Let me get something out of the way before I dive in: plastic is a staggering problem. There's no denying it.
A whale who died from consuming over 80 plastic bags, and who vomited plastic bags while marine vets tried to save him, is just the most recent, heartbreaking example of our plastic addiction that's been making rounds in the media. Films like MIDWAY show the devastation that plastic is having on birds on islands even in remote areas of the sea, and organizations like Parley have emerged specifically to address this problem.
When it comes to fashion, there's been enormous focus on plastic microfibers from polyester and their impacts on aquatic life. Organizations like Common Objective remind us that "Between half million and a million tons of plastic microfibers are discharged into wastewater each year from the washing of synthetic clothes." So yeah, this is a big deal and I am happy we're addressing it.
But how did plastic become the primary focus of the debate around sustainable fashion materials when it isn't actually the single worst material for the environment?
For starters, plastic is easy to hate: it's cheap, it's a mark of disposability, it can be made at an enormous scale quite efficiently, it's often perceived as being ugly or seedy, and there is little legacy tying plastic to heritage brands or the many-centuries-established ideas about aspiration, luxury, and social status. True quality, we've been told for ages, isn't about easy access to mass, industrially-produced goods – it's about the ability to employ skilled laborers and craftspeople and having access to traditional, rare or exotic materials.
This is the reason that faux fur has become a central target of the sustainable fashion debate - not because there is so much more of it than, say, synthetic athletic sneakers, stretch pants, plastic buttons or nylon bags, but because it subverts a sacred status symbol, and people with power want to keep access to power exclusive.
Sumptuary laws of the middle ages often enforced feudal dress codes with an iron first. This is when fur became "a luxury item and a sign of medieval class privilege", as Julia Emberly describes in her book The Cultural Politics of Fur. Our seemingly natural resistance to "man-made fibers" is really just an unveiling of social anxiety around the perception of who has power and status. As Nancy Hass quipped in New York Magazine, "Who’d want a fur if their cleaning lady could buy one?" It's also about socially kowtowing to a many-centuries-long enforcement of feudal fashion laws that could literally fine you, land you in a dungeon or at the end of a rope for disobeying.
Our seemingly natural resistance to "man-made fibers" is often just an unveiling of social anxiety around the perception of who has power and status.
When brands opt for cruelty-free textiles after becoming aware of an investigation, one of the main, knee-jerk responses is to argue that it's likely being replaced with plastic. In many cases, but not all, that's true. It's especially true for big brands like H&M and Zara who recently banned Mohair after a cruelty investigation. But are things like leather, fur, and wool better than plastic from an environmental standpoint? And are plastics the only alternative to animal fibers? That could require a really long answer, but the short answer is no. Livestock like sheep who are shorn and killed in the wool industry and cows who are bred and slaughtered in the leather industry have a far greater impact on the planet than plastics. Kering's and The Copenhagen Fashion Summit's recent research finds that leather is, by far, the single worst material for the environment. This is echoed by everything we know about livestock's impacts on the planet from climate change to land and water use, to loss of biodiversity. Going vegan, we told again by some of the most respected research, "deliver[s] greater environmental benefits than purchasing sustainable meat or dairy...greater environmental benefits than changing production practices both today and in the future". (source)
That doesn't excuse plastic – we must address plastic, without question, but if we're going to be strategic about sustainable fashion right now, we must also be at least as outraged about leather and wool.
Here's some things we need to know about leather, the worst material for the environment:
So much leather is made every year (7.2 million tons) that it would equal the weight of 20 Empire state buildings. And then we have to consider the 2.2 billion tons of tanning chemicals that enter waterways, wreaking havoc on ecosystems and communities who live near tanneries, equivalent to the weight of the entire human population.
we have to consider the 2.2 billion tons of tanning chemicals, equivalent to the weight of the entire human population, that enter waterways, wreaking havoc on ecosystems and communities who live near tanneries.
