Microfiber, Mega Problem
Many major vegan leather brands claim their products are made of ‘eco friendly’ PU (Polyurethane) microfibers, used because their ‘feel’ is similar to that of leather, and it can be imprinted with grains that mimic suede and natural skins. But make no mistake–there is no such thing as ‘eco friendly’ PU.
In the production of microfiber-based synthetics, textiles and polymers are often layered together and compressed several times through metal rollers, then submersed in a coagulation solution to solidify. This chemical process requires excessive levels of toxic substances like dimethylformamide, which has also been linked to cancer and birth defects, and acetic acid, high doses of which can damage skin and eyes.
According to an article in the Observer, a study conducted in 2011 showed that 60-85% of human-made material found on shorelines consisted of microfibers from textiles. The leading author of the study, Mark Anthony Browne, is currently working with researchers at the University of South Wales and University of Sydney in Australia to create libraries of the different types of micro fibers omitted into the environment from our clothing and how they adversely affect aquatic life. His research has attracted the attention of marine science researchers and government agencies in Australia, Europe and USA but has received no support from major clothing brands.
Some pu leather supplier, including Valentino and the entire Gucci Group (now known as Kering) are very much aware of the issues surrounding leather production, and have now vowed to use only vegetable dyes, natural tanning processes, and slaughter only cattle raised on old farmland, as opposed to newly razed rain forests. (Valentino and Kering are also phasing out harmful PVC from their fashion goods–unlike the allegedly ‘eco friendly’ designer, Vivienne Westwood, who continues to use it in some of her bags and shoes.) Other brands are using alternative leathers, including fish and eel skins, which usually thrown away as waste in the food production process.
‘Real’ leathers have been used by man for millennia, and when sourced from sustainable ranches and tanned and dyed naturally, these have the potential to be less damaging to the environment than most ‘vegan’ leathers, save those rare ones created from natural materials like cotton or cork. Of course, animal advocates will abhor the use of hide leather, due to the fact that animals die for us to use their skins, and that is quite right. But the hard reality is that most ‘vegan leather’ is far from an environmentally friendly alternative, and saying it is so is nothing but pure greenwashing.
Ultimately, even the most adamant vegans need to consider this fact: the pollution caused by ‘vegan leathers’ seems to hurt all other animals, including humans, in the long run.