After hours of scrolling through Depop to find the perfect faux leather jacket, it had finally arrived. It was thick, heavy, and the material was strong yet soft to the touch. I instantly knew — this was not faux leather. However, this genuine mistake from the seller ended up potentially being a blessing in disguise.
I must confess: my search for faux leather may have been a way to lessen my guilt about buying new, and definitely not faux leather, Dr. Martens. This is a feeling many may relate to, especially as we become more aware of our unsustainable shopping habits. We feel guilty and see terms like ‘vegan’ or ‘sustainable’ so we click ‘buy’ and perhaps our guilt subsides, for a while.
But how sustainable really is faux leather?
Faux leather can be an amazing alternative to real leather when made in a sustainable way. It offers the look of real leather without animal cruelty. Faux leather such as Piñatex and MuSkin are eco-friendly, non-toxic, and very low waste alternatives. Piñatex is made from pineapple leaf fibre and MuSkin is made from fungus. However, these faux leathers are not the most affordable.
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) and Polyurethane (PU) are the most common affordable leather alternatives. These materials are essentially plastic, which is highly unsustainable. Synthetic fibres from clothing are the biggest source of microplastic pollution in the ocean. These microplastics can end up polluting the ocean every time that you wash your clothes. Animals such as plankton and even polar bears end up ingesting these microplastics as they end up in the food chain. Greenpeace even described PVC as “the single most environmentally damaging type of plastic”.
Making and incinerating PVC-based leather releases dioxins into the atmosphere. Dioxins are environmental pollutants that have highly toxic potential. They are especially dangerous when burnt and potentially dangerous in confined spaces. Another toxic substance used in the production of PVC is phthalates. Phthalates allow for the PVC to become flexible.
However, the release of these chemicals into the atmosphere has been linked to breathing problems and hormonal disturbances. It’s not all about the manufacturing process as well. Vegan leather will never fully biodegrade and can sit in a landfill for over 500 years.
This leads me back to my leather jacket and Dr. Martens dilemma. The durability argument is a strong one. Especially when it comes to shoes. Every year over 300 million pairs of shoes are thrown out by the public in the UK.
Production and throwaway consumerism
The majority of these shoes go to landfill. Real leather is typically far more durable and long-lasting than faux leather. It currently takes 2,257 gallons of water to make just one pair of shoes. Buying durable leather over plastic faux leather shoes could significantly reduce the number of shoes going to landfill. Therefore, water consumption will be reduced due to the limited amount of shoes being made.
Real leather is not without its downfalls, however. A big part of this is the tanning process – tanning is the process of turning raw animal hide into leather. Ordinarily, tanning is highly unethical. Chrome tanning is the most popular way of tanning leather. The excess toxic chemicals from the chrome can leak into the soil as well as putting workers at risk. Although the manufacturing process of leather can be more eco-friendly than faux leather. This is if it is sourced sustainably from local ranches and tanned using vegetable tanning. However, this is rare. Chrome tanning is swifter and more effective than vegetable tanning so many factories favour this method.
Animal cruelty is still a massive factor in the debate. Leather is predominantly a by-product of the meat industry. However, it is also a subsidy keeping the meat industry in business. Animal agriculture is the cause of 18% of greenhouse gas emissions and 32 million tons of CO2. Not to mention, cow leather is the most damaging of fibres in relation to its impact on global warming and water scarcity.
There is no easy fix but we can try
For the reasons above, I have sworn off buying new leather as well as faux leather. Although faux leather made from PVC and PU is not sustainable, this does not mean we should be buying new leather. Ultimately, we need to close the loop. Shopping second-hand is the best way to do so. You can find a massive amount of faux leather and real leather on reselling websites such as eBay and Depop.
I see no problem with buying real leather second-hand. Especially if it is more durable and would otherwise go to landfill. If you want to buy new faux leather, I would encourage researching the materials used first. If you are able to afford it, opt for the sustainable faux leathers mentioned previously such as Piñatex and MuSkin.
More than anything, we need to stop over-consuming. We need to buy less and buy better.
Words by Becki Parker
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