I recently read an online article by Kate Sheppard called “Is Fake Leather Really More Eco-Friendly Than Real?” in the article Sheppard discussed the actual cost of commonly used leather substitutes, and the synthetic fibers used to create these faux-leather products. The point she was making in the article was that just because an animal didn’t have to directly give up its skin for the product, doesn’t mean that the ecological cost of these types of materials are necessarily lower. In the case of leather substitutes most are plastic based products - which were likely derived from petroleum. While other faux leathers she explains are even made using polyvinyl chloride (better known as PVC), a product that contains, among other chemicals, phthalates which are known to be bad for both humans and the environment.
In the article Sheppard writes that “For nearly every option, one can list off pros and cons. Petroleum for plastics is a depleting resource. Most cotton production involves a lot of water and a chemical pesticides and fertilizers (less than 1 percent of the world's cotton is organically produced). Some companies are starting to make plastics from renewable biopolymers, derived from sources like corn, but those come with the same land-use and lifecycle concerns as bio-fuels. The list goes on and on.”
So I found myself thinking “what’s an environmentally conscientious consumer to do?” One of things mentioned in Sheppard’s article is a process called “Closed-Loop Recycling” a system of production that utilizes the waste, or by product created by one product to make a new one. (For example: recycling waste newspaper to create paper -board or other types of paper). Clothing companies like Patagonia, and Timberland have initialed their own Closed Loop Recycling programs, where customers can return their worn out synthetic products (made from things like polypropylene) back to the company, so that the materials can be used to create new items. Using Closed Loop Recycling you could potentially use the same non-renewable resource over and over again.
The outdoor clothing company Patagonia first began using recycled soda bottles in some of its jackets back in 1993. In more recent years (2005) the clothing company launched their “Common Threads Recycling Program” and began collecting worn out clothing to be made into new items. In 2007 the company announced that its goal was to become a completely closed loop clothing line by the year 2010. In 2010 Patagonia public relations representative Jess Clayton announced that 83 percent of styles in the company’s Spring 2010 line would be completely recyclable. For Fall 2010, that number dropped slightly to 77 percent. But the company was back on track by the Spring 2011 collection, inching closer to their ultimate goal with 90 percent of the products able to be recycled. Though the company didn’t make its initial 2010 deadline, the company eventually was able to achieve their goal of 100 percent recyclability in 2011.
Currently the company’s web page boasts that in the 8 years since the program’s inception, they have recycled over 56.6 tons of warn out Patagonia clothing and gear. Today you can return any Patagonia product to the company and they will reuse it, recycle it into new fabric, or make it into a brand new product all together.
The footwear giant Timberland has launched a similar option, a Closed Loop Recycling Program of their own called “Design for Disassembly” which essentially means the product has been designed so that it can be taken apart for recycling when the product gets worn out. For Timberland this was through their line called “EarthKeepers 2.0” each product in the EarthKeepers 2.0 collection was engineered with disassembly in mind, and because of that approximately 70 to 90 percent of the materials that make up each shoe can be reused or recycled, including the metal hardware which is detachable. Even the leather uppers, straps, and actual foot beds, can be reincarnated into new footwear. Timberland insures that it sources its leathers from an environmentally preferable sources (preferable not perfect). The company also only sources from tanneries that have been given a *Leather Working Group Silver-rating or higher. Plus, they’re all shoed with detachable - and recyclable “Green Rubber “ outsoles, made from recycled rubber, recycled PET (plastic bottles), and other organic content. The company boasts that recycled rubber tires make up nearly half of that content.
So, is Closed Loop recycling the answer to completely eco-friendly consumer goods? Probably not - Certainly not by itself anyway, but it does show that companies are seeing the demand for sustainable practices and materials from consumers, that they’re responding to that demand, and trying to meet it. Programs like these show movement in the right direction, and from some pretty big brand companies. It’s a small step, but it’s a step in the right direction.