As the spotlight on sustainability and ethics continues to shine, several apparel and accessory brands vie for a piece of the green pie by misusing vegan terminology in their brand messaging.
An excerpt from the brand story of Baggit, one of India’s most well-known bag and accessory label reads the following:
“SUSTAINABLE BRAND – Society has provided essential nourishment to flourish into the brand we are today. Hence, it is always at the crest of our priorities. We deliver quality bags that are made of cruelty-free material. This sense of awareness capacitated us to lead a clean process which received the PETA award.”
The ‘cruelty-free’, PETA-certified material that Baggit is referring to is polyurethane leather (colloquially known as pleather) — a synthetic form of leather that is created by applying a liquid PU coating onto a fabric backing. To render polyurethane liquid requires a solvent that is often highly toxic. It is also important to note that PU leather has a considerably shorter lifecycle than genuine leather. It wears out rather quickly, often making it unusable. Furthermore, once dumped, PU leather takes about a hundred years to biodegrade. As such, nothing about the material that Baggit uses seems “sustainable”, like it claims.
Vegan, sustainable, ethical, eco-friendly — each of these terms fall under the umbrella of conscious consumerism. In common parlance, they are often (erroneously) used interchangeably, especially by marketers, for their own benefit.
One of the most commonly used terms in the above context is ‘vegan leather’ — a phrase that a number of fashion apparel and accessory brands are irresponsibly using to market faux or synthetic leather products, which are primarily made with polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC). According to Greenpeace, PVC is the “single most environmentally damaging of all plastics”. It is responsible for releasing toxic substances including phthalates, BPA and cancer-causing dioxins, throughout its lifespan.
Although efforts by brands like Stella McCartney to reduce the negative impact of their synthetic leather products on the environment are worth acknowledging, the damage continues to be significant. And, the fact still remains that most brands that boast of producing vegan leather do it the conventional, unsustainable way.
Another material that appeals to animal-activists and fashion enthusiasts alike but has questionable sustainability credentials is vegan or faux fur. In the recent past, many luxury conglomerates that include the likes of Versace, Gucci, Jimmy Choo, Furla Armani, and Michael Kors vowed to go fur-free due to ethical considerations. Most of these brands, if not all, continue to use faux fur, purporting it to be the more conscious alternative. Faux fur is generally made from acrylic, which is petroleum-based and causes a lot of pollution during its production. Moreover, it also releases microfibers when washed which often find their way into the ocean and end up poisoning it. According to a 2016 study published in Marine Pollution Bulletin, over 700,000 fibres could be released from an average 6 kg wash load of acrylic fabric. Faux fur, like synthetic leather too, is non-biodegradable.
When a brand brags about it being vegan, it doesn’t mean much unless it also expressly talks about the alternative fabrics it is using and how its manufacturing process incorporates sustainability. For instance, when Baggit makes claims of being vegan and sustainable, while sharing zero information on its material and production process, what it is doing is unethical and pure greenwashing.
I don’t support animal cruelty and absolutely acknowledge the environmental consequences that come with animal trade, but there’s a general notion that anything and everything cruelty-free is sustainable which is false and misleading. Leather and fur, whether real or faux, both come at significant ethical and environmental costs.
So, as responsible consumers, what choices are we left with? The most prudent one is to shop these products second hand or vintage, if at all, and care for them well so they don’t end up in landfills. And, if you really do want to treat yourself to that new leather bag, you can opt for sustainable vegan leather options that are available. Piñatex is a plant-based leather made from sustainably-sourced pineapple fibre. It contains no harmful chemicals. A Big Indian Story is India’s first brand to offer products made out of Piñatex. Malai, a Kerala-based startup has created biocomposite material with waste coconut water that has a similar feel and texture to leather. Arture, a Chennai-based brand of bags, wallets and travel accessories uses 100% natural cork fabric which is both, an ethical and sustainable substitute to leather.
The issues of sustainability and ethics are rather complex. When it comes to fashion, what ‘green’ encompasses still remains a grey area and brands take undue advantage of the same.
The next time a brand makes a vague claim about being vegan, make sure you first educate yourself about its raw-materials and production process rather than going on face value. Their word may be as faux as their leather.5