As recent data supporting the sustainability of a vegan diet has surfaced, the vegan lifestyle has swept across the United States, and the fashion industry is no exception. Brands and consumers are striving to incorporate veganism into other areas of their lives. From this movement, the vegan leather trend has arisen. Whether in the form of increasingly popular vegan leather pants or faux leather jackets, plant-based pleather has entered the fashion spotlight. It mimics leather in versatility and also appeals to supporters of sustainability and anti-animal cruelty. As it garners popularity, vegan leather has swayed many name-brand fashion producers, such as H&M, to decrease use of animal leather and opt for more sustainable and cruelty-free options. But is vegan leather really more sustainable?
The short answer is that it depends. The Higg Materials Sustainability Index, which assesses the global impact of material production, reports that leather made from cows is about three times more harmful to the environment than the vegan alternatives. But the reality is not that simple. The production of pleather, from both synthetic and natural materials, results in a number of environmental consequences, such as micro-pollution. When fashion brands like Forever 21 use plastic leather, the material does not biodegrade like animal or natural leather and ultimately breaks down into microplastics, which pollute water and pose a greater threat to animals and the environment in the long run. Even so, vegan leather can also be made from natural materials like pineapple leaves and recycled plastics, which are more sustainable alternatives. Although using these natural ingredients avoids the use of harmful plastics, natural materials still require a binding agent, which are typically a plastic-based material. Despite its bold claims to be environmentally-friendly, pleather is still hurting the planet.
However, the foremost inhibitor to sourcing environmentally sustainable pleather is not its production, but the way brands commonly advertise false sustainability. This practice of advertising products as more environmentally-conscious than they actually are is called greenwashing. It’s harmful because it leads consumers to buy into the idea of sustainability while unknowingly purchasing products — like plastic leather — that are actually just as or more detrimental than fast-fashion pieces. However, transparency in leather sourcing has brought some brands into the sustainability spotlight for their environmentally-friendly use of pleather. For example, Stella McCartney and Urban Originals are committing to sourcing vegan leather from more sustainable methods like using plant-based faux leather.
The leather industry is far from reaching sustainable methods. Until then, forestalling the trend toward vegan leather and holding the vegan leather industry accountable is largely in the hands of consumers. Finding cheap, natural and clean leather takes research and time, but it is not impossible. Getting caught up in greenwashing is a lot easier than putting in the time to research truly sustainable options, but it’s also much more harmful to the environment. The brands that preach a sustainable message might be the ones hurting the Earth the most. Fashion is an inimitable aspect of everyday life — to include environmental health in your closet, make sure to pick the brands that stand for our planet.
Lena Bodenhamer (24C) is from Fort Collins, Colorado.