In January of last year Elon Musk revealed Tesla’s state-of-the-art Model X. It was not only the futuristic outside looks of it which caught people’s attention, but the insides of it too; as this seven-seater SUV featured unique smooth white faux leather seats that were later praised by many customers. Now, over the course of this past weekend, Tesla has removed all mentions of regular leather from its website and has instead replaced it with synthetic leather (Tesla’s “premium” designation); which many refer to as vegan leather.
Although some car parts, such as the steering wheel will still be made of traditional leather; this awaited move forward probably comes as a response to Tesla’s 2015 shareholders meeting, in which many investors demanded the presence of more non-animal-based interior materials as alternatives to regular leather.
With “accelerating the world’s transition to sustainable energy” as its mission statement, this sudden change came as Tesla’s next expected maneuver.
Besides being in line with the company’s values, this decision also comes as a response to the critical situation revolving the livestock and meat industry which obviously remains strongly connected to the leather industry.
Yet, it still raises questions on whether the choice of a synthetic material was amongst the most sustainable of options. Given that within these types of man-made materials you can still find the presence of phthalates as well as chemicals and solvents that are used in their production processes; let alone the environmental impact of when being discarded and disposed.
On the other hand, car manufacturers have been using synthetic materials as cheaper options to leather for years; so what makes Tesla’s vegan synthetic material so special?
It is estimated that 65% of all leather goods have their origins on cowhide, sheep, pig and goat skins; most of the time coming as by-products of the meat industry (The Ethical Fashion Source, 2016). Once the animal’s skin is obtained it goes through a three step process. The first stage includes the cleaning of the skin along with hair removal; followed by the treating stage, in which the rolling and dyeing of this material is carried out. Lastly, the coloring, embossing and waxing are executed during the finishing stage.
The environmental and ethical problem of the leather industry
Even though the leather industry is a lot less talked over in comparison to that of the livestock and meat industry, these two are intrinsically related to each other and are both liable for environmental and social devastation and damage.
Animal agriculture is accountable for around 18% of greenhouse gas emissions; whereas livestock and their by-product are responsible for approximately 32,000 tons of CO2 per year, translating into 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Methane emissions from livestock in the United States are almost identical to that of natural gas; with cows producing about 150 billion gallons per day (Cowspiracy, 2017). As explained previously in our Weekly Roundup, methane is considered to be 20 times more powerful than Carbon Dioxide (CO2); and some scientists have even recognized it as having “a global warming potential of 86 times that of CO2 on a 20 year time frame” (Cowspiracy, 2017).
When it comes to water usage, from 34 to 76 trillion gallons of water are consumed by animal agriculture per year. That is 80% to 90% of total water consumption in the U.S. Livestock also takes up 45% of our planet’s total land, produces 116,000 of waste per second in U.S. territory only; and “animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91% of amazon destruction” (Cowspiracy, 2017).
This hurling of facts could continue to become an exhaustive tainted record of an industry that has longed been meticulously protected by the government in our own country and several others. But the negative repercussions surrounding the leather industry do not stop there.
The tanning or treating stage of the leather process discussed earlier releases hazardous chemicals and gases; such as chromium, lead, arsenic, zinc or acids; as well as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide or carcinogenic arylamines. Regulations in industrialized countries like the U.S. and Europe are often so rigorous that numerous tanneries have already closed. In developing countries however, reality is a lot more severe.
One of the most notoriously affected places in the world happens to be the neighborhood of Hazaribagh in Bangladesh; considered to be one of the most polluted places on Earth. Hazaribagh holds to between 90% to 95% of all tanneries in the country; being a major exporter to countries like the U.S., China, South Korea, Japan, Italy, Germany and Spain. Dumping 22,000 cubic liters of toxic waste per day, next to a lack of monitoring and enforcement of regulations has led to overwhelming environmental and social consequences.
Working under inhumane conditions and living on the edge of contaminated streams and canals has caused inhabitants to display health conditions ranging from disfigured and amputated limbs to itchy, acid-burned, peeling skin; or from respiratory problems to fevers; frequently involving 10 year old children who usually work in tanneries with little to no protective attire.
After years of neglecting this serious problem, the local government decided to relocate the tanneries to a Leather Industrial Park and in 2003 bought land in Savar located around 25 kilometers away from Hazaribagh. Resistance from both tannery owners and workers stopped this from happening, and was until earlier this year in which stronger measures were taken to mobilize people. The benefits of this plan are yet to be seen and the question of whether the problem is being solved or just relocated will be answered in months or years to come.
Sustainable and vegan leather
Pineapple, bananas, mushrooms and even cork oak trees present some options for moving away from the self-defeating production of animal sourced leathers. Piñatex™ for instance sources its leather from pineapple leaves by using the by-product of pineapple farming. Even though they are not very informative about the process behind creating this innovative leather, its corresponding company Ananas Anam does claim that chemical used for the material’s production are non-harmful to the environment. Company Green Banana Paper manufacture their leather-paper by using recycled banana tree trunks, using rain water for the paper production and later neutralizing it in their water tank after having been mixed with soda ash to boil the fibers and before re-introducing it to the soil. MuSkin and Qeuork offer unique yet similar products made out of mushrooms and cork oak trees.
The fact that Tesla has mostly stopped using traditional leather is great news for the car industry, as maybe other car manufacturers will now be more inclined to choose this same route and adopt similar practices. The choice of material as replacement however, leaves a lot of room for improvement. With other sustainable options available out there, perhaps they could have done more effort in coming up with the best answer to the problem at hand. But hope remains in that maybe they will now start evolving and progressing in the area of vegan leather. In the meantime we look forward to seeing what this innovative company will have to offer in the years to come.
Ananas Anam “Introducing Piñatex™” Sustainable Natural Textiles. July 2017. Web.. 25 July 2017.
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