NOT A BYPRODUCT
Before we even get to the tanning and finishing processes, leather is from livestock, which is already the single worst industry for the environment, is the most economically vital aspect to the slaughter biz. Without leather's high markups, many in the slaughter biz wouldn't survive. This is exactly why leather is not a byproduct. It's a co-product or at least a meat-subsidy as Kate Carter, an investigative journalist for the Guardian pointed out . Therefore, the almost 2 billion animals a year killed for leather, from a strictly economic standpoint, is the primary product, while meat is worth less money.
Livestock constitute the single greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, an extremely potent GHG. But livestock take massive tolls in other ways too, as the most recent research out of Oxford University confirms. We'll soon have skins without livestock, thanks to biofabrication companies like Modern Meadow, Vitro Labs and Provenance, but for now, leather requires that an animal is reared and given precious resources like crops, land and water as well as creating an excess of impacts, especially methane, which has 86x the global warming potential of C02. Same goes for wool, with 1 billion sheep currently on the planet, they are both Australia's and New Zealand's top source of GHGs, both of which are global leaders in wool production.
LEATHER REQUIRES FOSSIL FUELS
The production of leather is not even close to being free of fossil fuels, which typically go directly into making plastics. But these fossil fuels are used in places along the leather value-chain where they're not seen by most consumers. In fact, producing one calorie of animal flesh (including leather) requires more than ten times the fossil fuel input as a calorie of plant protein, according to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. According to Cornell agricultural ecologist David Pimentel, it requires a lot of oil to grow crops to feed to cattle, so much that during the life of typical steers, they'll each consume the equivalent of 284 gallons of fossil fuels! It requires far less oil to make PU leather directly, than cycling it through corn and then an animal's body to then arrive at one single hide. Then the tanning and finishing process commonly involves all sorts of synthetics and plastics like syntans, acrylic resins and lacquers, polyurethane resins and lacquers, and vinyls like butadiene.
During the life of typical steers, they'll each consume the equivalent of 284 gallons of fossil fuels.
biodiversity & forests
A lot of the worlds leather is coming from South America where the Amazon is being wiped out to make graze-land for cattle. According to Yale University, 80% of all deforestation rates in the Amazon are driven by cattle ranching, and Brazil is the top exporter of cattle products like leather, with over 200 million head of cattle. This alone should convince us to ditch our leather habit. But it's far worse than we think. According to a study published in Tropical Conservation Science, 85% of leather coming from deforested areas ends up in markets that are sensitive to environmental issues like deforestation, and 26% of all slaughters that occur in Brazil are at clandestine... as in, illegal!
This isn't the only way consumers are being duped by the leather industry, because research shows that a lot of so-called Italian leather is actually made in Brazil.
From a standpoint of biodiversity, "livestock production is still the predominant driver of forest loss worldwide, threatening biodiversity and ecological process and driving greenhouse gas emissions", according to a study published in June 2018.
Plastic microfibers and plastic debris aren't the only things killing the sea. Runoff from factory farms (the places where leather comes from) are responsible for enormous ocean dead zones. Choosing so-called "natural" fibers like leather or wool instead of synthetic fibers like polyurethane leather or polyester is the illusion of a better choice for the sea, when quite the opposite is true, even from just the standpoint of climate change. Pair that with the fact that a whopping 46% of ocean plastic debris actually comes from "enormous discarded fishing nets", making the devastation of the seafood industry far worse, especially for fish who, we now know with certainty, can feel pain.
But the choice between synthetics or animal materials is a false binary because they both present real problems, and plastics are by no means excluded in the making of animal materials. The material presenting the biggest problems is clear, and that's leather. We must eliminate livestock products from the fashion if there is ever to be a truly sustainable fashion industry. The good news is that it's happening!
While so many argue about whether systemic animal cruelty is worse than pollution from plastics, there are innovations in biomaterials from algae and mycelium to lab-grown silk and lab-grown leather that offer scalable, cruelty-free and plastic-free solutions. Let's focus on innovation and leave both livestock products and plastic in the past.