Sustainability covers so many aspects, from climate change and deforestation to human rights and education. Just look at the huge range of topics covered by the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
With so many different labels and so many aspects to consider, it’s difficult to know what they actually mean and which is ‘better’.
And just because a product scores points in one area doesn’t mean it does everywhere.
For instance, consumers often buy almond milk to avoid supporting the environmentally destructive dairy industry. Yet almonds are a water-intensive crop, and the majority of them are grown in drought-hit California. But if you think that means it would be better to stick to dairy, then you might want to think again: a glass of almond milk still requires less water to produce than a typical glass of dairy milk.
It’s a trade-off.
Most of the time, there is no one ‘right’ product to buy.
Let’s take the leather industry as an example.
Why we need an alternative to real leather
As a co-product of the livestock industry, leather is part of an industry that is responsible for an estimated 14.5% of all human-induced CO2 emissions. And a direct driver of worldwide deforestation.
And transforming hides into leather is just as problematic. It is incredibly water-intensive and uses a high concentration of harmful chemicals, with catastrophic consequences for workers’ health, biodiversity and soil.
Is vegan leather the answer?
Cruelty-free alternatives to fur and leather are often made from plastics, such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU). As well as supporting the oil industry, these plastics will not biodegrade at the end of their life cycle. Instead, they will likely contaminate their surroundings with microplastics as they degrade, damaging wildlife and marine life, harming the animals that vegan consumers want to protect.
As a result, demand for plant-based leather has increased. Consumers have power, you see! Companies are now experimenting with a whole range of different natural materials, including cork, apple, mushrooms and pineapple. Many of these are by-products of other industries, such as fruit, cider, wine and juice. Great right?
Unfortunately, that’s not the whole picture. Some plant-based leathers add a thin layer of PU to act as a binding agent, meaning they are not fully biodegradable.
So we can’t win?
Don’t worry. It’s not all doom and gloom.
It’s just that nothing’s perfect.
Piñatex, a pineapple leather, for example, uses a water-based PU resin. As it stands, 13 million tonnes of pineapple leaf waste are produced annually and are burned or left to rot, emitting methane. This plant-based leather is therefore using a by-product of the existing agriculture industry, which would otherwise be wasted. Ananas Anam, the company that manufactures Piñatex leather, is a certified B Corporation so meets the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability. As for the PU resin, it is compliant with the EU REACH regulation to improve the protection of human health and the environment from the risks that can be posed by chemicals.
And eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that I said some plant-based leathers have a thin layer of PU. An example of one that doesn’t is Mirum, a plant-based leather that Allbirds recently invested in. It is made from a combination of vegetable oil, natural rubber and other bio-inputs. We can be optimistic about the future as this new material is setting a high bar for the rest of the vegan leather industry.
How you can make a difference
It’s up to consumers to make their own choices and do their research to ensure that products reflect their values. Unfortunately, this may involve trade-offs, like, for example, prioritising animal welfare over plastic pollution. But we can’t let perfect be the enemy of good. By voting with your wallet (whether it’s made of real or vegan leather), you can enact change.
In order to make such trade-offs, consumers need to be able to make conscious choices. Brands and industries need to be as transparent as possible, providing information on all aspects of their products’ life cycles.
Putting the onus on the consumer is unsustainable. We need brands to be fully transparent, so we know exactly what our purchases are and aren’t supporting. With all the info provided on the label, consumers would be able to make conscious choices and play their part in raising standards in a wide range of industries.
And, hopefully, one day, we won’t have to make trade-offs at all!