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Green By Design Episode 304: Materials Deep Dive - Humane Animal Products


Hi, it's Jessie from Eco Method Interiors. Welcome back to Green by Design. This week we are hearing from Erica all about Humane Animal Products.


Hi there. Welcome back. This is episode four of Green By Design for season three. I am Erica Reiner from Eco Method Interiors, and thank you to Jessie who's helping out this season prompting us in with some helpful questions. So this episode is about humane animal products, and this area straddles the environmental sustainability world and also the social ethics world. Beyond that, I'll note that my approach to using animal products in the interior design world is really, like, straight down the middle. So I do balance practical and environmental realities with my own personal love and concern with animals. And I'm gonna keep trying to walk that line today.

So I, I'm gonna try and be as non-biased as I can be, and I do think that I have a very realistic and practical approach. All in all, I do source and use animal products like leather, down, wool, and silk. And this is because evolution has had millions of years refining the natural design of the, of these products. That and materials and raw fibers that come from animals. So they are really awesome and they are much better than the synthetics that humans have tried to invent in the last, you know, five to 70 years or whatever that small range is. So I find that they have superior qualities for a lot of things that we are looking for and longevity. However, it's very clear that the amount that we use and the way that we use these animals and the abuse of the animals that, that we put these animals through in order to get these amazing materials and gifts from them is not okay. No one thinks it's okay the way it's done currently, and it's really a matter of finding choice in the marketplace and prioritizing, let's say in this instance, cost over guilt and avoidance of this issue altogether.

So we are going to review conventional versus alternatives today and ways to parse out those choices and priorities. So let's go. Okay, so I am currently not very happy with the solutions I see out there. The biggest problem I am currently having is the green washing issue. I am seeing so much crapola <laugh> about try, like, marketing and trying to trick people into using certain so-called alternatives that aren't any better. And it is such a bummer. So marketing around the words vegan leather or vegan interior design, most of the time this means switching out an animal based product that might be, could be sourced sustainably or could be from a standard animal product that's gonna last a really long time for a petroleum based one coated in chemicals whose quality means it's gonna last a lot less time in use. It is so common and it's really rampant in fashion, interior design, in everywhere, car companies, they even call their interiors a vegan leather. This is the same thing as 10 years ago when it was called pleather or faux leather or patent leather for the shiny stuff. It's plastic and I don't know why they're calling anything plastic something, something leather. It's not, it's a marketing gimmick and I think it makes people feel good and it's a bummer. So, okay, let's answer some questions here.


What are the basic differences between a conventional product of this type versus alternative products that could be considered cleaner or greener?


Okay, so we're going to start with conventional wool and for our purposes, let's include alpaca and cashmere. Cashmere is actually a fancy type of goat if you didn't know <laugh>. So all of these animals, you, you, I'm gonna say brush, but it's not like, you know, calmly brushing an animal, you remove the fur. Sheer. There we go. Of these animals to use their amazing, amazing fur. Okay. So conventional, we've got farm conditions of any kind and standard really. And some of the problems we've got there is converting the natural lands to pasture lands or farms, the waste production from the concentration of these animals, the CH4 production, which is methane from their poop and gas, and cruelty issues.

So stuff like fly strike, which is when there is flies that are attracted to the rear end of the animal or the sheep and they get infected into the area back there. And that is obviously really harmful to the animal. They could die, they could get sick, all that. So fly, strike the tails, the same thing of a sheep. They will cut off the tail to try and reduce like, you know, the messiness and infection. And then there is the physicality of the sheering process itself. These are prey animals. They're kind of, you know, scaredy cats. They don't like to be like handled and picked up and tossed around and sometimes people are really rough with them and can break their legs and stuff like that. So we've got the environmental piece there and then the, you know, inhumane piece there.

Okay, so what are the alternatives? The alternatives are farms and farmers that adhere to non mulesing. Mulesing is what these farmers are trying to do to prevent the fly strike infections I talked about, which their solution is to cut off a piece of the skin on the rear end to prevent the flies from landing there and getting infected. I don't know why this is the solution. But they're not given anesthetic, they're not treated humanly in any way and they're totally being mutilated. So this is a really hard, tough one and I really encourage everyone to seek out and demand non mulesed. And we'll talk about certifications for that later. So non mulesed animals. And then we want the farms themselves to be a sustainable and organic as possible. So there are certain levels of criteria for what it would mean to be sustainable. And of course organic has to meet very specific standards. So what are they doing with their water? Do they rotate the animals on land to let it recover? Is there fertilizer? What are they feeding them? All that kind of stuff that goes into those things. Okay, so that is the wool category. And then let's move into the hide and leather category.

