Are Plastic Leather Alternatives Really The Better Option?



The fashion world is finally taking sustainability seriously and looking for alternatives to one of its biggest pollutants- plastic. But the closer you look, the more inaccuracies you will find. In trying to save the planet and the animals, you may find yourself encouraging the mass production of plastic.


The argument of leather clothing is a very difficult ethical debate to try and have. If you are a practising vegan or are just entirely against the use of animal derivatives for clothing, then it seems like picking the alternative to real leather is an easy fix. Right? Well given that the alternative may be no better for the world than wearing a plastic bottle, it may not be such a simple switch.


What are the plastic alternatives?


Faux leather, vegan leather and pleather all refer to a leather like alternative materials that don't derive from animals. Perhaps the kind of faux leather that is most salient in today's society is the plastic based alternative, polyvinylchloride (PVC to you or I). As the complex, scientific name may suggest, it is not the eco-friendly substitute we've been led to believe.


PVC fabrics usually consist of woven polyester fibres that are given a surface coating of a shiny plastic. The act of coating the fibres requires them to undergo significantly dangerous chemical processes. All of which are heavily reliant on using fossil fuels. This is all done in an attempt to give them the feel of natural leather and look, well, less plasticy.


Added together, this creates unnecessary levels of toxic pollution into the atmosphere. And so not only is the plastic an issue environmentally, but the process by which it’s created, is riddled with flaws. We're essentially putting lipstick on a pig here people.


What happens post-consumer?


We Britons send 1.7kg of fashion waste to landfills each, every year. As a consequence, it is important to consider the life your clothes will have even once you're finished with them.


Keeping in mind just how different their production methods are, perhaps it is unsurprising that real and faux leather go on very different journeys post-consumer.


Given real leather is made from animal skin and tanning simply slows down the decaying process, it will eventually decompose. Yes, you heard that right, natural leather garments (minus any embellishments) are biodegradable. This means that


However when it comes to plastic based alternatives, it is a very different story.


The durability of PVC is often the source of its praise however environmentally speaking, it is its biggest downfall. Garments using PVC leather will take hundreds of years if not more to biodegrade in landfill - where they're more than likely to find themselves eventually. Perhaps even more concerning is that they will never completely go, they will simply break down into smaller pieces. Which, you guessed it, adds even more of a burden to the current micro plastic crisis we currently have in our oceans.


Is anyone doing non-plastic alternatives?


Countless brands seem to be shouting about their sustainable leather alternatives to anyone who will listen - though many of them are making things worse by relying on plastic byproducts.

Now, it should be said this isn't the truth for all faux leathers, but there are only very few that have actually made their alternatives wholly sustainable.

"Brands and suppliers are jumping on this term to associate with an ethical movement, which instantly makes the consumer feel good. But if you are buying faux leather, you need to consider you are buying plastic." Amy Powney, Creative Director of sustainable luxury label Mother Of Pearl

A particularly inventive material is Mylo, created using Mycelium, which adidas has taken under its wing. Mycelium is a biodegradable fungal material which mushrooms fruit from. Using a material such as this, allows for a wholly sustainable leather alternative which avoids the use of plastic.

"The introduction of Mylo as a new material is a major step forward in our bold ambition to help END PLASTIC WASTE." Amy Jones Vaterlaus, Global Head of Future at adidas

The initial launch of the Stan Smith's vegan range was originally focused on the use of recycled plastics for production. However it looks as though they are now bypassing plastic use all together and looking for more inherently sustainable options. Collaborating with arguably the most recognisable of the adidas franchises, the Stan Smith, means that results will be seen instantly.


So, what do I do?


Ultimately this comes down to personal preference. Is your main concern animal welfare? Do you follow a vegan diet? If so, faux leather is probably still the one for you. Is the environment of a greater concern? Well, it might be time to start looking further than the plastic alternatives.


The take home note is do whatever feels right for you and your beliefs, whilst keeping sustainability in mind. Maybe rather than throwing something in your basket (or let's face it, it's more like an enthusiastic click nowadays) check the label, and see if its as eco friendly as you thought?