A brief analysis about the positive and negative aspects of leather and faux leather

Despite using this site for almost a year I have not yet take time to properly learn how to use it, there for my source list is not up to my standards. I am truly sorry for that. It didn’t help that the links really weren’t cooperating. Or that I procrastinate doing this, 23.44 is technically still Tuesday. Good night

I like leather, I’m not going to lie about that. This is a pro leather blog. Most often when you read about leather it is the opinions from a very biased vegan, who wants everyone to live like them and aren’t afraid of using loaded words and somewhat false claims to persuade people to go vegan, this is a prejudiced based on too much internet time. Also, I think that there is some kind of hypocrisy in the whole “we should stop using plastic” movement, given that they almost exclusively talk about plastic packaging. I have not once seen plastic clothing mentioned.  Therefore I felt like writing a defense of the usage of leather.    

Let me start with this; nothing is good if overused. There is a reason for the fashion industry producing 10% of the global carbon emission (UNEP, 2018). That includes both vegan and non vegan fashion; in order to reduce that number all kinds of fashion will have to be reduced. We will have to go back to an older way of thinking, when we didn’t buy tons of new clothes that we barely use, “the number of times a garment is worn has declined by 36 per cent in 15 years” (UNEP, 2018), and Americans* throw away on average 81 pounds (36,7kg) clothing a year (Goldberg, 2016, 9 june). All of that has to stop, otherwise all other environmentally friendly actions will be fruitless.   

Now, let’s dive into what vegan leather actually is. This is the boring research part of this text. 

I’m going to start with what is in H&M vegan leather products. I start by searching for “faux leather” and then I pick the first result, a faux leather skirt in two colours. It is made from “Polyester 100% Coating: Polyurethane 100%” (HM, n.d.a), that’s just different kinds of plastics. Next I looked at a jacket, it was the same there. “Polyester 100% Coating: Polyurethane 100%” (HM, n.d.b), still plastics. One of the first things they teach us in lab class is that you always want to try at least three times, so I choose a pair of pants after some scrolling. This time it was a bit different, because there was also plastic in the pocket lining “Polyester 100% Coating: Polyurethane 100% Pocket lining: Polyester 100%” (HM, n.d.c).  

HM does have a conscious collection, and I scrolled thru all 404 objects without finding anything labeled faux leather and could therefore not check what it was made of. When I looked at other clothing containing plastic, for example a pair of bikini bottoms the description said where from the plastic was sourced, most of it was recycled (HM, n.d.d). From that I feel confident drawing the conclusion that the plastic in their “normal” line is not recycled, if it was, it would most likely say in the description.       

Next I went on to Zara, the biggest fast fashion company if one looks at their economic profit ( Hanbury, 2018, 9 Dec). I, once more, started by searching “faux leather”. Side note: the search bar writes in capital letter and I found this so jarring that I almost missed spelled leather. I started with a skirt again, because it was the first thing to appear. Zara has the composition of their clothes somewhat hidden, but it read “OUTER SHELL BASE FABRIC 100% polyester COATING 100% polyurethane” (Zara, n.d.a), same as in H&M. My next pick was a pair of pants, the composition was the same “OUTER SHELL BASE FABRIC 100% polyester COATING 100% polyurethane” (Zara, n.d.b). My last pick was a jumpsuit, because it looked fun. The composition was, to no surprise, “OUTER SHELL BASE FABRIC 100% polyester COATING 100% polyurethane” (Zara, n.d.c), plastic. 

Similar to H&M Zara has an eco friendlier line called “Join Life”. As with H&M I was unable to find anything “Faux Leather”, although I did find real leather, therefore I once more looked at another type of garment containing plastics, this time a bodysuit. This time Zara wrote clearly that it was made with “at least 50% recycled polyamide.” (Zara, n.d.d). I therefore feel comfortable coming to the same conclusion as with H&M, if the plastic used in Zara’s “normal” line was recycled then it would say so in the description.  