The first thing I'll say is check out our episode number eight in season one, all about leather. We do do a deep dive into the myths of sustainability, like my intro <laugh> where I get really passionate about the misunderstanding of how amazing leather is and how horrible fake leather is. So, okay, moving on to land use for leather. Same thing. So we've got all these cattle in not very sustainable or healthy conditions using and overusing lands. Sometimes it's illegal and, they people will just take their cattle into pasture or natural habitat that isn't theirs to do so. The other problem again is CH4 production and waste pollution. When they live in these high concentrations and not such natural conditions, the accumulation of waste and methane gas from these animals, if the waste isn't treated and collected properly, it just goes into the ground and the land water when it rains, the groundwater I should say, and it causes major, major pollution into the watershed area of the whole system in that area. So those are the environmental problems we're looking at.

Then you get into the hide processing themselves. So what we talked about in episode eight was the fact that most, up until this point in time, all of the hides that a lot of these major leather companies are working with are byproducts from the agricultural industry. So, you kill a cow for meat and you use the hide for leather making. You guys know that I love my agricultural byproduct because I don't think anything that important should be going to waste. What's going on with the increase in marketing for vegan leather and moving away from natural leather in fashion and interior design use, along with the increase in animal consumption, means that there is a disproportionate amount of hides being wasted and not used. So the best thing we can do is eat less meat, use more leather to balance that out. Because across the world, not in America, our meat eating is going down. We've, a lot of us who are privileged to do so, who are concerned about environmental issues or trying to eat less meat for that reason. However in other countries across the world, ones where there's been a huge increase in the middle class and developing nations coming out of poverty, which is great, are able to afford more meat, it's nutritionally weight dense. So in, understandably, that increase is, is going up. So again, back to episode eight for that in season one.

Okay, so besides that, the processing of hides is a big concern that we see and that people are now aware of, which is great. So yes, conventionally industrial tanning methods use a high level of a chemical age-, of chemical agents for whether they're using it to remove the hair on the hides or soften the hides or tan the hides. Common chemical used for tanning agents is chromium, I think it's chromium three, which according to my research if it's oxidized becomes, okay we're in the land of chemistry now, so it's not good; chromium six. And that is a known toxin and carcinogen that we don't wanna be exposed to as an end user. We don't want the people in the tanneries touching this in any way and we don't want it in the groundwater or the soil of anywhere near where it's being produced. And often there's wastewater effluent and solid waste, which can create air pollutants and these ground pollutants for the communities of where these things are being dyed. So all in all, really toxic process.

Okay, so alternatives that aren't petroleum to leather products would be mycelium, and that is a type of fungus, like a mushroom fiber that is being grown in labs to see if it's a good replacement for leather. Jury is out for me because I've not ever seen a textile in the market yet that I have been able to, like, buy and use as an upholstery fabric. So I don't know. I can say that my lampshade sitting over me right now, which you guys cannot see, is made of mycelium fiber and some sort of like sorghum grass agricultural byproduct that someone invented and made into really cool lampshades that is available. I think these are called mush-looms. And so mycelium fiber is in the interior design market and I'm excited to see where it goes.

The other option for leather hides is olive of dyed leather and vegetable dyed leather. So vegetable dyed leather is from the, the color comes from tree bark tannins. And this is done by hand by artisans who have been doing this since 600 years bce. So this is a very ancient old process and it does take way longer than conventional chromium tanning. So it takes about 28 times longer than synthetic chrome tanning and coloring. And obviously when it's done by hand and done with so much time and care, it's gonna cost way more. We'll get into that in a little bit later. So those are the current available options for alternatives to gross petroleum fake leather. I'm not even gonna call it that. We've got five alternative fibers altogether if you wanna go that route. And then vegetable dyed leather is gonna be your best be in terms of the toxicity element.

