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Innovative vegan leather belt made from mycelium fiber, fungal spores and plant fibers. los_angela / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Leather is everywhere – in our shoes, our purses and luggage, our winter jackets and stylish furniture – but its effect is seen globally. 

To create the leather for our clothing, homewares, and other purposes, billions of cows are slaughtered each year. The livestock sector – which produces both food products and leather – is the biggest use of agricultural land worldwide. Grazing land and farmed feed crops for cattle result in deforestation, eliminating vital carbon sinks, destroying ecosystems, and harming nearby communities. Cows also produce methane: a potent greenhouse gas linked to climate change. 

Leather is everywhere – in our shoes, our purses and luggage, our winter jackets and stylish furniture – but its effect is seen globally. 

To create the leather for our clothing, homewares, and other purposes, billions of cows are slaughtered each year. The livestock sector – which produces both food products and leather – is the biggest use of agricultural land worldwide. Grazing land and farmed feed crops for cattle result in deforestation, eliminating vital carbon sinks, destroying ecosystems, and harming nearby communities. Cows also produce methane: a potent greenhouse gas linked to climate change. 

The skin harvested from cattle and other animals goes through a three-step process: preparation, tanning, and crusting (and sometimes finishing as well). Tanning makes the leather flexible and removes hair, fat, and meat, and during crusting, the material gets thinned, dried, softened, and colored through the use of chemicals and machinery. The waste from these processes is full of carcinogenic chemicals – like chromium, a heavy metal used in tanning – and often gets dumped into waterways in countries without strong environmental protection laws, like India, China, and Bangladesh. 

Both animal and human abuses are prevalent in the industry; tanneries are known for their dangerous conditions and machinery, as well as exposure to cancer-causing chemicals, according to Gizmodo. While traditional vegan leather removes animal cruelty from the equation, it’s usually made with polyurethane, PVC, and other plastic and synthetic materials that contain hormone-disrupting phthalates, and eventually create microplastics that end up in oceans, natural environments, and even our own bodies.  

Yet, the industry is changing, and innovations in leather are abound – and, some of the materials being used might surprise you. 

Cacti 

Beneath a cactus’s prickly exterior, Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez have found a new alternative to animal-based leather. The two developed Desserto: a type of leather made from the Nopal cactus, more colloquially known as the Prickly Pear. Top retailers of leather goods like Karl Lagerfeld, Fossil, and Everlane have begun selling products made with the cactus-based leather. Mercedes-Benz has even incorporated Deserttex – the company’s faux-leather product for automobiles – into an electric concept car. 

If you’ve ever welcomed a cactus into your houseplant family, you know that they’re extremely tolerant of drought. They grow quickly and require very little water: so little that Desserto cacti are only watered with rainfall, so no irrigation tactics are used in their fields. According to the company, the product saves 164,650% of water compared to animal leather, and 190% compared to the polyurethane-based vegan leather.

Cacti even sequester carbon (that is, remove it from the atmosphere). On the company’s 14 acres, the Prickly Pears absorb 8,100 tons of CO2 every year, which is much less than the emissions the products create. Desserto also employs organic growing methods on their land, and uses the byproducts of production for animal feed.

Pineapple Leaves

Does pineapple belong on pizza? And, more importantly, does it belong in leather? Carmen Hijosa thinks so. 

Hijosa, who worked in the leather goods industry for many years, wondered if the strong fibers in pineapple leaves could be used for something. Inspired by Barong Tagalog – a traditional garment in the Philippines made from these fibers – she went on to found Ananas Anam and develop the pineapple-leaf-based product Piñatex, which is now used by Hugo Boss, H&M, Paul Smith, and Nike. The company works with Filipino pineapple farmers, collecting leaves that otherwise would have been left to rot, and thereby turning this agricultural byproduct into a valuable new product. About 480 leaves are used to create one square meter of Piñatex, which weighs and costs less than traditional leather. The cellulose fibers are dried in the sun, purified, and then made into a mesh that’s finished with a plant-based resin. The whole process creates hardly any waste, Hijosa told CNBC in an interview, while 30% of leather skins are typically wasted in the traditional leather-making process. 

