Artificial leather better substitutes to plastic?

Plastic pollution is one of the largest pollution issues causing harm to the environment by the consumption of plastic bags, bottles etc. However, it is the microfibres and small, microscopic particles that are killing the oceans with 8 million pieces of plastic entering the ocean every day. Plastic has only been around 80 or so years but in that time we have created 91 billion tonnes of it and only recycled 10%. One of the biggest contributors and producers of this cause undeniably is the fashion industry. As this issue peaks, a part of the fashion industry is looking into sustainability and better substitutes closely to try minimising the mass production of plastic that happens. Which is still very hard!!

Leather is the most widely used fabric around the world for clothing and accessories with the most ethical and environmental concerns. Whether you’re a vegan or not, you must be thinking the easiest decision is to fall back on vegan leather and pleather because you aren’t causing any harm to animals. Isn’t it? Sadly, its not all that simple because we are still revolving around the contribution of plastic while choosing these substitutes. Truly it’s an either this or that kind of a situation!! So, which one is it going to be?

What are these substitutes and is it better?

Vegan leather and pleather are all a form of leather but that isn’t obtained from animals like real leather and considered to be a better substitute. Many people might support vegan leather than real leather simply because it’s more ethical from the animal point of view and it is made from natural products such as mushroom, cactus, lotus , pineapple etc. “But it’s not as vegan as it sounds as it’s a by-product of plastic and reliant on fossil fuels sometimes”. Furthermore, the vegan leather production process emits toxic carcinogens in the environment that can cause birth defects and breathing problems.

Another alternative “pleather” which is a slang term for plastic leather is made from polyvinylchloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU). As complex and fascinating the scientific terms sounds they both are highly toxic chemicals and are not biodegradable.

PVC leather, or sometimes simply called Vinyl, is made out of fabric leather backing, topped with a foam layer, skin layer and then a plastic based surface coating which is a lengthy chemical process. Whereas PU leather consists of a split leather backing, topped with Polyurethane coating. These processes help the fabric achieve a finish similar to natural leather, with similar flexibility. Now that we know what vegan leather and pleather are.

What is the environmental cost paid post consumerism of these goods?

In the UK we produce 206.5 tonnes of textile waste each year out of which 1.7 kgs is disposed of in landfills. Therefore, we must be careful of our choices while purchasing clothes and consider various attributes like what is the fabric, what was the production process, what were the chemicals used, can they biodegrade etc.

Come to think of it now, real leather biodegrades in 50 years and vegan leather (only organic without plastic) takes about 25-50 years to decompose due to the tanning process. However, if the vegan leather is left in wet or damp conditions like a cellar floor or buried in the soil it will certainly decompose into powder much faster.

Additionally, pleather is a kind of synthetic plastic leather that contains PVC and PU which causes the decomposition process to take over 50 years sometimes even a couple of centuries to biodegrade due to its harmful production process.

“PVC being the single most environmentally damaging type of plastic” Greenpeace quotes, Mahi leather

The marketing strategy often used for pleather items is of an ethical and environmentally conscious standpoint but is criticised for its carbon-intensive footprint and lack adequate biodegradability. This is a concerning root for us as they don’t fully decompose like natural products and they can produce toxic microparticles that can harm aquatic life and our oceans on a long run.

So is anyone in the fashion industry implementing these substitutes?

Well, there is quite a bit of awareness about vegan leather and pleather in the fashion industry and many brands are implementing these substitutes. Customers are unknowingly falling back on these products thinking it’s the sustainable thing to do and it’s ethical but little did they know behind all that finish it is just a plastic by product. Nonetheless, some brands are making the effort in creating garments/products that are truly eco-friendly alternatives to leather and plastic such as:

Luxury British brand “V by Townsley’s” by Georgie and Jo Townsley have Italian made designs, crafted with PVC-free Japanese vegan leather, with some of the best sustainable fashion brands. The material is buttery soft and the designs to die for. From the oversized Eden tote bag to Isabella clutch, V By Townsley brings together extraordinary designs and environmental responsibility in perfect harmony, creating some incredible products coated with vegetable oil itself.

“Our bags are perfect for the modern woman on the move. We’ve created bright, bold and muted colours to show that she can mix in any colour to any season. What's more, we are a sustainable brand producing high-end luxury products, designed for longevity.” Georgie and Jo Townslwy (co-founders) said

Another brand is by a British fashion designer “Stella McCartney”. This is one of the very few high end brands that hasn’t used leather, feather, fur or skin since day one and believes in creating beautiful luxury products that are cruelty free. They as a brand have lowered the environmental impact 24 times than animal leather and strive to improvise that further by looking for oil free and plant based materials.

Since 2013, the brand has been using Alter Nappa for their shoes and bags switching to waterborne and solvent free polyurethanes which is a much better substitute. Further in 2018, they made their famous Falabella bags from Mylo – a vegan mushroom leather made from mycelium which the brand further advanced in the later years constructing their first ever prototype garments.

Click here to see more brands.

Which one is it going to be?

We all as individuals have a right to make our own decisions and support them. While being aware of the environmental and ethical issue that surround the alternative options and real leather. Everything has its pro's and con’s but there are alternative brands out there that are supporting this cause by going eco-friendly and vegan in the best possible way. So, what do you think is going to be your choice?