Learning through Action

I'm Lauren and this blog began as a journey to live a life with less environmental impact.  As my journey led me to Myanmar, my focus shifted from aspiration to advocacy. 

This project is an effort to provide a glimpse into my life in Myanmar—the people, places, and issues that inspire and teach me as I continue this adventure towards a more sustainable life.   

To learn more, click "About" above, and stay tuned for updates.

Follow Living Neutral

Entries in fashion (1)

Thursday
Apr122012

Style and Sustainablity: The Environmental Impact of Handbags 

 

When I received a request to research the sustainability of handbags, I had two reactions.  First, I felt a surge of guilt, knowing that the leather handbags sitting in my closet are far from eco-friendly.  Second, I thought information and alternatives to traditional products would be easily found.  Nearly every woman I know owns at least one handbag.  Surely, this must mean that information on the issue would be prolific.  I assumed incorrectly.  As I’ve discovered, there is little transparency in the fashion industry.  Unlike other products, there appears to be little push for eco-friendly handbag substitutes and consumers seem content with mainstream design.  I must confess that I have been guilty of purchasing based on aesthetic whim rather than considering looks and environmental impacts.  While the impacts of individual products remains unclear, here is what I was able to learn and what will now inform my future handbag decisions:

The Impacts of Leather

Most designer handbags are made of leather.  Leather requires cows, and raising cows creates impacts due to their grazing, the land needed to raise them, and the carbon emissions they produce.  Leather manufacturing also has environmental costs, at all stages of the three-step process: preparatory stages, tanning, and crusting.  Dehairing during the preparatory stages uses chemicals such as sodium sulfide, sodium hydroxide, sodium hydrosulfite, arsenic sulfide, calcium hydrosulfide, dimethyl amine, and sodium sulphydrate.  This process creates air pollution (hydrogen sulfide during dehairing and ammonia during deliming).  Chemicals are also used in traditional tanning processes, and the amount of energy required to create a usable leather hide is 20 times greater than what is required to produce synthetic materials.

Leather biodegrades, albeit slowly for a natural product.  The 25-40 years it takes for leather to decompose is much shorter than the 500 or more years it takes for petro-chemical derived materials. Where leather production occurs also affects its environmental impacts.  For example, India is the third-largest producer and exporter of leather.  Its lax environmental laws, however, allows tanneries to create far greater amounts of hazardous waste without repercussions.  Producers have dumped wastewater directly into waterways and wetlands.  This occurs in other countries with loose environmental regulations, and at times in those with more stringent laws.

There has been a move by local artisans to use vegetable and naturally tanned organic leather, which greatly reduces the toxicity stemming from the traditional process.  This does not eliminate the ethical and animal-cruelty arguments against leather's use, and the reasons designers like Stella McCartney refuse to incorporate it in their products.  Vegetable tanning also uses the same energy intensive process as its traditional counterpart.

Alternatives to leather are discussed below.  Bear in mind, however, that petro-chemical based materials have vast environmental impacts.  The use of plant-derived or renewable fabrics is on the rise, which offers a promising shift in the handbag industry. 

Environmental costs of traditional production

There has also been a move to place a monetary value on environmental impacts by large corporations.  PPR, parent of upscale designers like Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Bottega Veneta, Boucheron, Girard-Perrecaux and Sergion Rossi, claims that it will incorporate the impact of ecosystem services in its reporting by 2015.  This means that monetary costs will be associated with the environmental impact of these companies' products.  Puma, also a PPR brand, recently estimated its ecosystem costs at $196 million a year.  These costs cover water consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and land use costs.  Half of these costs are related to raw materials.  Louis Vuitton has also implemented a carbon inventory to measure its footprint and reduce carbon emissions.  They have also agreed to donate 15% of online sales to The Climate Project, but admit that eco-friendly materials are not a priority in its product lines. 

What does this mean for the impact of individual products?  First, that the environmental impact of raw materials—like leather, cotton, and rubber—are not only drastically underestimated in current production, they aren’t a factor at all.  While the promise to estimate impact by these high-end designers is admirable, these costs do not affect companies’ net earnings and are currently not addressed in most corporate reporting.  This means that the impact of a product-line, much less an individual product, is often not calculated.  If it is calculated, it need not be transparent.  Little information exists about these products because such information is not required.  This also means, when selecting an individual product, material matters.  Eco-friendly handbags are made out of eco-friendly materials.  It’s that simple.

Eco-friendly Handbag Materials:

What are eco-friendly materials?  Look for organically grown fibers.  Traditional cotton, for example, requires oil for production and use of pesticides and fertilizers needed for cotton.  Alternatively, organic cotton is durable, washable and reusable and does not rely on pesticides. Bamboo is also an excellent substitute for traditional materials.  Organic fibers are biodegradable and do not require the bevy of chemicals often used in synthetics, or traditional materials via pesticides. 

Recycled materials are also popular in handbags.  Foil wrappers, seat belts, and other recycled materials are repurposed into fashion items.  If you like the look, Ecoist makes an array of recycled handbags.  It’s worth considering, however, that even recycled materials have impacts.  Recycled vinyl, for example, will take 500 years to biodegrade in a landfill and will leach its chemical contents into the ground.  This may make naturally tanned leather preferable. 

As well as being functional, handbags are often a reflection of style, an individual statement used on a daily basis.  For those wishing to make a statement about their commitment to renewable energy, they can invest in a solar powered bag.  Others may wish to choose organic materials or plant-based bags.  In the past, solar bags have meant a sacrifice of style.  Yet the handbags made by Noon Solar are attractive and functional.  They can charge your electronic gadgets in a matter of minutes.  Each is made with vegetable tanned and dyed leather with an interior of organic hemp and cotton hand-dyed with natural pigments.  The hardware and panels are also removable so the bag is fully biodegradable should you ever wish to part with it.   Noon Solar’s collection includes non-solar bags made out of natural materials, including organic hemp, cork and cotton.

Buy Local, Used, or Nothing at All

Before purchasing a new handbag, stop, look in your closet, and consider if you really need a new one.  If you are like me, you probably use the same one or two bags most of the time.  If you are going to get a new bag, you may want to visit a second-hand store.  You can find great vintage or well-loved bags there, and sell or trade one of your own underused bags at the same time.   If you are looking for a unique, new bag, turn to local artisans first.  A simple internet search will turn up many, or visit local craft fairs and ask the vendor how he or she makes their products.  This is a link to a local designer I found in the Bay area.  Local purchase also reduces the impacts from manufacture and transport of large brand-named bags.  Finally, any bag you purchase should be one you intend to use.  Environmental impacts aside, finding a versatile bag will allow you to get more use out of the bag, offers to weather ever-changing trends, and prevents additional purchases and an accumulation of unused bags.