Having only two stores as my research objects,  it is not in any way a scientific standard, but since this is not a science paper and I’m only trying to prove a point it will have to do. Of course it is not only fast fashion companies that make faux leather, but I felt like starting with them, given that these stores are stores with a large clientele. But now we are going to look into some more bougie brands and see if they have any alternative ways of making faux leather. 

First up is Bleed Clothings “cork jacket”. They describe it as “Die [sic] first vegan “leather jacket” made out of cork, the gold of the forests.” (Bleed Clothing, n.d.). And honestly it seems totally fine. Then there is ocean leather, that also seems to be the name of a perfume. Ocean leather appears to be in the early stages of development (Greener Ideal, 2014) and I was unable to find any place that sold it. There is also grape leather which H&M actually sold at some point (Vega News, 2020) but I was unable to find it on their web page now.          

The boring research part is now over, now comes the consequences of fake leather. 

What I’m trying to say writing this, is that there are many different ways of making fake leather, yet the one most common is with plastic. That is a shame, given that plastic is bad for the environment in so many ways. Let’s dive into the ocean of plastic problems.

I think that was a really smooth transition, given that the first issue on my list is the microplastics released by plastic garments, when they get washed, that end up in the ocean. Tucker from The Guardian really says it best, “One washload of polyester clothes can release 700,000 microplastic fibres into the environment. It is estimated that half a million tonnes of these microfibres end up in the sea each year.” (2019, 23 june). As we could see in the text above, all of the faux leather from Zara and H&M contains polyester, therefore when the clothes are washed microplastics are released. By now, I think that we all know that plastic in the ocean is bad. If not The Guardian has a good article about it, focusing on microplastics.      

The other obvious problem with polyester is that it is plastic, with all of plastics’ problems. One of the big problems with plastic clothing is that it isn’t biodegradable, and as I said before, we throw away a staggering amount of clothes each year. So when plastic clothing is thrown away it just remains. Heaps and heaps of plastic clothes, left for generations to come….

There is of course vegan leather, and other plastic clothes, made of recycled plastic. And that is good, I love recycling. But those garments still releases microplastics. So, not as good as it sounds. Still, if you insist on wearing plastic, please do wear recycled plastic.  

Yeah, that was a lot of talking about faux leather, turning into a general conversation on plastic clothing. So after that let’s talk about real leather. 

Leather can be sourced from most animals, but according to Mahi Leather the most common animal is cows (n.d.). As we all should know by now, cows are very bad for the climate. Kaplan from the Washington Post wrote  “If cows were their own country, they would be the third-biggest greenhouse gas emitter in the world” (2019, 18 November). That’s an insane amount, and the only way to cut the emission down, is to have fewer cows. So even if the actual leather garment may be better for the planet, than a plastic one, the process of acquiring the leather is not good.    

It is worth mentioning that it is difficult to see the difference between cow leather and other types of leather. The leather could be from any animal.     

Lucy Siegel from The Guardian writes that “Nearly half of the global leather trade is carried out in developing countries – from Ethiopia to Cambodia and Vietnam – where, despite a backdrop of exploitation of animals and humans and the extraordinary level of pollution caused by unregulated tanneries and processors, the pressure is on to produce more.” and “workers, including children, performing hazardous tasks such as soaking hides in toxic chemicals and using knives to cut the skins” (2016, 13 Mars). While this is awful and something that should concern buyers, it is sadly not exclusive to the leather branch of fashion. 

Poor working conditions are a staple thru the entirety of fashion. Poor people in developing countries work for almost no pay in unsafe environment with unsafe infrastructure (UNEP, 2018). If you are interested in knowing what terrible consequences bad infrastructure can lead to I recommend that you check out Röhsskas temporary exhibit forensic architecture.  

Siegel brings up another good point: “in reality we buy leather goods without knowing where the hide originates or what conditions the animals were kept in. We’re comforted by “Italian leather” stamps, but this could mean that the leather was imported and finished in Italy. I’m fond of saying that if all the “Italian leather” merchandise was of true provenance you wouldn’t be able to move for cows in that country. They’d be drinking from the Trevi fountain.”. 

So, even if you think that you are buying nice, environmentally friendly leather of good quality. Made by workers in good working conditions, there are few ways of ensuring it in fact is so.