Palm Leaves

Dutch designer Tjeerd Veenhoven pioneered Palmleather over a decade ago, ahead of the alternative-leather curve. He wanted to find a use for the leaves of the 80 million Areca Betel Nut Palm trees growing in southern India, which are rarely used. He found that the brittle leaves become more flexible when dipped in a biological softening solution made with glycerin, water, and some other ingredients. Now, local factories in India, the Dominican Republic, and Sri Lanka manufacture Palmleather, which can be used for making bags, book jackets, shoes, and the iconic, unique Palmleather Filigree Rugs. 

Mycelium 

Mushrooms are magic, and many industries have been harnessing their power to break down plastic, fertilize fields, and erect buildings. Why not revolutionize the fashion industry while we’re at it? 

With its versatility and low environmental impact, companies are jumping at the opportunity to grow products with mycelium: the thread-like root structure of fungi. Biotechnology company Bolt Threads released their faux-leather product, Mylo, and in 2021, Mycoworks debuted their mycelium-based leather in the world of high fashion as a Hermès Victoria bag. Unlike some other mushroom leather, they grow the products themselves, engineering the mycelium cells to fill out 3-D structures to the exact specifications of a product, generating almost no waste or scraps in the process. The mycelium is fed a mixture of sawdust and organic materials as it grows, creating a dense, strong material as it expands. 

Apple Scraps

Copenhagen-based Beyond Leather has found a use for the 25% each apple that is wasted after it’s pressed for cider or juice. Beyond Leather is taking that waste – 500 to 600 tons of it – from a small Danish juicer that processes apples from local farmers and turning it into Leap: their new leather alternative. 

The polymers and short fibers in the apple are crucial to building their products, although it’s only one of the materials they use. Leap is a three-layered product of apple waste, natural rubber, and a backing of cotton and wood fiber, finished with a protective coating. The product can be disassembled at the end of its life and disposed of properly. Although the company hopes to use only apple waste for their products in the future, they currently use organic cotton, the wood-pulp-based fiber Tencel, and a polyurethane/bioplastic mix. But, while not entirely made of plants, the production of Leap requires only 1% of the water needed for traditional leather, and emits 85% less carbon dioxide, according to the company. 

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Farm workers spray sulfur on a grape vineyard to prevent mildew near Gonzales, California. George Rose / Getty Images

As we strive for a more environmentally conscientious world, everything we eat, drink and buy can be looked at from the vantage point of sustainability. And that includes simple pleasures like wine.

In California, wine means big business, and it’s standard practice for winemakers to coat their grapes with a sulfur-based fungicide in order to prevent them from being infected with mildew that can devastate crops.

As we strive for a more environmentally conscientious world, everything we eat, drink and buy can be looked at from the vantage point of sustainability. And that includes simple pleasures like wine.

In California, wine means big business, and it’s standard practice for winemakers to coat their grapes with a sulfur-based fungicide in order to prevent them from being infected with mildew that can devastate crops.

But what happens when a rain shower comes and washes the sulfur off the grapes?

It turns out that scientists can distinguish agricultural sulfur from atmospheric sulfur by agricultural sulfur’s unique chemical fingerprint that can be identified at the atomic level, according to a press release from the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder).

In a new study, “Sulfur isotopes reveal agricultural changes to the modern sulfur cycle,” published recently in the journal Environmental Research Letters, the researchers from CU Boulder show that this distinct agricultural sulfur signature can be traced from the time it’s applied to the grapes in vineyards to where it ends up in the environment. Their findings could lead to a better ability to protect downstream waters and wetlands from its effects, such as possibly stirring up toxic heavy metals like mercury.