Okay. The other piece is the humanely and sustainably raised farms. So this piece is really hard for me because when you're sourcing leather, it is not totally clear about the supply chain. So what we wanna do is make as much demand for this as possible and get this going as a topic of conversation in this industry that we wanna see, like how the cows were treated and where they came from and the how the land was treated and is that sustainable? That's of a big concern.

So moving on from leather to conventional down. Down is that super soft, light, fluffy type of feather from... Type of geese and mallards and all that kind of ducky species <laugh>. So it's again, such an amazing high quality fiber and material just like leather. So superior to petroleum based products. Down is compared to what they call on the market down alternatives. So the issues are the same as the other two. It's land use, it's the cruelty. So in this case we're looking at live plucking. So they're not some, sometimes, when the, when the ducks or geese or whatever the animal is, is going to be slaughtered for consumption, you can use all the feathers, easy peasy. But because, like sheep, the the fiber, the down can regrow if they're alive, they might keep the animals alive and do live plucking because they can do it multiple times for harvesting before the animal is slaughtered.

Sometimes this is lucrative enough that they, that there's farms where they're not being slaughtered for meat at all. It's just a down farm, and that does exist. So again, there's no pain medication, there's no <laugh> consideration to how the animal is feeling. And so people feel very concerned about the wellbeing of how these feathers... Of the animals when the feathers are being removed. So those are the issues with down. Same thing with like waste in the, in the land use. You know, are they running a sustainable bird farm or not? Who's checking that? And you know, the whole agricultural industry, how are we dealing with that?

So alternatives to down, they can be collected in like nest, nests and looking for the feathers. Obviously this would be hugely time consuming for very little reward. I can't imagine that this is economically sustainable. And then there is recycled. So I have been looking for recycled down or upcycled down, I think you could say upcycled where it was already, say it was already put into a coat and you walk into a vintage store from the 1970s and you could repurpose that into new products or materials. So I've been looking for that and recycled is possible, but not very common. I like my example, I have seen it a little bit more in the fashion world and I've not really seen it in the interior design world. So I hope that's, that's something in the future we could figure out.

Then there's synthetics. So like I said, people just call this down alternative. This just means a polyester synthetic. Same thing as vegan <laugh> vegan leather down alternative just means plastic based synthetic material and it absolutely does not have the same warming quality that down does or the softness. If you've ever like leaned against a down pillow or had a down blanket, it is absolutely by far a superior product. Then what we wanna see in that case is down plucked after death as a byproduct of the food and agricultural industries. Okay, so that is for the down.

Last but not least is silk. I almost didn't touch on this, but I actually do think it's important. So silk is from a little silk warm and they produce this super amazing fiber that has, like, been luxurious top quality for eons. So what's the issue with silk? Some people, you know, hardcore vegans, let's call 'em, would be just as upset by the idea of the misuse or mistreatment of silkworms as they would of ducks and cattle and sheep. So wherever you land on that issue, I think I'm pretty mainstream, is I feel a lot less bothered by it. I don't know that silkworms subconsciousness, maybe they do, maybe they don't. That's for you to decide. But what we can say for this issue is that the production might be using a lot of energy and water to get the optimal temperature control in hot climates where silk is being produced, like India.

So what's interesting about this is that these claims that silk is really unhealthy environmentally, un-environmentally sustain, non-sustainable comes from a couple of sources that gives, you know, products and materials from the textile industry a rating. However, I was looking into an article about this and this, this source information may be actually quite out of date and incorrect. It is possible that silk producers don't use irrigated water but just rainfall and that they don't use high inputs of energy for air conditioning. They just use the ambient temperature for most producers. So jury is out on energy and water use during production. I'm not sure if it really is intensive or not. What we can say is the silk farms use very little land. So unlike needing to support thousands of cattle for X amount of hides, you need very little surface space in already, you know, converted land areas, meaning built up areas. You're not like using natural farms to produce silk. So some pros and cons there environmentally.

Alternatives though to silk would be banana silk. So this is also called abaca fiber, that's how I'm gonna say it. It's a-b-a-c-a and this is an agricultural byproduct from the banana tree and plantation. So it's already in place. It's an extra means of income and fiber that they can use from these farms. It's super, super low energy. There's no machinery. It's all done by day laborers on banana farms that are cultivating this silk off of these plants by hand. So there's no additional water inputs or production inputs as well other than when they pull the fibers from the banana leaf that they are soaking them in the river to soften them up. But it's not, it's just whatever is locally available.

