"Sustainability seems like a straightforward concept that we all need to implement in order to stop climate change and leave a livable planet for future generations. However, sustainability is not as simple as it seems. There are myriad ways of being sustainable and trying to live up to all of them can be overwhelming, not to mention that there is no perfect solution. What’s the best we can do? Accept that sustainability is a journey and follow the practices that most align with our values."
What is sustainability?
Let’s start at the beginning. What is sustainability? According to the Oxford dictionary sustainability is the “avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”.
There are three pillars of sustainability: environmental, economic, and social. When we talk about sustainability, we most often refer to environmental sustainability. It concerns human impacts on the environment and mainly focuses on water and environmental pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions and plastic pollution, climate change, loss of biodiversity, and land degradation. Economic sustainability often means economic growth, or in other words, long-term profit generation in a responsible way. The only problem with the goal of economic growth is that it’s often in direct contradiction with environmental sustainability. How can we boost economic development without putting more strain on the environment? Infinite growth on a planet of finite resources is technically impossible. Economic sustainability is also connected to social sustainability as their common goal is to achieve welfare and prosperity for everyone. Besides eliminating poverty and hunger, this also includes equality, quality education, peace, and a just society.
Sustainable development is an organizing principle, a policy that runs along the three dimensions of sustainability. Sustainable development goals ideally lead to a society where living conditions and resources are used to continue to meet human needs without undermining the integrity and stability of the natural system. In other words, it means meeting the needs of the current generation without compromising future generations in meeting their needs. The United Nations published 17 Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda. The objective is to achieve a better and more sustainable future in terms of environmental, social, and economic sustainability. Some of the 17 SDGs are no poverty, gender equality, decent work and economic growth, responsible consumption and production, and climate action. A freshly released report on the progress of achieving the SDGs shows that we are devastatingly far from realizing these goals. However, this doesn’t mean that we should stop doing our best to turn the world into a better place.
Sustainability is an individual value
As weird as it sounds, sustainability is an individual value - especially environmental sustainability. After all, we all know that recycling is sustainable, and so is using products made of natural raw materials, and materials that biodegrade, but then it is also sustainable to use products with a long lifetime, and reuse old things instead of throwing them into the trash. Unless you can do all of these with the same item, it is up to your personal values which aspect of sustainability you prioritize. One is not necessarily better than the other, but we can’t repeat ourselves enough when we say that sustainability is a complex issue.
We did a poll on LinkedIn a few months ago where we asked our community when they considered a material “sustainable”. This little survey was by no means representative but it was interesting to see that long-lasting quality came up in the first place with almost half of the participants voting for it, while biodegradability and plastic-free came second and third place respectively.
Knowing what we know about fossil fuel derivatives today, we are so fast to reject anything plastic but while we are on the quest of finding the best natural alternative, we shouldn’t forget about just how long-lasting these materials are. You can hand down a polyester blouse to your children or even grandchildren and it will be in a perfectly wearable shape. Isn’t this sustainable? Especially, when we consider that over consumption is one of the biggest environmental problems in the fashion industry. Then, of course, there is the issue of microplastics and what happens to that blouse when you and your grandchildren stop wearing it. It is up to us as individual consumers to weigh the pros and the cons.
When we dig deeper into sustainability, it is not just the material a product is made of that matters but the energy and resources it took to produce that item. As we have already explained, leather production comes with the baggage of deforestation and severe water consumption. Cotton production is extremely water-intensive, even in the case of organic cotton that contains fewer pesticides but yields less than the traditional version - you can read more on this in our previous blog post. Synthetics such as nylon and polyester are some of the most energy-intensive materials to produce which is the “price to pay” for their long lifetime.
Even recycling - using waste for creating value - has its gaps. According to a recent study, recycling a pair of jeans has almost the same global warming potential as producing a new one. Of course, it might not be the case with every material and every product we use, but this does beg the question if recycling is really good for the environment.
Lastly, biodegradability is one of the hottest features of the sustainability whislist. Are we willing to sacrifice the quality and lifetime of a product for not leaving a trace on the environment? If we talk about a plastic bag, definitely. If we talk about clothing or consumer products, we are not so sure. Not to mention the proportion of the energy used to produce a biodegradable item that we use once versus the utility we gain by using an item 50 times. Another problem with biodegradability in the fashion industry is that garments and accessories are rarely made of only one material. Unlike the aforementioned plastic bag, our clothes have zippers, buttons, insulations, and even threads that hold a garment together that are not biodegradable. So if you thought about throwing “that biodegradable sneaker” into the compost, don’t.
How does this all affect Leap?
The way we are producing Leap today saves 85% CO2 and 99% water compared to traditional leather production*. We utilize apple waste and as with any production, it takes energy but by upcycling it into a new product, we remove a possible environmental hazard. We protect the apple leather with a Tencel™ backing and a polyurethane-based coating because we also believe that products should have a long lifetime, and for now, this is the best way to achieve it. At the same time, we are working on making Leap completely plastic-free and performing a lifecycle analysis to thoroughly understand our impact on the environment and learn how we could do better.
As we said before, there are many ways to approach the sustainability journey. This is our way of doing it, in alignment with our values.
*Based on internal calculations.
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