Fact or Fiction: More water is used to make genuine automotive leather

In Article, Fact3 Minutes

Month: January 2024

Water is one of the world's most important elements and is crucial in the production of genuine automotive leather, and its use and reduction are something the automotive tanneries take very seriously. Water usage has reduced significantly in the past few decades*, and the latest innovations will see this reduce further, lessening their impact on the planet.

It takes an average of 121 litres of water** to make 1m2 of finished automotive leather. A finished UK hide is, on average, 4.1m2 and weighs 3.7kg***, giving us a figure of 109 litres of water used to make 1kg of finished automotive leather. Please read this earlier article which lays out how and where the water is used during production.

Let’s review this against “vegan leather”, often quoted online and in the media as a more sustainable alternative to genuine leather. A large proportion of vegan leather contains a high percentage of plastic (PU, PVC and rPET), which is used to bond plant-based materials such as pineapple leaves, cork, apple peels, etc, to produce this artificial material.

Water is one of the world's most important elements and is crucial in the production of genuine automotive leather, and its use and reduction are something the automotive tanneries take very seriously.

Water is used at each phase of the plastic life cycle, from the extraction of oil or natural gas to the various steps involved in producing the resins that eventually give rise to different types of plastic. The total water footprint calculates the entire volume of freshwater consumed during the entire production process. It is important to include both the “blue” and “grey” components when calculating this. The blue water footprint encompasses water consumption during drilling, refining, and manufacturing, while the grey water footprint takes into account the water needed to mitigate pollution during the production process.

If we take the production of PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) as an example, the blue water footprint is quoted**** as 10 litres per kg, but when you add the grey water footprint, it rises to 235 litres per kg.

Some leather alternatives now claim to use rPET, and water is also heavily used in the recycling of plastic, as well as in the production process of the finished material. When you add these all together, the water required to make this leather alternative is two to three times that of genuine automotive leather, clearly showing why it’s a more sustainable choice for your car interior.

Reference And Sources Used
* https://sustainfashion.info/water-in-leather-production-the-incredible-shrinking-act/

** www.cotance.com/doc/SER/European%20Leather%20Industry%20-%20Social%20and%20Environmental%20Report%202020%20-%20EN%20web.pdf

*** FAO Global compendium on conversion factors for raw hides and skins and leather using UK statistics

**** https://foodprint.org/blog/plastic-water-bottle/

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    5 Reasons Why Leather Car Interiors Are the Sustainable Choice

    In Article7 Minutes

    Month: January 2024

    As a global collective, we are all focused on how we can reduce carbon emissions and our impact on the planet for current and future generations. Reducing the use of fossil fuels and reducing our reliance on them is critical, and the textile industry needs to play a big part in this.

    Leather manufacturing has been featured in the press and self-serving websites in the last few years about how detrimental it is to the planet, but how accurate are these statements, and how many are myths with hidden agendas? Here are five good reasons to question what you’re led to believe.

    1. Leather is upcycled from a waste product.

    • Leather is a by-product of the meat and dairy industry, confirmed by the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) in 2022. The farmer receives just 1%-2% of the total value of the cattle from their hides, which indicates that cattle are not raised to make leather, it wouldn’t be financially viable.
    • If animal hides weren’t used to make leather, they would be sent to landfills where they would rot and emit CO2. If the automotive industry stopped using leather in cars, an extra 644 million kg of CO2e would be emitted annually. Still, if they increased the use of leather in cars by just 10%, it would prevent 3.5 million hides from landfills, saving over 64 million kg of CO2

    2. Using leather in cars prevents harmful virgin materials from being created

    • Whilst the current demand for meat and dairy continues, there will always be cattle hides that we can use or discard. Using leather, an upcycled natural by-product, in a car interior is better for the planet than manufacturing a new leather alternative material.
    • Synthetic alternatives to traditional leather, often called ‘Vegan Leather,’ primarily consist of artificial materials, typically comprising approximately 80-90% polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) for binding. Some manufacturers of these alternatives engage in greenwashing; some claim to use recycled PET (rPET) and present it as environmentally friendly. The reality is that new virgin plastic needs to be produced to replace this to make new bottles, packaging, etc.1, resulting in the extraction of more fossil fuels from the earth, producing large amounts of CO2e that damage the planet. Why create a new, harmful product when a more sustainable, natural alternative exists?

    Leather is part of a circular process where everything can be used, repurposed, or recycled. PU/PVC-based composite materials, often mixed with fruit or vegetables like pineapple or mushrooms, are part of a linear process as it's extremely difficult and expensive to recycle once discarded, so they are destined for landfill.

    3. Leather is part of the circular economy

    • Leather is part of the circular economy, where every part of the cow is used, and nothing is wasted. The hides are upcycled into leather, a natural material with a biogenic carbon count of over 80%. Upon reaching the end of its life, it can be composted to enrich the soil. This, in turn, nurtures grass growth, providing sustenance for the cows that initiate this regenerative cycle all over again.
    • Compare this to most new plastic and fossil-fuel-based leather alternatives that are linear. Commonly, a plant-based material, like mushrooms or pineapple husks, is mixed with fossil fuels like PU or PVC (in the region of 80 – 90% of the total) to create a composite material. There is no simple or cost-effective way to recycle these products, so they end up in landfill, a “Take, Make, Waste” approach with a tangible impact on the planet. However, we are led to believe that they are more sustainable.

    4. Leather has a long lifespan

    • Fast fashion has become increasingly popular in society, but more and more people are understanding that ‘buy once, buy well’ is a more sustainable approach and better for the planet.
    • Automotive leather, which is simple and cheap to maintain, will last decades, still look and perform great, and have a lower environmental cost-per-use impact throughout its lifetime. Most ‘vegan leather’, on the other hand, is likely to have a much shorter lifespan before it cracks and peels and needs replacing, usually with PU/PVC covers made from harmful petrochemical-based products.
    • There have been high-profile cases in the media of car owners reporting significant issues with ‘vegan leather interiors’, which bubble and blister after short periods. These materials do not have the performance, durability, and lifespan of genuine leather and will likely need replacing during the car’s expected lifespan.

    5.Leather reduces the impact on the planet

    • Ocean plastic pollution has highlighted how important it is that materials can degrade back into the natural environment.
    • Leather is naturally biodegradable. A rawhide will decompose quickly, and a tanned hide will take 10 to 50 years, depending on how it is processed. When you compare this to ‘vegan leather’, it’s a fraction of the time. With no current viable option but landfill, these plastic and fossil-fuel-based synthetics will still be around in 500 – 1,000 years, emitting dangerous gases and microplastics that are harmful to the environment and human health.
    • In recent years, automotive tanneries have invested heavily in ensuring leather is produced more sustainably and environmentally friendly, reducing the carbon impact. Current developments in sustainable tanning and finishing reduce the time it takes to biodegrade or turn into compost, further lessening the impact on the planet.

    1 https://www.packaginginsights.com/news/fabricating-the-loop-how-fashion-disrupts-the-circular-plastics-economy-and-what-the-eu-must-do.html

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