Updated: Mar 23, 2022
In our previous blog, we saw how the material from which a routine item like a toothbrush is made, can have enormous environmental repercussions. Let us dig into another such piece this time. Do me a favor, take a good look at your handbag which might be lying beside you right now, and observe what material it is made of. If it is made from natural fibers like seagrass, straw, or organic cotton, or is upcycled, then take a pat on your back.
On average, women tend to own somewhere between 5 to 14 bags without realizing how environmentally intensive it is to manufacture every single bag. Handbags are most popularly made from either leather or faux leather- we popularly call, rexine. (Rexine is actually a trademark of a UK-based company Rexine Ltd.) Depending upon what material, the air, and water are polluted during their production, use as well as disposal.
The dark side of the leather industry
Leather is the most luxurious and desirable of them all undoubtedly. But the environmental aspect of it is much elusive. The common notion is that it is completely biodegradable since it is just animal skin which is a byproduct of the meat industry anyhow. And so it is also environment friendly. This is true for animal hide so to say, however, did you know that the hide must be treated through several steps like soaking, liming, dehairing, deliming, tanning, and finishing, using God knows how many chemicals, to convert it into the supple material that we call leather. Chemicals like Chromium, kerosene, pesticides, acids, and high volumes of water are used during leather processing. A leather processing unit looks appalling and in sharp contrast to the alluring luxury stores where finished leather items are sold. Many leather tanneries are in developing countries like China, India, Brazil, and Bangladesh. Good working conditions are the least of the concerns. As a result, the poorly paid tannery workers who are sometimes children as young as age 8, are faced with risks of skin diseases, asthma, allergies, and even cancer.
There is a slightly better option- vegetable tanned leather. This method uses plant derived tannins from vegetables and tree barks instead of chromium. As it does utilize chemicals during other steps like liming, bleaching, and finishing hence the process is not completely free from chemicals.
Vegan or faux leather is nothing, but a material made to look like leather but without using animal skin. Commonly sold vegan leather is nothing but plastic made to mimic leather. Made from PVC or polyurethane, such vegan leather is also called ‘Pleather’ which implies plastic leather, and although it doesn’t kill animals it is raising environmental concerns. PVC as we know is a very harmful plastic as it contains various additives that can off gas and release toxins into the air. Polyurethane although slightly less harmful is still plastic and bags made from it are less durable having to be replaced more often. Yes, there are plant-based leather options like those made from pineapple fiber or cork but these materials also often need plastic based adhesives for binding. What good is saving animals and using plastic bags that are going to land in the trash and maybe in the ocean putting marine animals' lives at risk? Also, look and durability vise I don’t think it stands anywhere close to real leather. One pretty much ends up replacing a vegan leather bag every year. Animal activists, vegans, and other concerned people might often end up overlooking the environmental aspect and fall prey to the marketing. Faux leather is marketed extensively as companies want to make the most of popular vegan values.
Your next buy can be a plant fiber bag
A routine action of simply walking into a mall and buying a bag that we like the most and fits in our budget, we hardly worry about sustainability. Despite that, a completely sustainable material is making comeback in fashion trends, and that is bags, made from plant fibers. These bags are made from various kinds of plant fibers like banana fiber, seaweed, wood wicker, hemp, and jute. Plant fibers do not take much processing before they are turned not bags. Generally, the plants are cut and retted (other plant material is rotten away by immersing the plant stems in water or simply lying on the ground under natural dew for a few days) to obtain fibers. Once fibers are separated and cleaned, they are woven in different shapes making tote bags, beach bags, coin purses, backpacks, etc. Now these fibers are occasionally dyed, and these dyes are usually chemical-based. We gotta keep this point in mind and replace two of our rexine or leather bags with those made from plant fiber. That way, we can reduce some amount of pollution caused by leather and pleather and also bring about a shift in market demand. “Sustainability is always a series of compromises based on priorities and we need a lot of people doing some things better rather than a few people doing everything perfectly.”- Dr. Amanda Parkes
· Use all your bags until the very end of their life.
· Don’t throw away your bags when they start looking a little old. Donate it to someone needy.
· Let your next purchase be a plant fiber bag.
· If you must, then buy only one leather bag that will be so classic that it suits most of your outfits and lasts you a lifetime. Try to buy a vegetable-tanned one or better still, see if you can get a hold of an upcycled leather bag.
By Prajakta Kelkar for The Eco Loop
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