“We found that you could see the effect of vineyard agriculture in the Napa River when vineyards are only 11% of the land cover in the whole watershed. It’s a very stable fingerprint for us to trace and then understand what ultimately happens,” said assistant professor of environmental studies at CU Boulder Eve-Lyn Hinckley, who was senior author of the publication, the press release said.

How much sulfur gets washed into the environment downstream depends on the year, and the weather.

“The amount of sulfur in runoff varies year to year, dependent upon the amount of precipitation. In dry years, it stays locally in soils, in the vineyards where it is sprayed. We do not have evidence that it is unsafe for consumers,” Hinckley told EcoWatch in an email.

In 2020, agricultural sulfur, which is used as a fertilizer and is the most commonly used pesticide by California farmers — particularly winegrowers — became the biggest anthropogenic source of the element, surpassing even fossil fuels, the press release said.

Prior to the Clean Air Act of 1970, which reduced the prevalence of atmospheric sulfur to pre-industrial levels, what was known as “acid rain” was a frequently talked about environmental issue. But Hinckley said winegrowers use much more sulfur now than was produced by the atmosphere when acid rain was prevalent in Europe and North America.

In their research, the scientists took soil and surface water samples from across California’s Napa Valley. By analyzing the makeup of the sulfur, they were able to find the agricultural sulfur’s distinct chemical fingerprint, which is maintained even through the chemical changes it undergoes when it interacts with other elements and microorganisms in the environment.

“It’s very different from the signature that we see in atmospheric deposition or geologic weathering, which are the other background sources of sulfur,” Hinckley said in the press release.

Agricultural sulfur can be particularly concerning when it makes its way into streams and wetlands.

“Sulfur in runoff can interact with other elements in ecosystems adjacent to or downgradient from vineyards. In particular, it is a concern for wetlands and stream sediments. There, reducing conditions can persist that stimulate interactions between sulfur and heavy metals, like mercury, which are toxic to wildlife and people,” Hinckley told EcoWatch. “In order to know whether agricultural sulfur has consequences for ecosystems and human health, it will be helpful to distinguish it chemically from other sources, like marine, geologic, and atmospherically-deposited sulfur.”

As sulfur travels through the environment, it can have toxic results.

“In soil, oxidation of reduced forms of sulfur can lower pH and potentially cause acidification of soils and sediments over time. In wetland and stream areas, reduction of sulfate (a chemical process) can stimulate production of methylmercury, a neurotoxin that is dangerous to wildlife and humans. We know about these effects from long-term studies of acid rain damage in forested ecosystems. Now we need to investigate the fate, transport, and consequences of agricultural sulfur use,” Hinckley said to EcoWatch.

According to the press release, sulfur has been used in agriculture since Egyptian times, and the sulfur dioxide added to the wine during the winemaking process — or left out, making the wine eligible for the “no sulfur added” label — isn’t the same as the sulfur applied to the grapes beforehand.

“The sulfur that is the subject of our study is added in the field and it is not desirable to have the residue carry over on the grapes at harvest. Growers stop applying sulfur before harvest to avoid carryover,” Hinckley told EcoWatch.

Finding ways to fine-tune the use of sulfur in winegrowing is important for the wine industry to move toward more eco-friendly practices.

“There is a lot of interest in sustainable farming in the California wine industry. Winegrowers want to protect the environment, which is conducive to growing grapes, for years to come,” Hinckley said to EcoWatch. “Hence, we have found that many are receptive to discussing ways to optimize the use of sulfur as a pesticide — to use enough that it prevents powdery mildew disease, but not too much that it causes negative environmental effects. We need to have trials now that evaluate the optimization of sulfur spraying in winegrapes.”

In order to achieve a more tailored application of sulfur to wine grapes, the technology will need to be more precise.

“Probably the best approach to optimize sulfur applications is to invest in the development and adoption of technologies that do high precision sulfur spraying — spraying that is targeted and responsive to powdery mildew threat, but not broadcast from tractors, as it is now,” Hinckley said.

