The Chemistry

February 02, 2018

The Chemistry

I recently read a Facebook comment from someone who eats a plant-based diet yet still espouses the merits of leather because she feels it lasts so much longer than alternative made from synthetic materials (i.e. vegan products). She cited the relative environmental benefits of leather in comparison. Not. So. Fast. 

I'm the first to admit that navigating sustainable fashion and determining the "best choice with the least impact" can be tricky. Making an apples to apples comparison is simply not possible, particularly when, in the case of leather, we are talking about ending the life of a sentient being. 

Let's de-construct the proposed benefits of leather over vegan shoes, shall we?

1. Durability: This really isn't a leather vs. non-leather question. There are plenty of well-made vegan shoes. Case in point: all of the shoes we carry at SOULiers Studio. In many cases, the shoes we carry are made in factories where generations and generations of shoe artisans have homed their craft. Care is taken to make sure they will be durable. Round 1: Leather: 0; Vegan Shoes: 1. 

2. Environmental Impacts: Ok so we've debunked the leather vs. vegan shoe myth when it comes to durability and quality. I've been meaning to cover leather processing for quite some time - the tanning, the preservation, the dyes used. This process is largely very very harsh. That's not to say that vegan shoes made of synthetic materials like PVC are better if you're simply looking at environmental impacts and not thinking about the loss of life. Refer back to our previous blog post entitled "We Are Living in a Material World" for an exploration of the impacts and best choices for materials used in vegan footwear. 

Tanning

Tanning is basically the process of "mummifying" the animal hide so that it doesn't rot. The hair/fur is removed as is the fat. There are many types of tanning - vegetable tanning, synthetic tanning, aldehyde tanning, and chromium tanning. For the sake of this blog post, we're going to focus on chromium tanning since it's the most common and, unfortunately, one of the most noxious processes out there. The hide is first pickled in chromium salts, compounds like arsenic, formaldehyde, and tanning liquor. It is then dried. Depending on the desired material outcome, the hide is then made thinner, re-tanned, and lubricated before the dyeing process which most often uses cyanide. We all know that arsenic and cyanide are poisons.  

Sadly, the workers in tanneries can be adversely affected as well. Workers are often exposed directly to the chemicals that lead to health issues. Arsenic has been linked to lung cancer and other exposure to chemicals in the tanning process have been linked to leukemia. 

Not only do the worker standards tend to be lax in developing countries where the vast majority of tanning takes place (like China, India, Bangladesh) but so too do the environmental standards.  Big vats of chromium tanning liquid go untreated, creating major water pollution. And then there is the solid waste generated from the parts of the animal that aren't used. 

We haven't EVEN covered the environmental destruction associated with raising animals in the first place - GHG emissions from methane gas, waste created from the animals' excrement, the vast amounts of water it takes to raise the animals, and the vast land masses that are clearcut . I'm exasperated just thinking about it. 

So what's the answer then? Put on your pajamas and hide under your duvet? Well that does sound AMAZING but it's better to inform yourself! Choose vegan footwear that is ethically-made, durable, and made of environmentally-preferable materials and do your best to remove animal products from your life. It might seem like a daunting task because animal consumption and animal products have become the norm and are, sadly, ubiquitous in North America. The tide is shifting though. The vegan movement is growing. These days, it's pretty easy to take on a vegan lifestyle without feeling like you're missing out - the food (oh the food), the fashion, the social engagement. It's all so worthwhile and meaningful. 

xo

Lise

 




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