*Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Ethical Network of San Antonio.
by Cyra Paladini
In the last ten years, veganism has seen a meteoric rise in popularity. Although the term ‘vegan’ was officially coined in 1944, for decades the concept wasn’t met with much enthusiasm. It failed to become a truly mainstream
movement until the mid-2010s. Now, it’s not just a diet- it’s a lifestyle. Today’s veganism has moved beyond just food. There are vegan creams, hair products and tools, cosmetics, pet supplies, household cleaning products, medications, etc. Even the fashion industry has leapt to meet the public demand for more ethical couture and introduced synthetic alternatives to animal fabrics, the most popular (and controversial) being vegan leather. Like many other aspiring ethical fashionistas, I found the concept of sustainable, cruelty-free leather incredibly alluring, and yet somewhat perplexing. I know I’m not the only one who thought it was suspicious that big fast fashion brands, which have typically been unabashedly destructive and oblivious to their environmental impact, now branded themselves as champions of ethical fashion. What’s that about? What is vegan leather made of? Why is it so much cheaper than animal leather? Is it actually more sustainable?
Here’s what I’ve learned:
First, what comprises this seemingly paradoxical product? It turns out that faux leather can be pretty diverse when it comes to its composition. Barkcloth, glazed or waxed cotton, cork, and paper can all be used to mimic animal leather, but by far the most popular materials used in production are polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Big brands love them. PU and PVC are plastic derivatives that are treated with a number of chemical solvents, in order to alter their texture, rigidity, and color- making them look and feel almost exactly like animal leather. They’re cheap to make, and (if done correctly) can seem pretty expensive, so companies can garner a wide profit margin. At first glance, it’s the perfect resolution to the ethical fashionista’s moral dilemma- a relatively cheap, cruelty-free way to stay trendy.
But here’s the rub- popular stores market plastic-based ‘pleather’ products as a way to promote their company as ethical and sustainable. Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally in favor of environmentally conscious big business, but this market model is incredibly misleading. Despite many corporate claims, the process of manufacturing plastic leather is just as hazardous to factory workers and the environment as the process of tanning animal leather- if not more so. In addition to the numerous toxins and air pollutants released by its chemical solvents, PU leather is characterized by a liquid finish of petroleum-based polymers- a material produced using fossil fuels, one of the biggest producers of CO2 emissions worldwide (76% as of 2017).
Even so, PU leather is not nearly as problematic as PVC-based products. In its raw form, Polyvinyl chloride is a hard plastic; it’s made soft and pliable (leather-like) by ‘plasticizers’- chemical additives that loosen bonds between the molecules in polymer chains. The specific plasticizers used in PVC production are classified as Phthalates, which are specifically prone to leaching out of products and into the surrounding environment. Phthalate migration, though, is the least of our worries. Because PVC is produced using a significant amount of chlorine, the manufacturing process results in some incredibly destructive by-products such as Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). CFCs are one of the main culprits of ozone depletion, a crisis that directly affects climate change by disintegrating the atmospheric layer that shields us from harmful UV-B solar rays. Also unintentionally released are Dioxins- mutagens that are not only environmentally toxic; they’re incredibly harmful to humans and have been known to cause skin lesions, developmental and reproductive issues, irregular hormonal activity, and increased likelihood of heart disease. These same chemicals were released by Agent Orange, and to this day they continue to cause various diseases in Vietnam war veterans and birth defects in children whose parents were exposed to the herbicide. Call me crazy, but chemical weapons have no place in a leather jacket.
An even bigger red flag: neither is biodegradable. PU and PVC behave the way all plastics do- they don’t break down over time, meaning that all pleather goods are permanent landfill residents that contribute to the ever expanding volume of waste on our planet. And, because synthetic leather is typically thinner and lower quality, it’s significantly more prone to wear and tear (plastic melts!), so it requires more frequent replacement, thus creating a significant amount of permanent plastic waste.