Hinckley hopes that knowing how much agricultural sulfur is in the environment will assist farmers in adjusting their application of the fungicide.

“This work could help inform the development of technologies that help farmers to choose when and how much they apply, rather than just applying the same amount preventatively all the time,” Hinckley said in the press release.

Hinckley also said consumers can take a more active role in learning the origin and cultivation methods of the grapes that were used to make their wine.

“For wine consumers, it’s great to get to know how those grapes were farmed and where they came from. And there are growers who are really trying hard to be as light as they can on the land, and to work with and adapt to the changes that they’re facing with climate change,” Hinckley said in the press release. “There is a role for the consumer to help drive those decisions.”

Hinckley’s goal is to help farmers work sustainably and in harmony with the environment. 

“My objective as a scientist is to always work in partnership with the landowners and with the farmers. My hope is that we can reach a place where they’re able to continue in a very sustainable way that also protects the surrounding environment,” Hinckley said.

Hinckley believes that, in the future, the application of sulfur to wine grapes will be done more carefully and include more oversight.

“I think that the future of sulfur in winemaking will involve regular monitoring for powdery mildew disease and risk, and then adaptive spray programs with tractors that can target applications to where vines need it most,” Hinckley told EcoWatch.

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NanoAvionics used a GoPro Hero 7 mounted on a selfie stick to take the first-ever 4K resolution full satellite selfie in space with an immersive view of Earth. NanoAvionics

In 1968, a photograph taken from space helped galvanize the environmental movement. The famous “Earthrise” image of our planet rising from the moon helped raise awareness about the importance of protecting humanity’s only home.

"The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth,” Command Module pilot Jim Lovell, one of three astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission responsible for the photo, said of the view, according to NASA. 

In 1968, a photograph taken from space helped galvanize the environmental movement. The famous “Earthrise” image of our planet rising from the moon helped raise awareness about the importance of protecting humanity’s only home.

“The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth,” Command Module pilot Jim Lovell, one of three astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission responsible for the photo, said of the view, according to NASA. 

Now, a satellite company is looking to inspire a similar reaction with an innovative selfie. The company, NanoAvionics, recorded the first-ever 4K satellite selfie from space with the Great Barrier Reef in the background. 

“The reason for taking the photo and video clip with the Great Barrier Reef in the background was partly symbolic,” NanoAvionics co-founder and CEO Vytenis J. Buzas said in the press release. “We wanted to highlight the vulnerability of our planet and the importance of Earth observation by satellites, especially for monitoring environment and climate changes.”

The Great Barrier Reef is the only living structure visible from space. It is also extremely vulnerable to the climate crisis. The reef has experienced six mass bleachings — which occur due to high ocean temperatures — since 1998 and four since 2016. The most recent, in the Australian summer of 2021-2022, impacted more than 90 percent of the corals. 

“Climate change is the greatest threat to the Great Barrier Reef and coral reefs worldwide,” the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has declared. 

Satellite imagery is an important tool for understanding and, therefore, protecting coral reefs. In 2021, for example, almost two million satellite imagery enabled the Allen Coral Atlas, the first-ever high resolution map of the world’s coral reefs. 

The NanoAvionics satellite selfie was taken with relatively simple technology that anyone can buy: a GoPro Hero 7. The company then attached the camera to a custom-built selfie stick for the shot, according to Gizmodo. The results were 12-megapixel photos and 4K video clips, according to the press release. 

“In our increasingly visual culture, it is important for investors, students, customers and the general public to see in order to believe. Millions watch rocket launches but barely see satellites moving in orbit or deployable structures in operation. This is going to change through live or recorded footage,” Buzas said in the release. 

Seeing was believing in the case of Earthrise as well. 

“It… became a blinding confirmation that our Earth, floating in a sea of stars, was vulnerable and needed protecting,” Earth Day Network President Kathleen Rogers wrote in USA Today. “The Earth looked so perfect, so radiant, so small.” 

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