On an almost daily basis here at ILM, we publish articles from and talk to industry experts who reiterate that leather is the right sustainable material for an environmentally friendly fashion industry, and that a move toward plastic materials does more harm than good, but it’s clear that consumers aren’t paying attention. Indeed, it may be that their attention is being drawn elsewhere by global campaigns focused on plastic-based materials.

ILM recently reported that the Jury de Déontologie Publicitaire in France ruled that an Adidas ad broke advertising rules and misled consumers on its messaging about plastic recycling and, while this sort of greenwashing centred behaviour is a genuine concern when the other hand is lambasting leather as a material of the past, I’m not sure it’s the core of the issue.

It’s true that plastic-based materials used in clothing and footwear, which originate from fossil fuels, are not good for the planet or for us. Despite the many genuine efforts to recycle these products and materials, a catastrophic amount finds its way to landfill. Statista reports that Nike generated 4,846 metric tons of waste at its locations around the world in the 2020 financial year, a decrease of 7% compared with the previous financial year. A decrease that goes against the dramatic upward trend in those figures across the last decade, and likely only caused by restrictions around the Covid-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, the Synthetics Anonymous report from the Changing Markets Foundation (CMF), which assesses sustainability claims from brands in the fast fashion, luxury fashion and online retailing industries, found that 39% of products came branded with sustainability claims such as “recycled” and “eco-friendly” but a whopping 59% failed to stand up Competition and Markets Authority guidelines on greenwashing.

In addition to verifying these brands’ sustainability claims, the report also looked at their use of virgin synthetics (those produced and used for the first time, not yet recycled) and the majority of the 49 brands fell into the worst category, the ‘red zone’, with some classified because they failed to disclose any information at all.

Some did disclose. Adidas revealed that almost 90% of its products contain virgin synthetics, primarily polyester, while Nike’s latest impact report revealed that it used more than 152,000 tonnes of polyester and 111,490 tonnes of rubber in the 2020 financial year. The CMF’s February report revealed that the production of virgin polyester generates 700 million tonnes of CO2 every year.

Another report, from the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), looked at 10,000 recently listed items being sold online by Boohoo, PrettyLittleThing, Missguided and ASOS and found that, on average, 49% were made of polyester, acrylic, nylon and elastane. The RSA accused these brands of greenwashing by focusing on small sustainable ranges while the majority of their products are bad for the environment.

So why is leather being left out of these sustainability campaigns by major High Street fashion brands and retailers? The answer is fairly simple – perception. The rise of the vegan movement and animal welfare campaigns targeting the meat industry have had a knock-on effect for leather. Never mind that leather is a recycled product and is “buy-it-for-life”, rather than “buy-it-for-landfill”, consumers have an image of leather as worse for the environment than plastic shoes, and it’s not easy to change that perception.

It’s clear from the above data that many of the fashion and retail giants are contributing massive amounts of plastic waste and being criticised for the way they are distracting customers by focusing on relatively minor sustainability efforts, and yet their impact on consumer perception has been effective.

In our most recent tanner survey, we found that although 77% of tanners believe that there is still a chance to improve leather’s image as a natural material against ‘fake’ alternatives, 80% do not believe that enough is being done to market leather to consumers.

We spoke to Steve Sothmann and Tim Lewis from the Real Leather. Stay Different. campaign in our most recent ILM podcast episode and it’s clear that the effort is there. Campaigns such as Real Leather, Stay Different and Leather Naturally are taking the best parts of leather as a material and driving it to consumers in the right way, but they’re on the back foot when they’ve been beaten to the punch by global fashion brands with endless marketing budgets and greenwashing agendas.

So, what can we do as an industry to break through and prove that leather, although not perfect, is the best choice for the environment and for the consumer? It’s tough to land on a definitive answer and we might well be forced to do our best and hope that the public wake up to the brands and retailers filling their world with plastic. 

Tom Hogarth, Deputy Editor

September 2, 2021