of greenhouse gases. But - and there’s a big but - the data tells us it’s absolutely, the lesser of two evils.  (Editor note: and, let's not forget, polyurethane forms the coating on many leathers also).  

Data tells us that even synthetic leather material production has about seven times less environmental impact across the board than cow skin leather. It tells us just how much water we could save by shifting away from animal skins in fashion. It tells us too, how critical this move away from animal products as a whole is for biodiversity and for carbon sequestration. It tells us that with this one large shift, we can go a long way towards curbing a total climate crisis. Even if we hadn’t already talked about the woes of the leather tanning industry, these would be enough reasons to give serious consideration for going sans beast, in our fashion (and food) choices.  

 

Vegan leather is objectively more sustainable than cow skin leather and is free from slaughter.