For a long time, the leather industry has felt like a beaten dog, with the majority of tanners, raw material suppliers and manufacturers doing their utmost to make improvements in efficiency, sustainability and social responsibility to meet the demands of a continually shifting consumer base. These efforts have seemingly only been rewarded by mixed attitudes from brands and OEMs across all sectors, hostile marketing campaigns from vegan and animal rights activists and the spread of misinformation.
In 2023, many consumers still believe that cows are killed solely for leather, and continue to buy into fast fashion, synthetics and half-baked alternative materials which appear to dedicate significant budget to pretending they’re not just plastic.
But perceptions might be shifting. Having spent many years studying and working in journalism, I’m keenly aware of the role that media outlets play as a barometer of consumer perception. If you’ve paid any attention to the rise of the 24-hour news cycle and the changing priorities of magazines, newspapers and websites, you’ll understand that journalists are at the whim of consumer sentiment.
International Leather Maker is no exception, dedicating a lot of our time to ensuring our content meets the needs, present and future, of our audiences. It is because of this direct link between what audiences are focused on and what news outlets report, that we can gauge a shift in perceptions from headlines.
Unsustainable material production
Though anecdotal, the number of articles highlighting the issues and concerns with synthetic materials and, more importantly, leather alternatives seems to be increasing. The biggest global media outlets know that their audiences care about the amount of plastics in the fashion industry and they are beginning to see that the company’s producing “faux” or “vegan” “leather” are pulling the (synthetic) wool over their eyes. In one of the most recent examples, The Guardian published a report on the environmental impacts of fossil fuel derived materials and the contradiction in claiming these materials are better than natural options such as leather. Author Tamsin Blanchard said: “The problem, however, is that most pleather, faux leather and vegan leather is a product of the fossil fuel industry, and there is no system in place to recycle it. We are simply creating a material monster, its production contributing to the climate crisis and its pollution destroying our ecosystems.”
In particular, Blanchard highlighted the issue of mixed materials and PU coatings in alternative materials. While in the leather industry, efforts are being made to drive the material further towards 100% biobased content and find replacements to achieve performance standards in sectors like the automotive industry, the same goal is far harder to reach for alternatives. These materials have historically relied on backings, coatings, blends and treatments to achieve a fraction of the performance of leather with minimal plant-based content to support their marketing efforts. With the right research, our industry is quickly realising that leather can leave plastic behind entirely and be no worse off.
Another aspect of the recent positive press is the desire for leather as a marker of quality, added value and status. The Daily Mail published a recent piece focused on the outrage of Louis Vuitton customers over the brand selling bags for thousands of U.S. dollars and only using plastic-coating canvas as a main material, while reserving leather exclusively for its high-end items at much higher price points. The industry knows well that production cost is not the obstacle for the brand, so customers are rightly upset that they would pay so much for an inferior material choice. If there is anything that can drive brands away from chasing greedy margins, it is the outrage of consumers. ILM columnist Mike Redwood has recently highlighted in his weekly comment that leather has fewer middle-ground choices in the fashion industry, where it has historically and could still fill a great role. Long-lasting products at a reasonable price point with the expectation of durability and quality construction. More than ever, leather needs these avenues to increase consumer and finished leather demand.
Spreading the truth
Reports and research help to drive these articles and combat longstanding misinformation. For example, Forbes covered the Synthetics Anonymous report by the Changing Markets Foundation in 2021, showcasing instances of greenwashing, poor environmental impact and bad material choice on the part of fashion businesses. Cold hard facts will always influence consumers on a grander scale, they are easy to report and easier to share. You only need to remember that so many still believe “100% of animals are killed to make leather” to know that punchy marketing goes a long way. The report found that “60% of the environmental claims made fall short of greenwashing draft guidelines authored by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority”. We are seeing plastic become the bogeyman and for good reason, so consumers will only be more upset as they find out just how many synthetics are in their materials, from their clothes to their cars, and that brands and OEMs have chosen to adopt these materials over natural options to save costs or wave false environmental claims. The same article pointed to the FILK Freiberg study, now famous throughout the leather industry, which compared the physical performance of leather alternatives against leathers and found them both unsustainable and lacking in ability.
A recent effort from automotive leather industry group One 4 Leather highlighted that, if the sector stopped using the material, 35 million hides would go to landfill and result in an extra 644 million kg of CO2e emitted annually. By using more leather, the group noted, the automotive industry could actually increase its positive environmental impact by keeping more hides out of landfill, rather than choosing to use synthetic mixed-media materials that cannot be properly recycled and are destined for landfill. Currently, One 4 Leather estimates that around 40% of hides (over 3.8 billion kg) go to landfill, with just 18% of the remaining 60% taken in by the automotive industry.
Microplastics too are causing greater alarm by the day and are highlighting the issues not only with producing plastic but recycling and reusing it. The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) recently passed the results of an investigation to the European Commission around the microparticle risks in a range of PVC additives, including 17 used in the production of “artificial leathers”. These are the facts that will make a difference, not only shifting consumer perception but making legislative changes that close the walls around the production and marketing of plastics. While the leather industry, and particularly the leather chemicals business, bemoans the role of organisations like the ECHA in making production more difficult, there is certainly a silver lining when the same situation is applied to competitors.
The tide is most certainly turning, and it is supported if not driven by industry organisations like Leather Naturally, One 4 Leather, the Leather Working Group and many others. With support and cooperation from the sector as a whole, consumers will not only understand the truth about the environmental claims of synthetics, but the benefits of choosing leather for a myriad of applications. We know all too well that brands and OEMs are at the whim of consumer perception but, if this begins to change for the better, that pressure will be to the benefit of leather.
Leather has, for a long time, shied away from going on the attack in the same way that vegan activists and synthetic competitors have. Believing, with good evidence, that leather is superior not only in performance but in its potential environmental credentials, the industry has chosen instead to focus on promoting the material. With the emerging coverage from mainstream media and shifting perspectives of consumers, we can see a third option – tearing down the false claims that plastics have hidden behind for years. Only when the greenwashing is out of the way, can consumers really see synthetics and leather side by side and make the choice for themselves. Personally, I think it’s an obvious one.