This is pretty small scale and what is happening right now, if this were to blow up into a, you know, a really big produced conventional process with lots of investors and people looking to modernize the process, we'll see how this changes, but for now it's super basic. So it's loomed non electronically again by these local artisans and laborers and banana plantation workers. And so we get this really awesome silky fiber that can be used for textiles. The only issue that I have seen is that the acidity with conventional dyes could be a problem in how well these can hold or hold up to these intense dyes. So for now it's just natural dyes, but I think that's a good thing. And there you have it. So those are the alternatives to silk.

I guess lastly we could put beeswax for candles and potentially if beeswax is used for any other, like, polishing applications or things like that, I did not do any research into this. I think that this is a fairly small, you know, portion of the market when I do see beeswax and soy candles, I choose those over the synthetic waxes. And you know, the bee thing is a whole other thing. I think you have heard that we need to save the bees. We're killing them off with the pesticides, so it's all integrated into this bigger agricultural topic. But I would think that if we are looking to harvest the natural wax from beehives that bee farmers and people that rescue bees and relocate them would be even more important. And that using beeswax would be a good thing. So you can let me know what you think about that. That's all I'm gonna go into for beeswax. Okay, so that was a really big overview of all of the different kinds of animal products that I commonly see and the issues between conventional and some of the alternatives.


Are there types or levels of these better alternative products?


Okay, so in terms of deciding of what alternatives might be better than the others, I would say I only have one little thing to say about this, and it's just looking at the claims and marketing statements versus actual certifications and transparency of the producer and the firm that they came from. So statements like cruelty free and down alternative and vegan leather, that is what we want to be puncturing the holes in and looking deeper into, is it cruelty free? Are you saying it's cruelty free because they don't dock tails but they're still doing mulesing? Or you know, the down alternative. Okay, well it's just made out of polyester. So I would just say looking at things that can be verified and things that are transparent versus there's so much <laugh> like liberties that people are taking on their websites and their labeling and they are allowed to do so in this country. That's another topic. So that's it for that question.


What certifications are out there to assist when sourcing these kinds of products?


There are plenty of certifications to help us assisting when sourcing these kinds of products. The problem is that there's not tons of vendors on the market who are at least like looking for this certification process or getting it. So it can be a little harder, I will admit in this category. But let's go through them. Number one is, we're starting with the wool... Is organic wool. This is the same old USDA certification you see on your organic fruit and pineapple <laugh>. So this is the same organization. It's standards to what they are, the animals are fed, how they live, the chemicals they're exposed to, humane practices and the tail docking and, and it does prevent mulesing. So that's good.

Similarly, there's an independent organization called ZQ. This certification is specific to wool fibers and fabrics and they have to follow stringent regulations on, again, sustainable farming, animal welfare and also fair working conditions. I will say with ZQ, I have seen more in the fashion world than the interior design world. So ZQ, if you're listening, please delve into our world too. There is Responsible Wool Standard - RWS, so this certifies wool yarn, apparel, all that kind of stuff run by the textile exchange. And this is again, a standard that's gonna be attached to wool that comes from farms that have progressive land management, respect for the animal welfare. And they incorporate what's called the five freedoms of animal welfare. And this applies to all entities in the wool creation process. So they are a great standard.

Moving on to down, we have Down Pass Certified. This has products labeled with a guarantee for quality and certainty that the feathers used in the filling material are ethically sourced and come from tightly controlled traceable supply chains. They have unannounced site inspections and they can't come from any live plucking or foie gras production farms. Similar to Down Pass, there's Global Traceable Down Standard, also known as TDS. And same thing, it's looking at down feathers and products that contain them focused on ensuring that the feathers are collected without unnecessary harm to the animals. The producers have to follow local animal welfare laws and best practices. They, let's see, they don't allow live plucking. They don't allow any collections from foie gras producers. The welfare of the animals are evaluated by visually inspecting them and, and looking at their handling process. They use standards from veterinarians and scientists and they do follow the chain of custody so that all parts of the supply chain are verified. Again, that's important. Very similar to TDS is RDS. So just like wool, there's Responsible Down Standard. And so again, this is a textile exchange certification and it's the same thing as the wool. So they're looking for the treatment to the animals, the treatment of the farm workers, the five freedoms of animal welfare.

