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Synthetic Leather Substitutes and Fast Fashion: Unraveling the Unhealthy Equation (Part 3)

Synthetic Leather Substitutes and Fast Fashion:

Unraveling the Unhealthy Equation (Part 3)



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In the previous post in this series, we explored the intricate and convoluted world of fast fashion, and shone a spotlight on the numerous environmental challenges and issues facing the leather industry.

Moreover, we examined a variety of non-traditional leather alternatives and delved into their limitations and drawbacks.

Dr. Stacey Denise

This article, building on the groundwork laid in the previous post, is focused on investigating the numerous concerns and challenges that exist within the world of vegan leather – one of the most significant and rapidly growing leather alternatives on the market today.

As vegan leather becomes an increasingly popular option for both fashion-conscious consumers and those who seek a cruelty-free approach to fashion, it is important to consider the broader implications of this material and ensure that its development is consistent with sustainability, animal welfare, and human rights.

The Evolution of Artificial Leather Alternatives

Since the dawn of time, leather has been revered for its extraordinary utility and limited supply, inspiring an expansive search for alternatives throughout the annals of history. A striking example of such a synthetic alternative is Presstoff, a 19th century German development made from specially-layered paper pulp.

Although quite useful, its Achilles’ heel lay in its weakness to moisture or wear, resulting in a delamination of the material and loss of structural integrity.

Dr. Stacey Denise

On the other side of the pond, the United Kingdom was engineering their own leather-like material, known as Rexine.

Made from a mixture of nitrocellulose, camphor oil, alcohol, and pigment, this leathercloth fabric served the dual purpose of being both aesthetically pleasing and a significantly cheaper alternative to genuine leather, costing a mere fraction of the price.

Yet with these remarkable synthetic innovations came their inevitable environmental costs – an increase in deforestation to accommodate the need for Prestoff and further exploitation of resources and chemicals for the production of Rexine.

Although quite useful, its Achilles’ heel lay in its weakness to moisture or wear, resulting in a delamination of the material and loss of structural integrity.

Dr. Stacey Denise

It wasn’t until the year 1963 that materials comparable in quality to modern synthetic leather came to the fore. Enter poromerics, an artificial leather consisting of a plastic coating, often polyurethane, applied to a fibrous base layer of polyester.

Furthermore, this milestone prompted a frenzy of research into the possibilities of plastics as a replacement for leather, resulting in both progress and detrimental ecological effects due to the pervasion of plastic in our daily lives.

Unveiling the Myriad Types of Leather Alternatives

Moreover, vegan leather can be crafted in a variety of colors and textures, opening up creative possibilities for designers and consumers. A frequently employed marketing strategy is claiming that leather alternatives are environmentally friendly when compared to traditional leather. Nevertheless, the majority of the time this is unsupported by data. To further evaluate the production of leather alternatives, we encounter a fundamental issue: the production processes of these materials are distinct from each other.

Generally, when people refer to vegan leather, they mean an extensive range of materials which have the goal of replicating the look and feel of genuine leather without relying on animal products.

Dr. Stacey Denise

Included in this broad selection of materials are polyurethane (PU), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), microfiber, and even natural fibers like cork or leaf fibers.

Each of these materials has its own unique production methods and characteristics, bringing with them a range of different considerations that must be weighed in order to make an informed decision.

The Drawbacks of PVC-Based Vegan Leather

As an economical alternative to genuine leather, polyvinyl chloride (PVC)-based vegan leather has surged in popularity. Produced by combining PVC resin with plasticizers, stabilizers, and pigments, this material provides a leather-like texture and appearance. However, despite its affordability, there are numerous environmental, health, and ethical concerns associated with the production and disposal of PVC-based vegan leather.

Beginning with its environmental impact, the production of PVC requires the extraction and processing of fossil fuels and chlorine. This reliance on non-renewable resources leads to greenhouse gas emissions and contributes to our continued dependency on finite energy sources.

Furthermore, the manufacturing process of PVC releases toxic chemicals into the environment, such as dioxins, phthalates, and other pollutants, that contaminate air, water, and soil, causing harm to nearby ecosystems. As a result, PVC-based vegan leather may not truly be vegan if it leads to the destruction of animal habitats.

The use of PVC-based vegan leather also has severe health implications. Phthalates, which are often used during the manufacturing process, are known to disrupt the endocrine system and cause various health problems.

Similarly, when PVC-based products are incinerated, toxic byproducts, such as dioxins, can be released into the air and put individuals at risk.

Dr. Stacey Denise

Lastly, PVC-based vegan leather carries ethical considerations in regards to sustainability and responsible sourcing. As fossil fuels are necessary for the production of PVC, their extraction and use lead to environmental degradation and climate change.

In addition, when these materials reach the end of their lifecycle, they end up either in landfills or incinerators, exacerbating waste management and air quality issues.

Dr. Stacey Denise

To truly make fashion more sustainable and ethical, we must address not only animal welfare, but also the effects of PVC-based vegan leather on the environment and human well-being.

