Regenerative Agriculture and its byproduct, regenerative fashion, offers an opportunity for us to face up to the ‘leather problem’ through the use of climate beneficial™ materials.
As inhabitants of a planet crumbling under the pressures of global heating, it’s crucial for us to cull the frivolous corners of our culture. Instead of perpetuating plastic pollution and extraction of fossil fuels by supporting fashions made from synthetic materials and vegan leathers, our energy ought to be concentrated on making use of by-products from the plant and animal agriculture which feeds us. As well as upcycling natural materials which would otherwise make their way to the already overflowing landfills.
THE POSSIBILITY FOR CLIMATE BENEFICIAL™ LEATHER
Though the issues of conventional animal agriculture have been well documented and agreed upon, when it comes to fashion, it assumes that if people stopped buying leather, farmers would stop raising cattle.
Instead, U.S. consumers are eating more beef than they have in a decade, but due to misinformation on the ‘sustainability’ of ‘vegan leather’, animal hides are piling up, sending the durable material to the landfill or incinerator unused.
Fortunately, the rise in awareness of regenerative agricultural practices offers a solution to both the dastardly deeds sustained by conventional agriculture and the unnecessary waste from food production and consumption.
In a recent carbon footprint evaluation of the beef produced through regenerative grazing at White Oak Pastures‘ zero waste farm, it was revealed that White Oak Pastures’ beef stores more carbon in the soil than the cows emit during their lives, with the carbon footprint of their meat coming in 111% lower than conventional agriculture. In addition, White Oak Pastures’ beef has a smaller carbon footprint than other non-beef protein sources, including Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger (based on their own LCA). Indicating the ‘sustainability’ of beef, and by proxy leather, is a result of how an animal is raised, not if the animal is raised.
WHY VEGAN LEATHER ISN’T A SUSTAINABLE ALTERNATIVE
Unfortunately, instead of investing in regenerative fashion systems built from regenerative food systems, or even in circular fashion, shoppers who once chose to purchase durable products built from ‘waste’, are choosing synthetic alternatives instead.
What these consumers don’t realize is that for every kilogram of plastic-based synthetic material produced, 1.1kg of oil is extracted and used. In vegan leather, the most common types of plastics used are dangerous and pollutive. To create PU for example, a highly toxic chemical solvent is used to create a liquid which can be painted onto the base material. Similarly, PVC, which vegan brand Matt & Nat use in their products, is considered by Greenpeace to be the “single most environmentally damaging type of plastic” ever created, and is a known carcinogen.
In addition, the dying process for vegan leather is also extremely pollutive, as plastic materials cannot be dyed with plant matter (only natural materials will take plant dye), so chemicals and toxins are applied in the form of toxic dyes and chemical fabric paints.
Like all plastics, synthetic fabrics and ‘vegan leather’ (even Piñatex and Apple Leather are primarily plastic) take upwards of 1,000 years to biodegrade. When they breakdown they release phthalates, which can enter the food chain and the atmosphere causing respiratory problems, breast cancer, hormonal disruptions and birth defects.
Synthetic leathers also produce further pollutants in the process of being downcycled (vegan leathers cannot be recycled because plastic breaks down to a lesser material each time it is processed), and cannot be recycled indefinitely – meaning every plastic item produced will end up in the landfill eventually.
Conversely, wool and leather (and any other natural material) can be recycled without further harm as a part of the closed-loop system created by mama nature. In addition, programs like RecycLeather™ add nearly infinite regenerative loops to already (potentially) Climate Beneficial™ materials. Because leather is a natural material, it can be tanned chemical-free using traditional hide tanning practices like ‘brain tanning‘ combined with being soaked in tannins from plants, oak, willow and chestnut.
We’ve seen this sort of soil saving circular story emerge from Fibershed‘s Climate Beneficial™wool, and Pela Case‘s upcycled agricultural waste to make phone cases and sunglasses which biodegrade. Leading the way for a future for fashion which is truly conscious and spectacularly sustainable because it is regenerative at its base.
NOT ALL LEATHER IS CREATED EQUAL
It is important to understand; however, that not all meat, nor leather goods are not created equal, and currently there are very few potentially Climate Beneficial™ products on the market. Most of the meat making its way to consumers plates is created in horrific scenarios for both the animal and the planet in mafia-style production which needs to be eradicated as soon as possible (read this article here to learn more).
Therefore, conventional leather is a byproduct of this harmful industry and is more than often processed using harmful chemicals. That said, we should not be wasting animal hides no matter how the animal is raised; so, if the option is available to you financially, you should be more concentrated about where the food you are eating is produced and how it is farmed (whether you are vegan or not).
Cow skins represented 6% to 8% of a cow’s total value than your vegetable tanned leather consumption. We have to learn to make use of resources in line with what the natural world yields when it is healthy and functioning, giving back more than we take rather than extracting every ounce offered. That means consuming significantly less (regardless of diet). Consumption itself is our worst enemy no matter how we eat, and our food has been dropping in nutrient density due to our ignorant farming practices which produce neither healthy food nor healthy soil, causing us to eat more and use significantly more resources.
Regeneratively raised carbon-negative cattle are not raised and slaughtered at speed. It’s a slow and careful process that takes time. For example, The Horned Beef Company – who produce beef where crops won’t grow through rewilding, regenerating the land, biodiversity and soil – only produce a limited-edition of meat four times a year. Animal slaughter is not a mass, nor everyday affair, as is seen in conventional agriculture.
So our consumption of potentially Climate Beneficial™ leather would have to mirror limited-edition production as well. Creating a whole new system of place-based regenerative food and fashion. This means that if you’re going to eat meat, or buy leather, and you have the privilege of choice (which many people don’t) the best way to do this responsibly is to purchase locally from farmers practising as many regenerative agriculture principals as possible, by looking for artisans processing leather and other byproducts traditionally, or brands recycling natural material waste responsibly.
The future of ‘fashion’, in my opinion, is a series of systems which leave the planet better off for the fact that they’ve occurred, rather than worse. Circular design, paired with natural materials, which integrate easily into potentially regenerative fashion systems, creating designs which will last a lifetime or two. Putting plastic into the past and building soil for the future.