Suede by Vegan Leather?
Why vegan might not always be sustainable
It’s officially two days after the summer solstice, and the days will continue to only get shorter from here. Recently, we read a NY Times article that discussed the Higg Index, a rating system we previously touched on in our past leather-related article (What’s Been Under Our Skin).
It discussed how often this scoring system strongly prefers synthetic materials made from fossil fuels such as “vegan leather” over natural ones like cotton, wool, or traditional leather. Yet, many independent experts are challenging this status quo, criticizing this approach as a way to sell more clothes by stating that it is “sustainably sourced,” in addition to the many open questions about the synthetics’ carbon footprint.
What’s Hiding in Vegan Leather
There are a variety of materials used for vegan leather. You’ve probably heard of companies that market how they are made from artificial or plant products that mimic leather — pineapple or apple skins, cork, plastic bottles, or mushrooms.
However, more commonly, vegan leather is made from polyurethane, a difficult to recycle plastic. It is a family of plastic that is also found in mattresses, couches, insulation, foam toys, athleisure, and more.
Although the Environmental Profit and Loss sustainability report claims that the impact of vegan leather production can be ⅓ lower than real leather, there are still environmental concerns with anything that is made from plastic. Clothing made from plastic can pose a threat during and after its lifespan because it can end up in water or the landfill, taking years to degrade and release millions of microplastics over time.
At the same time, processing leather requires heavy metals and chemicals in the tanning and dyeing process. In 2020, over 5 million hides, or 15% available, still go to landfills from those slaughtered in meat houses.
High Scores. High Growth.
As 8% of the world’s emissions comes from the fashion industry, the Higg Index is slowly becoming the global standard. Policymakers in both Europe and New York hope to hold fashion brands accountable for their sustainability, using the Higg Index as a benchmark.
With it, vegan leather continues to grow in popularity and in usage. Its usage, in addition to polyester and cotton, has grown to almost 60 million tons a year. Silk and wool, however, continues to decline.
A questionable concern is that a majority of the people on the board of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, those that maintain the Higg Index, are related to many major fashion brands, including H&M.
The only representative of an environmental group with the board, Linda Greer, resigned this year, stating that “Their approach has been shrouded in a lot of secrecy,” maintaining that there has been a lack of progress, always moving on to the next thing. No one has replaced her role since.
Another area of concern is the inconsistency in updating data, which is cited by several major leather-industry groups to be “out-of-date, unrepresentative, inaccurate and incomplete.” The Higg scores are available to the public to view, but access to how it is collected is based on a fee. Companies can also pay a fee to add more data and obtain specific scores.
It's definitely difficult to decide which battle to pick when choosing between real and fake leather so we leave it up to you to pick what causes you care about, but we do think that doing your research in brands is super important. Ideally, you purchase items made from plant based materials with nothing artificial (how we like our foods).
What We're Consuming This Week
😿 Daily Harvest recalled its french leek and lentil crumble, which has sent many to the hospital to have their organs removed.
🚗 Los Angeles could be banning the creation of new gas stations, challenging the existing car ecosystem the city is famous for.
🌶️ Missing some spice on the shelves? Srirach is having a nationwide shortage that might blame climate change.
🔥Fires still run ablaze across much of the U.S., which the Forest Service recently admitted their failure to account for the effect of climate change in New Mexico’s fires.
Things You Can Do
🥕Summer is a great time to pick fruits and veggies at your local farm. We found a great resource where you can find farms/produce near you.
🌱Plastic free July is around the corner!! Let's commit to trying to use as little plastic as possible - we'll be keeping y'all posted on our plastic usage throughout the month.
Some followup questions we’d still like to know include:
How can polyurethane be recycled? How is it different from other plastics?
How accurate or trustworthy is the Higg Index? What are other scoring systems that challenge its scores?
What holds up better over time, vegan leather or real leather?
Let us know if there are any questions you’d like answered by leaving a comment!