Polyurethane (PU) – The Unearthed Reality of Vegan Leather

In recent years, the popularity of PU-based vegan leather has been on the rise due to its cost-effectiveness and versatile nature when compared to animal-derived leather and PVC-based leather alternatives. Nevertheless, beyond its captivating appearance, this type of faux leather has multiple issues that should not be overlooked.

PU-based vegan leather is constructed with synthetic materials that are sourced from petroleum. This process emits carbon and requires the use of potentially hazardous solvents and chemicals, leading to potential harm for both the environment and humans.

Furthermore, if the PU-based vegan leather is not discarded correctly, it won’t decompose, and this can present numerous difficulties when it comes to waste management.

Dr. Stacey Denise

The production of PU-based vegan leather is furthermore associated with the emission of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) like isocyanates which may cause respiratory and skin problems if exposed to them over long periods.

Additionally, some plasticizers are utilized in the making of PU-based vegan leather, though they don’t appear in the finished product, they still have an effect on those involved in the production and on the environment.

Even though PU-based vegan leather looks durable and visually appealing, it has a short life span when subjected to exposure to moisture, sunlight, and regular use.

Therefore, this kind of leather is susceptible to peeling, cracking, and discoloration which means that its sustainable aspect and cost-efficiency come into question.

Discovering Plastic-Based Leather Alternatives

Beyond PVC and PU-based leather, various plastic-based materials have been developed to imitate genuine leather. Yet these come with their own downfalls.

One of these materials is Ethylene-based Polyurethane (EPU) which is frequently marketed as a more sustainable substitute for PVC and traditional PU.

Dr. Stacey Denise

While EPU is usually longer-lasting and flexible, the creation of it still uses fossil fuels and produces VOCs. Moreover, recycling or discarding EPU-based leather can be problematic since it may not be biodegradable or recyclable.

Another plastic-based leather choice is Thermoplastic Polyurethane (TPU). TPU is great at resisting abrasion, tearing, and chemical substances making it viable for various applications.

Nonetheless, the formation of TPU relies on petroleum-based raw materials leading to a depletion of natural resources and the release of greenhouse gases. Its recycling and biodegradability are also constrained, making end-of-life management challenging.

Environmental Impact of Plant-Based Leather Alternatives

The pursuit for more sustainable leather alternatives has caused many companies to seek materials from agricultural waste, wood, and fungal products in order to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.

With the goal of minimizing their environmental impact, these innovative approaches are more in line with circular economy principles. While promising potential environmental benefits, these materials face several challenges that must be addressed.

For example, pineapple leather is created from the discarded pineapple leaves, which are a byproduct of the fruit industry, thus decreasing environmental harm and providing a more circular method of production.

Similarly, mushroom leather takes advantage of mycelium, a mushroom’s root-like structure, to make a leather-like material. Although the concept looks promising, the reality is that scalability is an issue.

The production of these plant-based materials requires optimization and refinement in order to meet the demands of the expansive fashion industry.

Dr. Stacey Denise

In addition, there is a limited availability of raw materials, further hampering the industry’s efforts to provide sustainable alternatives. To achieve the scale needed to make an impact, there must be significant investments in infrastructure, technology, and agriculture, which can bring about deforestation and other unsustainable practices.

For the industry to properly support the increasing demand for sustainable alternatives, it must build an effective infrastructure which includes establishing a dependable supply of raw materials, incorporating efficient manufacturing processes, and upholding quality control standards.

If this is not done, the industry may struggle to create these materials on a large scale. Therefore, it is imperative to take a comprehensive approach when determining the sustainability of these alternatives.

Dr. Stacey Denise

An examination of the entire lifecycle is essential, making sure that the production processes do not create further environmental burdens. By doing this, the industry will be able to determine the true environmental impact of these plant-based materials.

The Road Ahead: Creating Sustainable Leather

From marketing misdirection to un-scalable and expensive alternatives, the search for an ethically-produced and environmentally-friendly leather has been full of obstacles.

However, with innovation and creativity, sustainable solutions can be achieved. In the upcoming, concluding article of our fast fashion series, we will discuss how to source and create leather responsibly.

This will involve looking at different technologies, practices, and approaches, such as ethical sourcing and circular economy principles, that can help create an ethical and sustainable leather industry.

-Dr. Stacey Denise

With such solutions, the fashion industry can strive towards more responsible consumption and production that aligns with sustainability goals.

Stacey Denise Moore, M.D.
Stacey Denise Moore, M.D.

Dr. Stacey Denise Moore is the visionary behind Ceyise Studios, serving as Chief Creative Officer, Principal Artist, and Chief Expert Color Designer. With a background in medicine, her life’s work is a harmonious blend of art and wellness, deeply influenced by a transformative personal experience. Her digital mixed-media art, rooted in color psychology, inspires individuals to embrace their authenticity and express their emotions freely. At Ceyise Studios, Dr. Stacey Denise’s expertise in color consulting and fine art photography aims not just to beautify but to evoke a sense of well-being and self-confidence in others. She believes in the transformative power of art to communicate profound emotions and advocates for living a life designed with optimism and intention.

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