Culture

How The Fashion Industry Convinced Us That Plastic Was Better For The Planet

By Melody Rose··  4 min read
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With the rise of the green agenda, the fashion industry has been booming with “eco-friendly” marketing in an attempt to convince well-meaning consumers that they are doing justice to the planet by trading in their leather for pleather.

However, this “greenwashing” rhetoric is just another virtue signaling tactic without much integrity to support it. Most alternatives to animal-based clothing result in plastic and other toxins that plague the planet, consumers, and manufacturers.

Vegan Leather Toxins They Don’t Tell You About

Due to this green push, vegan leather has become a dominating industry predicted to be worth $89 billion by 2025. While it seems like a viable cruelty-free option, it comes with its own set of consequences.

Most mainstream vegan leathers are largely derived from polyurethane leather (PU leather) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC leather) that are especially popular in fast-fashion brands like Shein due to their low prices and genuine leather illusion. This alone makes it easy for such companies to label themselves as “sustainable” just on the basis of synthetic leather being cruelty-free.

However, both PVC and PU come with the threat of microplastic pollution due to the amount of energy, water, and chemicals used to produce fake leather materials, not to mention they’re typically not sustainable or biodegradable. While natural leather typically takes 25-50 years to decompose, plastic vegan leather can last up to a thousand years. And when it finally does start to degrade, it breaks down into harmful microplastics that wreak havoc on the environment (not to mention how these toxins absorb into the consumer’s skin!). According to a recent Harper’s Bazaar analysis, synthetic fibers from clothing are the largest source of microplastic pollution in the ocean today. 

Plastic vegan leather can take up to a thousand years to decompose.

Scientists are using innovative solutions to create other plastic-free vegan options – from mushrooms to kombucha-cultures to even pineapples. The company Piñatex uses the fibers of pineapple leaves, a part of the plant not typically used for anything, and “felts them together to create the leather-like material.” Another vegan leather company, Fulton, uses cactus “leather” for shoe insoles. While these leather alternatives may still use some petroleum-based products to hold the fibers together, it’s significantly less than that used in PVC leather.

The Complexities of Genuine Leather Production

Genuine leather is an animal hide that has been stripped of all hair, tanned to prevent rotting, and then finished with colors and textures. Many hides come from animals that are slaughtered for meat consumption, so more of the animal is being used, which means there is less waste.

Leather is also durable enough to be passed down to the next generation, and it’s biodegradable, so it contributes to landfills far less than synthetics. Plus, it’s plastic-free!

While there are benefits to genuine leather, the modern tanning process can be damaging to those involved as well as to the environment. The modern process uses the mineral chromium sulfate, which tans the leather in just a day or two, and is the way that an estimated 80% of all leather worldwide is made. According to the Center for Disease Control, people living near a tannery in Kentucky were five times more likely to suffer from negative health outcomes than the average U.S. citizen. PETA has also reported that arsenic, which is another chemical found in the tanneries, is likely causing lung cancer in people who are in constant contact with it.

Vegetable tanning uses the tannins naturally found in tree bark to preserve the hides.

Returning to vegetable tanning, an ancient practice dating back to 6000 BC, as the main form of leather tanning would be healthier for the craftsmen and the environment, but it’s a longer, more expensive, and more skilled method. Vegetable tanning takes several months, as it’s an organic process that relies on the tannins found in tree barks and other plant tissue to preserve the collagen in the hide. Vegetable tanned leather is biodegradable yet hard wearing, develops a patina with use, and gets softer and more pliant the more it’s worn. While it’s the most expensive leather to buy, it seems to be the most natural product.

Closing Thoughts

Once again, this hones in the importance of taking the extra step and personal responsibility to research your consumption without relying on mainstream narratives and trends. While at surface-level they may sound idyllic or aligned with your personal values, they aren’t always forthcoming with the full picture. Due to money mongering and mass production, most trends focus on marketing to emphasize only the good in order to get you to buy, even if that’s 1% of the entire production. In true Evie fashion, remember to always do your due diligence to “seek truth and find beauty.”

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Seek Truth. Find Beauty.

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