This post is generously sponsored by Bourgeois Boheme. As always, EcoCult only partners with companies we believe are making the world a better place. Support EcoCult’s editorial by supporting them!
You don’t have to be vegan to dislike leather.
We now know that fashion is the fifth most polluting industry on the planet, equal to livestock. The leather industry combines both of those, taking a huge toll on not only the environment but also the animals and people involved.
The leather industry would like you to think they’re doing the world a favor by taking this animal waste from the meat market and keeping it out of landfills. As people are eating less meat, however, leather companies are finding themselves in trouble. Although white meat consumption is still on the rise, beef consumption (the primary animal used in leather making) in the US has been on the steady decline, beginning in the 1970s, and has plateaued over the past five years. This has left luxury leather companies in short supply. In an effort to gain more control over their stock, these companies are actually purchasing the farms and tanneries used to make their high-end leather shoes and handbags. This means the ‘leather is a byproduct’ argument is no longer a valid one since brands are now using farms as leather factories for their primary use. (Of course, there will always be exceptions to this if the brand is extremely intentional about their sourcing… but we know that unfortunately, most brands are not).
There is nothing ethical or sustainable about conventional leather tanning. There are several different processes used to tan leather, but the one primarily used today is by far the most toxic. Chromium salts (a chemical considered toxic by the EPA) and tanning liquor is used to create a hazardous slush, in which the leather is soaked and pickled, then dried, thinned, softened, colored, and shaped. This leftover toxic chromium waste gets dumped into waterways in places like China, India, and Bangladesh, countries where environmental regulations are either non-existent or not enforced and also happen to be some of the biggest leather-producing countries in the world. Along with chromium, other chemicals like lead, formaldehyde, phosphorus, cyanide, and nitrates wreak havoc on rivers and streams, and a lot of it ends up in landfills. All of this noxious waste generated by the tanning process can damage fish gills, cause health defects, and incite a number of serious cancers in animals throughout the food chain. Not to mention, these tanneries are using up a ton of energy, leaving quite a large carbon footprint.
The leather industry is no different than pretty much every other sector of fashion manufacturing. Workers in developing countries, where most leather is produced, are exposed to tons of toxic chemicals, acids, and solvents, which can cause burns, serious long-term health effects, and other injuries. It is not uncommon for workers to come in contact with anthrax, for which raw hide is a breeding ground. A lack of proper safety protocols often end in injury from heavy machinery or drowning. Many of these workers are children.
Chromium is a carcinogen which, when inhaled, irritates workers’ respiratory tracts and increases risk of lung and sinus cancer, not to mention asthma, bronchitis, and other short and long-term respiratory issues. When it comes into contact with the skin, chromium causes dry, cracked, and scaly skin, and produced “chrome holes” that don’t go away. Leather tanning has been shown to increase risk of not only respiratory cancers, but also pancreatic, bladder, skin, and testicular cancer among workers.
Why Typical Vegan Leather Isn’t Eco-Friendly
You’ve most likely come across ‘vegan leather’ at some point, but it’s a tricky term. The majority of today’s most widely used leather alternatives are no better for the environment. The most commonly used vegan leather uses PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride), which is carbon-intensive, doesn’t biodegrade, and just adds to the toxins in landfills (hello, greenwashing!). Not to mention, it comes with its own adverse health effects. PU is the slightly more sustainable synthetic alternative, but can still be toxic if manufactured irresponsibly.
Several sustainable designers and manufacturers are experimenting with using renewable and biodegradable resources like cork, paper, kelp, mushrooms, tree bark, waxed leather, recycled rubber, slate stone, and even apples and kombucha tea! Each of these options comes with its own pros and cons and some of them have yet to be developed past an experimental stage. Cork, for example, has been used by many brands, even less than sustainable ones like Chanel. It is durable, easily recycled, and water-resistant, but… it clearly looks like cork.
Mushroom skin is being developed by a couple startups. It has a lot of potential: renewable, biodegradable, and vegetarian. The only downside it’s not available to buy yet.
Another innovative company called Modern Meadow is using technology to actually grow leather in a lab using a process they call ‘biofabrication.’ They start with living cells, grow collagen (a natural protein found in animal skin), form it into a sheet material, and then minimally tan it through a closed-loop system. This is another alternative leather option that has a lot of potential, but isn’t yet ready to reach the consumer.
And the One Eco-Friendly Vegan Leather You Can Buy Now
There is one eco-friendly leather alternative that you can get your hands on now, however. The vegan shoe brand Bourgeois Boheme is providing you with truly ethical, sustainable leather alternative with Piñatex, a natural and sustainable non-woven textile made from waste pineapple leaves fibers. Obviously, pineapple leaves are a natural byproduct of pineapples, which means they require no extra land, water, or other resources in the initial production phase. This innovative and unique material which resembles leather is durable but also breathable, and comfortable too.
With Piñatex, there are no factory farms involved. Yes, it is finished with a synthetic material, so it is not 100% biodegradable… yet. Piñatex says it’s working on a plant-based alternative finish. But it still represents a huge leap forward in sustainability, providing extra income for pineapple farmers, and no animals, people, or rivers were harmed in the making of these shoes.
I tried them out, and found them to be comfortable –– with the same feel of leather –– and attractive. So much so, that I took my real leather slides to the consignment store!
Could this be the thing I’ve been searching for all these years? It actually just might be. And I’m thrilled Bourgeois Boheme is on the vanguard of this world-changing innovation.