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The major environmental impact of faux leather

As the popularity of ethical fashion grows and consumers continue to seek out vegan clothing alternatives, it’s time we asked ourselves if these products are truly as sustainable as they seem.

It’s common knowledge that fast-fashion has long-dominated the style landscape, for the affordable and straightforward way in which it enables consumers to keep up with continually fluctuating trends.

However, unlike the rapid nature of these fads – which come and go as quickly as TikTok challenges – the clothes and accessories we obsess over and promptly forget about can take decades and sometimes even centuries to decompose.

That’s why, in 2023, many brands have begun offering solutions to previously eco-unfriendly practices, a result of public pressure to address the overall industry’s pollution problem.

Today, a significant shift in garment production is underway, fronted by a surge in the number of labels (both luxury and retail) experimenting with ‘cruelty-free’ replacements for conventional animal-based materials and collaborating with start-ups on the burgeoning technologies that make this possible.

One such alternative is faux leather, which has become increasingly popular in recent years as consumers seek to ‘veganise’ their wardrobes.

The carbon cost of our leather goods, calculated — Collective Fashion Justice

Even Kylie Jenner (the mother of materialism) has jumped on board, presenting a new collection earlier this month that’s made almost exclusively out of the stuff.

However, while faux leather is clearly the more ethical option in that it doesn’t require sentient beings to be killed in order for it to be made, sustainability-wise it’s rather a big no-no.

Not to mention the often appalling and exploitative human conditions in which it can be made, ‘largely in developing countries where environmental regulations are lax, sweatshops common, and child labour rife’ (Zoe Brennan).

Typically manufactured from synthetic fibres like acrylic, modacrylic, and polyester (all of which are types of plastic that don’t biodegrade), these polymers are derived from fossil fuels, which contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and the climate crisis that’s steadily spiralling out of control.

‘Faux leather in general is an inaccurate and vague term,’ says Jocelyn Whipple, a responsible materials specialist at sustainable fashion consultancy The Right Project.

Solid Wastes | Leather Panel

‘It comes with all the innuendoes around the positive inherent qualities of leather, which are so far from the qualities of plastic as a raw material in terms of durability, longevity and natural compostability. There must be a clear understanding of the whole life cycle of the product and, ultimately, what happens at the end of its life.’

This isn’t exactly ideal when you’re trying to save the planet by shopping consciously.

Faux leather also poses a threat after it’s been worn and discarded, because with no recycling schemes in place, it frequently winds up in landfill thousands of miles from where it was first bought and where it releases toxic chemicals into the atmosphere and surrounding ecosystems – including the ocean.

‘Faux leather is a problematic material due to its synthetic nature, which contributes to environmental harm during production and disposal,’ says Yayra Agbofah of The Revival, which uncovers creative ways of managing global textile waste in west Africa.

As he explains, with nothing like a single-use plastic bag tax to prevent brands from spewing out plastic clothes on a daily basis, the vast majority of faux leather can be found in Accra’s Kantamanto market, one of the world’s largest secondhand clothing markets.

Real or Fake, ethical or cruel: Leather has many faces

So, what’s the solution?

Evidently, the cruelty-free alternative isn’t faring much better in the controversy stakes so, if leather is killing animals and faux leather is killing the Earth, what should we be doing to become the ultimate mindful consumer?

‘Prioritise quality over quantity, choose durable and timeless pieces, and support brands committed to sustainable practices,’ says Agbofah.

He stresses that leather must no longer be perceived as a cheap commodity and that we urgently need to improve our recognition of what happens to the clothes we’re throwing away.

‘Consumers in the global north should think about the negative impact of their clothing consumption on the global south, who are having to suffer for their wasteful actions.’