is fake leather fashion’s secret polluter?

"Vegan leather" might be labelled "cruelty-free" but that's only true if we ignore the environment.

by i-D Staff
21 March 2016, 5:25am

Hood by Air's Autumn/Winter 16 collection featured PVC, a popular leather alternative, throughout. 

In recent years "imitation leather" has undergone an image transformation. It's not longer 'fake', it's become the far sexier "vegan leather". The plastic fabric has moved from sex store staple to the eco-friendly favourite of high end brands like Stella McCartney and Givenchy.

Unsurprisingly, PETA has celebrated the growing popularity of leather alternatives. Their website urges consumers to do away with leather, and "look for alternative, cruelty-free materials that imitate leather, including faux leather, pleather, synthetic leather, PU, man-made leather, waxed cotton, and imitation leather." Their advice, while well meaning, contains a troubling ethical blindspot. While animals may be spared in the production of leather alternatives, the  environment is not. When we lump all the aforementioned materials together as not-leather—suggesting they're equally ethical choices—we erase the wildly different effect each fabric has on the environment. 

Throwaway labels like faux, imitation and vegan friendly leather cover a huge variety of very different materials. The names aren't mandated by anyone, leaving it up to the brand to market the material as they wish. A Polyurethane pant could be called 'PU' on one site, and 'vegan leather' on another. As eco-friendly clothing grows more popularity with consumers, marketers are eager to reap the rewards of consumer goodwill—presenting plastic imitation leather as a "more sustainable option" to the real thing. Sometimes, this is legitimately the case. Paper, waxed cotton, barkcloth or cork are all responsible alternatives. But many other popular materials are widely recognised as toxic.

Traditionally, imitation leather was made of PVC; a material steeped in ethical dilemmas. A Greenpeace UK report summarised that "PVC production involves the creation of many toxic chemicals." Some of those chemicals, such as dioxins, have been linked to cancer and other health problems for the factory workers making the material.

On the back of reports like this, many designers are trying to limit their use of PVC. Environmental poster-girl Stella McCartney told WWD in 2014 that she doesn't use PVC in her designs: "It has a big impact, the chemicals used to turn the leathers. How that affects the local communities with PVC, how cancerous it is for the people working with it…It goes into the water". For brands retailing at a different price point to McCartney, PVC's cheap production costs are hard to resist.

Thanks to McCartney and the media sparking conversation around PVC, it popularity has waned. Now, another imitation-leather material is taking its place. Polyurethane—usually called PU—is used by several brands such as Free People and Freedom for Animals, who have made environmental goals part of their brand identity. Freedom of Animals write on their website; "polyurethane is a safer alternative to PVC as it doesn't emit carcinogenic dioxin, nor is it filled with harsh chemicals." Unfortunately, considering the horrific environmental toll PVC, that's a pretty low standard.

The environmental impact of PU depends entirely on how it's produced. Freedom of Animals use post-consumer, or recycled, polyurethane—that lessen's the fabric's footprint. But if not processed properly, PU production can involve highly toxic solvents. Considering market research institute Ceserana has forecast that the annual revenue of PU materials will be $US74 billion by 2022, that's something worth worrying about.

Looking beyond production, the biggest difference between leather and it's imitators is in the life cycle of the material. Most often consumers throw out PU products long before their leather counterparts are dumped. Once 'vegan' alternatives find their way into trash, many fail to biodegrade: cork and paper based alternatives will decompose, but synthetic options won't. 

Leather, despite sharing many of the manufacturing problems of its imitators, can boast of a closed-loop system. Not only does leather tend to age better and remain usable for long than imitations, when it is discarded the material eventually breaks down. For that reason, some brands are looking into more ethical modes of producing leather—though a truly cruelty free option is unattainable. 

Valentino and Gucci have promised to use more natural tanning processes and provide more detailed information on where their leather is sourced from. Givenchy is using goat-skin in some of their bags, and other brands are exploring fish and eel skins. Synthetic leathers like EcoLorica and some kelp based options are newer environmentally friendly options gaining attention, but their high price point can make them a less accessible alternative for brands.

Ultimately, given the raft of fabrics available and the confusing language which surrounds them, consumers need clear information to help them make their choices. Australian company, Vegan Wares writes on their site that "We encourage other manufacturers and retailers of vegan and vegetarian footwear to declare the ingredients of their products. Then consumers will be in a position to evaluate and compare the relative qualities of each product." Without such transparency, consumers—be they vegan or simply worried about ethical consumption—are in the dark. 

For now, don't rely on 'vegan leather' as a symbol of ethics. Look for paper, waxed cotton, barkcloth and cork as the most friendly alternatives, and call for transparency from brands: catch-all labels like "vegan leather" and "cruelty-free" need to go.


Text Naomi Russo
Photography Jason Lloyd Evans