Fashion trends and automotive interior design have been inextricably linked for decades, and the colours, materials and finishes we see on catwalks are often echoed in the latest car launches. A recent trend in fashion has been the introduction of ‘vegan leather’, bringing animal-free material that looks like leather to the masses. The media hype has taken this and made it seem like the planet's saviour, but recently, people are starting to understand the truth: it's made from plastic.

Fast fashion has fully adopted vegan leather, and with good reason: it’s relatively inexpensive to make and can be sold as a premium product; it’s been given a thumbs up by certain fashion designers as being cruelty-free; the marketers come up with some fancy name but forget to inform you of the harm it’s doing to the planet.

A report published by Consumption Research Norway (SIFO)* looks at understanding the growth in clothing and textile production, the plastification of these materials and the related environmental impacts (the plastic elephant in the room). Part of the report’s findings is that there are no clear strategies for reducing synthetic fibres or measures to halt plastification.

Recently, the Renewable Carbon Initiative (RCI) has highlighted new data showing that crude oil products have a significantly higher CO2 footprint than previously calculated. The latest updates to the Swiss ecoinvent database have rectified the discrepancies with revised data for fossil raw materials and plastics. Germany-based Nova Institute analysed the effect of these updates, and results show the carbon footprint of fossil naphtha rose by 107% whilst PE saw an increase of 34%, PP of 30%, and PET of 26%**.

The consequence of making “vegan leather” is creating a new linear material with a high percentage of plastic. Whether it’s virgin plastic or recycled, the impact on the planet from producing plastic is significant. These alternative leather materials are shown to have limited performance and, therefore, a reduced life span. These composite materials can’t be recycled and will inevitably end up in landfill, where it will take hundreds of years to decompose and release toxins and greenhouse gases into our land and oceans.

The consequence of making “vegan leather” is creating a new linear material with a high percentage of plastic. Whether it's virgin plastic or recycled, the impact on the planet from producing plastic is significant.

Leather is part of the circular economy, where every part of the cow is used, and nothing is wasted. The hides are upcycled into leather, a natural material with a biogenic carbon count of over 80%. Leather is naturally biodegradable; upon reaching its end of life, it can be composted to enrich the soil. This, in turn, nurtures the growth of grass, providing sustenance for the very cows that initiate this regenerative cycle all over again.

Leather is naturally biodegradable. A rawhide will decompose quickly, and a tanned hide will take 10 to 50 years, depending on how it is processed. When you compare this to ‘vegan leather’, it’s a fraction of the time. With no current viable option but landfill, these plastic and fossil-fuel-based synthetics will still be around in 500 – 1,000 years, emitting dangerous gases and microplastics that are harmful to the environment and human health.

In recent years, automotive tanneries have invested heavily in ensuring that leather is produced more sustainably and environmentally friendly, reducing carbon emissions. Current developments in sustainable tanning and finishing reduce the time it takes to biodegrade or turn into compost, further lessening the impact on the planet.

With the recent EU vote for anti-greenwashing laws by an overwhelming majority, which will ban the use of environmentally friendly claims without proof, it will change how products are labelled, prevent unfounded durability claims, and stop companies trying to kid on that products made with plastic are ok because trees were planted to offset the carbon.

With these new data and reports, increased knowledge of the harm plastics pose to our planet and upcoming greenwashing legislation, surely it’s time to eliminate the plastic elephant in the room and expand the use of natural, circular products such as genuine automotive leather.

Reference And Sources Used
* https://bit.ly/3SMd4t6

** https://bit.ly/48rpTz7

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