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.In the
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.
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.
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
Leather alternatives, often known by other terms such as leatherette, faux leather, imitation leather, vegan leather, PU leather (polyurethane), and pleather, have grown increasingly popular for their versatile range of applications in the fashion industry.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With such solutions, the fashion industry can strive towards more responsible consumption and production that aligns with sustainability goals.