Leather is everywhere – in our shoes, our purses and luggage, our winter jackets and stylish furniture – but its effect is seen globally.
To create the leather for our clothing, homewares, and other purposes, billions of cows are slaughtered each year. The livestock sector – which produces both food products and leather – is the biggest use of agricultural land worldwide. Grazing land and farmed feed crops for cattle result in deforestation, eliminating vital carbon sinks, destroying ecosystems, and harming nearby communities. Cows also produce methane: a potent greenhouse gas linked to climate change.
The skin harvested from cattle and other animals goes through a three-step process: preparation, tanning, and crusting (and sometimes finishing as well). Tanning makes the leather flexible and removes hair, fat, and meat, and during crusting, the material gets thinned, dried, softened, and colored through the use of chemicals and machinery. The waste from these processes is full of carcinogenic chemicals – like chromium, a heavy metal used in tanning – and often gets dumped into waterways in countries without strong environmental protection laws, like India, China, and Bangladesh.
Both animal and human abuses are prevalent in the industry; tanneries are known for their dangerous conditions and machinery, as well as exposure to cancer-causing chemicals, according to Gizmodo. While traditional vegan leather removes animal cruelty from the equation, it’s usually made with polyurethane, PVC, and other plastic and synthetic materials that contain hormone-disrupting phthalates, and eventually create microplastics that end up in oceans, natural environments, and even our own bodies.
Yet, the industry is changing, and innovations in leather are abound – and, some of the materials being used might surprise you.
Beneath a cactus’s prickly exterior, Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez have found a new alternative to animal-based leather. The two developed Desserto: a type of leather made from the Nopal cactus, more colloquially known as the Prickly Pear. Top retailers of leather goods like Karl Lagerfeld, Fossil, and Everlane have begun selling products made with the cactus-based leather. Mercedes-Benz has even incorporated Deserttex – the company’s faux-leather product for automobiles – into an electric concept car. …
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