Unfortunately, fast fashion brands consistently turn a blind eye to the industry’s promotion of wasteful consumption. And why would they? It’s the very cycle that keeps them in business. These companies set low prices that convince consumers to buy shoddy products. In a year, these items are busted and out of
style, so buyers discard them and buy newer, trendier, and just as low quality replacements. In another year, the replacements are dated and broken, so consumers are again forced to repurchase. See the pattern? We buy, brands make big bucks, and the landfills overflow.
In short, synthetic leather is incredibly toxic and wasteful in the long term, especially in comparison to animal leather, which will biodegrade when discarded, and is generally way more durable than faux leather. So, although a wardrobe full of vegan leather may seem like a minor investment upfront, beware! There are major unseen costs.
I mentioned before that not all leather substitutes are plastic based. This is still true, completely "bio-based" leather does exist, but it’s pretty rare in today’s market, and often quite pricey. If you have the resources to get your hands on some plant-based leather, bravo! If not, don’t fret.
What to do?
Unless you can guarantee with 100 percent certainty that your new handbag is made entirely from biodegradable plant fibers, the best way to minimize the environmental impact of your wardrobe is to… buy real leather ! While new leather products support the ever expanding livestock industry (and can cost an arm and a leg), previously owned and upcycled leather goods can be bought with no contribution to slaughterhouses, and at far less expense. The best part, though, is that real leather is a) biodegradable, and b) durable, so it’s far more sustainable in the long run. So don’t limit yourself to new leather; thrift shopping is commendable in general. Recirculating goods that otherwise would have gone to landfills, means the act of buying secondhand is itself a waste-preventative measure. Good for the consumer, great for the environment. It’s a win-win.
Want to do one better? Ditch large national chains like Goodwill and Savers, and instead check out local or family-owned thrift/antique shops. Granted, prices tend to be slightly steeper, but not without good reason. First, it’s guaranteed that a “mom and pop” use more of their profits for worker compensation than their chain competitors. In fact, Goodwill specifically has had several public scandals regarding their poor treatment of workers- they actually pay disabled staff less than minimum wage! (This is just one of many corrupt practices by Goodwill, for more information check out the articles listed below.) Second, independent and locally owned businesses invest in the community when you invest in them. Unlike national chains, your local antique shop doesn’t have the facilities to whip up a building, or outsource product input from anywhere in the world- they rely on local donations, and a great deal of their profits are spent at other locally owned businesses, meaning that your new pair of loafers actually supports more of your friends and neighbors than you think! Lastly, outsourcing donations and materials mean thousands of
globe trotting freight vessels and the tons of pollutants they release. Independent businesses require far less transport and thus have a comparatively minuscule environmental impact. The punchline? Local is better.
It’s a big commitment.
As a shop-a-holic who cares, I get it. Why spend hours scouring the secondhand market for one decent jacket when you could easily find five trendy replicas at Forever 21? Even the most committed environmental advocates lack the
time, energy, and mental bandwidth necessary to choose the ethical option every time. There’s no shame in a compromise! Creative solutions are the backbone of sustainability. From now on, when you buy vegan leather, take care of it, use it well, and then upcycle or donate it instead of throwing it out. Although we can’t be right all the time, it’s immensely important is that we’re informed about the often dark and destructive reality of the fashion industry, and conscious of how we impact the world around us. Awareness gives us the ability to act where and when we can.
Cyra is an energetic advocate for social and environmental awareness, a doting cat mom, and a shopping connoisseur. In her free time, she works to improve sustainability at her school, where she frequently organizes campus clean-up events.
Phthalates in the Environment (study)-
Przybylińska, Paulina A., and Mirosław Wyszkowski. “Environmental Contamination with
Phthalates and Its Impact on Living Organisms.” Ecological Chemistry and Engineering S , vol.
23, no. 2, 2016, pp. 347–356., doi:10.1515/eces-2016-0024.