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Faux Leather: More Than Just a Fashion Statement… Are You Part of the Problem?

What is Faux Leather?

In recent years, faux leather has gained popularity as a sustainable alternative to traditional leather. But is it really as eco-friendly as it seems? Faux leather, a largely synthetic material, is made from a Polyurethane (PU) film that is applied to a fabric or leather composite backing which tries to mimic the look and feel of real leather.

Often promoted as cruelty-free and eco-friendly, its products have recently seen an increase in popularity in a wide variety of industries. However, as its use becomes more widespread, questions have arisen about its actual environmental impact.

While initially respected as a sustainable choice, the environmental footprint of faux leather is more complex than it first appears. In this article, we’ll explore the negative implications of it and whether it truly stands up to its reputation as a legitimate alternative to genuine leather.

 

The Rise of Faux Leather:

Faux leather has become increasingly common, with some consumers being enticed by its lower price point and positive environmental perception. According to Vogue Business, searches for the phrase ‘vegan leather’ have increased by 29% in just 2 years!

This has seen faux being used more readily in the fashion, upholstery and accessories markets as a substitute for real leather. But while the press around it has it positioned as an environmentally friendly option, the reality is far more complex and the rise in faux leather presents its own set of challenges.

 

Manufacturing:

While it may seem like a more ethical choice, its production can have a significant environmental impact. The manufacturing process often involves the use of toxic chemicals, which can harm not just the environment, but human health too, if not managed responsibly.

Unlike genuine leather production, which relies more heavily on natural materials – after all the hides used in production are predominantly a bi-product of the meat industry – the manufacturing process for faux leather demands larger amounts of energy, water, and chemicals. This increased resource consumption contributes to a higher carbon footprint and greater environmental strain.

 

End-of-Life Issues:

Furthermore, it is generally a lot less biodegradable than real leather. Once faux leather products reach the end of their lifecycle, they often end up in landfill and, as they are plastic based, can take a significant amount of time to decompose. During this process, they release harmful chemicals into the environment, posing long-term threats and further contributing to environmental pollution.

A recent study conducted by Harper’s Bazaar suggests that, “Clothing made from plastic can pose a threat during and after its lifespan, because it often ends up in water or even landfill!”

In a 2023 article in The Guardian, discussing the false logic of Faux leather, Tamsin Blanchard stated that, “Faux leather has been popular for decades, and there is no system to recycle it”, she continued by saying, “There must be a clear understanding of the whole life cycle and, ultimately, what happens at the end of its life.” This is further exacerbated by the comparatively short lifetime value of fake compared to the real thing. Genuine leather, if properly looked after, can last for years, even decades, while fake is more likely to crack and peel more readily and so needs to be replaced more quickly.

Diti Shah in Fibre to Fashion stated that, “A major drawback of vegan leather is that it tends to be less durable than genuine leather. Estimates suggest that if made of plastic, it will only last on average between two and five years!”. Therefore, by choosing genuine leather over faux alternatives, consumers not only invest in products that last longer but also contribute to reducing waste and environmental harm.

 

A change of tide:

However, following initial interest, it seems as though its popularity might now be on the wane. According to a 2022 survey, 67% of respondents indicated a preference for purchasing genuine leather over its fake counterpart, indicating both longevity and durability as key factors. Following this trend, 55% of these respondents also considered genuine leather to be a high-quality material, enticing them to make the purchase. This shift in consumer preference reflects the growing awareness of the environmental impact of faux leather production, and highlights the increasing demand for more sustainable alternatives in the market.

 

What should you do?

Consumers now have the power to make a significant difference by choosing more sustainable alternatives to faux leather. By opting for products made from natural materials, such as leather and natural fabrics, we can start to reduce our environmental footprint and support eco-friendly practices. Genuine leather offers durability, longevity, and a timeless aesthetic that faux leather simply cannot match.