I guess that the conclusion is, that there is no truly ethical consumption of either type of leather. This comes as no surprise to me, the fashion industry is garbage, all of it. The only way to guarantee that what you buy is good for the environment and for the workers, is to buy locally produced, where you can trace the materials and know the workers. Or, to buy from brands that are very up front with how their stuff is produced. If that is the case, then I would still prefer leather over plastic. Partly because plastic doesn’t decompose and releases microplastics. Partly because I generally don’t like the look of faux leather and partly because leather clothes lasts longer then faux leather. I don’t remember how many bad plastic shoes that I have worn down over the years, but there were many. A far cry from that are my leather boots that I have worn the entire fall/winter and before that they were my grandmothers. They are still in almost perfect condition. 

*I was unable to find a clear number on Europeans, but given our cultural similarities we can assume that the number is similar. 

Bleed Clothing. (n.d.). CORKJACKET MEN. Retrieved 2020-06-22 from 

https://www.bleed-clothing.com/english/corkjacket-men

Goldberg, E. (2016, 9 june). You’re Probably Going To Throw Away 81 Pounds Of Clothing This Year. Huffington Post. Retrieved from 

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/youre-likely-going-to-throw-away-81-pounds-of-clothing-this-year_n_57572bc8e4b08f74f6c069d3

Greener Ideal. (2014). 3 Natural Alternatives to Leather Shoes. Retrieved 2020-06-22 from 

https://greenerideal.com/guides/7042-natural-alternatives-to-leather-shoes/

Hanbury, M. (2018, 9 December).  20 companies dominate the world’s fashion industry. Here’s who makes the list. Business Insider. Retrieved from

https://www.businessinsider.com/nike-zara-tj-maxx-top-list-global-fashion-brands-2018-12?r=US&IR=T

H&M. (n.d.a). Faux Leather Skirt. Retrieved 2020-06-22 from 

https://www2.hm.com/en_us/productpage.0856232002.html

H&M. (n.d.b). Biker Jacket. Retrieved 2020-06-22 from 

https://www2.hm.com/en_us/productpage.0783126001.html

H&M. (n.d.c). Faux Leather Pants. Retrieved 2020-06-22 from 

https://www2.hm.com/en_us/productpage.0825700003.html

H&M. (n.d.d). Bikini Bottoms. Retrieved 2020-06-22 from  

https://www2.hm.com/en_us/productpage.0854683004.html

Kaplan, S. (2019, 18 November). Are my hamburgers hurting the planet? Washington Post. Retrieved from 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2019/11/18/are-my-hamburgers-hurting-planet/?arc404=true

Mahi Leather. (n.d.). How is leather made? Retrieved 2020-06-24 from 

https://mahileather.com/blogs/news/how-is-leather-made

Siegel, L. (2016, 13 Mars). Is it time to give up leather? The Guardian. Retrieved from 

https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2016/mar/13/is-it-time-to-give-up-leather-animal-welfare-ethical-lucy-siegle

Tucker, I. (2019, 23 June). The five: ways that fashion threatens the planet. The Guardian. Retrieved from 

https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2019/jun/23/five-ways-fashion-damages-the-planet

UN Environment programme. (2018). Putting the brakes on fast fashion. Retrieved 2020-06-22 from   

https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/putting-brakes-fast-fashion

Vega News. (2020). H&M DEBUTS COLLECTION MADE WITH VEGAN GRAPE LEATHER. Retrieved 2020-06-22 from

https://vegnews.com/2020/2/handm-debuts-collection-made-with-vegan-grape-leather

Zara. (n.d.a). FAUX LEATHER MIDI SKIRT. Retrieved 2020-06-22 from 

Zara. (n.d.b). FAUX LEATHER TROUSERS. Retrieved 2020-06-22 from 

Zara. (n.d.c). FAUX LEATHER JUMPSUIT. Retrieved 2020-06-22 from 

Zara. (n.d.d). LIMITLESS CONTOUR COLLECTION 03 BODYSUIT. Retrieved 2020-06-22 from 

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