Next we have got Animal Welfare Approved certification. So this is for independent farmers only. It's not for mass corporate farms and it applies to all domestic species. So they are looking to accomplish the goals of their approved program. And all standards are addressed for every aspect of each species life cycle needs from birth to death. So they're looking at how the animal is treated the whole time and they are looking to, you know, consider the fact that the farm's ability has to be economically viable for these standards as well. So they are working with the farmers to make sure that they're able to achieve their welfare goals in a way that doesn't hurt them economically, which is so important. The last certification that I have is Certified Humane Raised. This certification is adhering to their own internal creations of standards called the Animal Care Standards, and it applies them to the typical farm animals that we've been talking about, again, from birth through slaughter. So the whole life cycle. And it's reviewed annually by, again, a team of scientists and veterinarians. So this is another certification that you can look for. And those are the ones I have for you for this area.


What are the pros and cons of these alternative options?


The pros and cons of all these alternatives, including products made with these certifications is very simple. It seems to be cost and availability of the suppliers. So as an example, there are, I think, hundreds of millions of sheep on this planet and 1% of them can be certified as organic. So coming from farms that practice organic standards, which includes some of these humane standards as I talked about before. So 1%. So that is the kind of availability we're looking at here in this particular topic of green and humane interior design. And so when you have such low supply, it's obviously gonna cost a lot more. And even when we were talking about the type of vegetable tanned hides and the, how it takes 28 days versus something like one to two days of the chromium tanned hides. It's just the cost of the labor and the extra levels and standards that these farmers have to go to to meet these.

So again, I know I sound like your favorite economics professor nonstop talking about supply and demand, but it really is who is looking for these things? Can we give them more of the market share? Can we ask questions to our stores and sellers and providers and tell them that these are the things that we want? It's really the only way to make a difference. So all in all, I have seen not quite as much of makers in this industry as I have with some of the other topics we're talking about in terms of availability. So that is the biggest con is the cost and by association, how our access to getting these kinds of better products?


What company is doing a good job in this category and what do they sell?


Okay, so I have three companies for you to shout out in this category. I have to start with Moore and Giles. They were who I talked to in our leather episode of season one and she explained a ton of sustainability myths and facts to me. And they are doing a phenomenal job working directly with farmers, directly with all of producers for all of tanning and have a fascinating company value and supply chain. So well done Moore and Giles. They supply leather as upholstery to designer. So if you are, your designer is gonna be specifying, you as a designer are gonna be specifying a piece of furniture with leather upholstery or anything like that, they're your people.

Okay? So for wool, I just found this, I've known about Lulu and Georgia for a long time. I look at their stuff all the time. They are let's say a fairly large e-commerce store. And, you know, popular trendy stuff, whatever, you can check them out. I like them. What's cool is they just released a Moroccan shag line of rugs and get this, they say that each Moroccan rug is hand knotted by artisans using the Responsible Wool Standard certified wool and GOTS certified cotton yarns to complete each piece. The artisans use a unique dying and washing technique without harmful chemicals and do utilize recycled and repurposed water to reduce their water waste. This line is gentle on the planet without sacrificing style. That's straight from their site. So they are hitting, like, three categories in one which is amazing. Now is all of Lulu and Georgia being marketed as an eco-friendly company? No, but they have this line and that is a lot of what I do at Eco Method Interiors, looking for companies where it's not necessarily a green company but they've partnered with someone or something or they're trying to take a step in the right direction and they have a line or one product that's going to be hitting some of our criteria. And this is a perfect example of that.

So then lastly, I also wanna shout out, it's a luxury bedding company, called Plumeria - Plumeria Bay, and they do really high end bedding. It, they have RDS certified, Responsible Down Standard certification bedding that is also made in the USA. So that is two <laugh> eco-friendly points for them. So you can check out all of those companies and hopefully this helped you understand the ins and outs of the humane, humane animal world in terms of interior design and help you make some better choices when you are sourcing. So thank you for joining this episode. Stay tuned for the rest of the deep dive into all different kinds of materials that we're doing this season, and I'll see you next time.

Certifications and Organizations:



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