Okay, admittedly there’s a chance we’re being facetious here. If you’re a regular visitor to these pages, you’ll know that leather – in the traditional, animal-derived sense – is a material we’re not exactly keen on.
In fact, much of our coverage is dedicated to materials science and engineering companies which are actively working to replace leather with ethical, Earth-friendlier options.
Even those who claim that animal leather is just a byproduct of the meat industry – which really doesn’t wash if you’re opposed to the meat industry on ethical or environmental grounds – would be hard-pressed to extend that grace even as far as the chemically-polluting tanneries integral to the process of creating consumer leathers.
In the meat farming industry, beef alone creates 27kg of CO2 per kilogram, while tanneries’ chemical run-off and chromium overspill is ecologically devastating.
But still. Still, there is a question here worth asking. Could leather change? Could it make a positive difference on the world?
It might seem farfetched – or even like industry propaganda – but recent developments, new science from serious, sustainability-focused organizations could well make it a reality.
“Virgin plastics are the root cause – the reason we even have to think about recycling plastic in the first place – and various forms of reuse are just a way of coping with that. It’s admirable, necessary even. But it isn’t going to save us.”
Consider this: plastic is plastic. There are no two ways about that. Even recycled plastic still very much has it in the name. And, while recycling plastic is better for the environment than creating new plastics, and diverting ocean-bound plastics to recycling projects is certainly better than letting them float out into our oceans, at the end of the day you’re still left with a bunch of plastic.
More than this, as much as recycling is clearly a net good, it’s also true that the process itself sheds microplastics – tiny plastic particles which have been discovered in the air around recycling facilities and which, if not properly managed, can end up (and have now been officially recorded in) in such delicately balanced ecosystems as the Atlantic ocean, the Great Lakes, and, perhaps most worryingly, the human brain and blood stream.
Of course, again, this isn’t to downplay recycling: the environmental cost of virgin plastics is the root cause – the reason we even have to think about recycling plastic in the first place – and various forms of reuse are just a way of coping with that. It’s admirable, necessary even. But it isn’t going to save us.
So, in that case, where should we look?
Obviously there’s the next-generation materials sector. There are companies like Natural Fiber Welding whose plant-based and plastic-free leather alternative, MIRUM, is being gradually scaled at increasingly promising rates alongside its other innovations.
Products like MIRUM – and MycoWorks’ Reishi or Bolt Threads’ ill-fated MYLO, while not entirely plant-based or plastic-free – are very clearly the future of not only the fashion and footwear industries, but every industry where leather is sold as a premium option. Like the automotive and furniture sectors, for example, where NFW has already inked deals with the likes of Sage Automotive Interiors, BMW, and has raised over $15 million USD to advance in the sector.
But, in the meantime – with these products still a way off of full-on mainstream absorption – could there be a better way in the interim? And could it be leather?
Well, it’s more likely than you’d think.
Based in the U.K., a material innovation outfit named Gen Phoenix has been producing what it calls “sustainable leather” for over fifteen years. Now, you may be skeptical – and rightly so: “sustainable” and “leather” aren’t words you often hear together outside of pro-leather industry briefings, and Gen Phoenix is also an extremely corny name, ripped straight out of a sixties sci-fi novel.
Still, it’s true: diverting animal leathers from landfill, Gen Phoenix breaks down the discarded products into fibers – and, using only a high-pressure water system – wraps them around a high-performance core, creating a material that is more durable than the initial landfill-bound leather.
Yes, it’s still animal-derived. Yes, the way those initial leathers were created was both cruel and environmentally unsound, but the repurposing and reformatting process used by Gen Phoenix isn’t either of those things.
Here, we have a low-plastic product (much animal leather is still coated in PU for durability), created from post-consumer waste, given new life and extra strength by a low-impact process, possibly lasting for decades longer without doing further harm to the planet.
“Without those original virgin leathers we wouldn’t even be having this conversation, and – without the carbon contributions of the meat industrial complex and its subsidiaries – we’d be having our hands less actively forced on climate action overall.”
And they’re not the only ones who’ve caught on to this idea. Founded in 2007, Gen Phoenix had been a relatively small concern until earlier this year when secured 18 million USD in funding to continue and to refine its work. According to Fashion United, “The investment was led by venture capital firm Material Impact, with participation from industry leaders such as Dr. Martens, InMotion Ventures (the investment arm of Jaguar Land Rover), and Tapestry (the house of modern luxury lifestyle brands, including Coach, Stuart Weitzman, and Kate Spade),” the latter or which also just purchased Versace parent company Capri.
These are, it goes without saying, big names. Big names, with big money, and big influence over their various industries. That they’re showing an interest in transitioning from virgin leathers to recycled leathers, or even just away from toxic and misleading “vegan” pleather, could genuinely shift the balance.
There are other big names working on this front, too. Names like H&M – which, again, you’d be right to raise an eyebrow at, given the covert fast fashion conglomerate’s general approach to Earth-friendlier (or even people-friendlier) practices.
Partnering with The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA), the H&M Foundation – the corporations “philanthropic” arm, created to “accelerate solutions towards a socially inclusive and planet positive textile industry” – is putting resources toward recycled leather as a viable (if temporary) solution.
The project, which, according to JustStyle, is looking to “scale a technology that creates a bio-based alternative to the PU and PVC used in the binding operation of recycled leather,” would take rough edges off of the process and remove plastics from the equation entirely. What you’d be left with, in theory, is a largely organic product derived entirely from post-consumer waste. Like recycled plastic, but – you know – without the plastic.
Of course, none of this means that vegan folks and other anti-leather or animal cruelty activists should suddenly abandon their principles; it doesn’t mean, all of a sudden, being philosophically okay with wearing leather. It still, after all, came from the same place, once upon a time, and if you can’t stomach that on an ethical level then that’s not suddenly a regressive moral choice.
Far from it, in fact: without those original virgin leathers we wouldn’t even be having this conversation, and – without the carbon contributions of the meat industrial complex and its subsidiaries – we’d be having our hands less actively forced on climate action overall.
But projects like these could be a turning point. An out for those companies as yet unready to totally ditch leather, and a way to divest from virgin animal products.
It won’t satisfy everyone – nothing ever does – but it could provide a way forward in the short term, limiting both plastic usage and dealing a blow to the high-impact, high-cruelty leather industry.
Of course, we still have plastic being produced by other industries and recycling it is still better than unleashing it upon the world and its waters. But, considering that so little of the plastic made each year is actually recycled – “Only 9% of plastic waste is recycled (15% is collected for recycling but 40% of that is disposed of as residues,” according to the OECD – it can’t be the only focus and, perhaps, shouldn’t even be the main focal point of sustainability.
Plastic is still plastic, leather is still leather. Neither one is good for the planet, its people, or its other living inhabitants. But new ways forward are always welcome, no matter how imperfect they may seem. Progress first – perfection comes later.