A few days ago I posted an interaction I had with a vegan bag company on Instagram which claimed to be sustainable. Looking at the exterior of these bags, they looked awfully polyurethaney (not a word, but bear with me). After a week-long exchange, they admitted the exterior was, in fact, a plastic-based faux leather which, unlike other more natural materials, won’t decompose in our lifetimes.
And by “in our lifetimes,” I mean hundreds of years. Some estimates even show the biodegradability of plastic1 clocking in at a ripe 500 years to forever, though this focused on plastic grocery bags.
But this beckons the question: Why does plastic’s biodegradability matter so much? Well, let’s get deep here.
Everything About Plastic Sucks
Now if you’ve perused any zero waste blogs or stores, then you probably get the sense that zero wasters aren’t fond of plastic. Zero waste, if you’re unaware, is a movement aimed at reducing waste production down to zero by focusing on waste prevention practices. The biggest zero waste followers actually produce so little waste that they can fit it into a small jar.
While waste management practices such as composting and recycling are part of the equation, they’re at the bottom of this hierarchy. Instead, this is how their prioritize reducing waste, as outlined by Zero Waste Home author Bea Johnson:
Plastic doesn’t just earn a bad rep for simply decomposing at a slow rate, however. It’s also what happens to plastic and its surrounding environment that’s the big issue. That’s why you don’t see as many people raising a stink about plastic alternatives, such as glass, which has a larger carbon footprint than plastic (read this post on Ecochain to learn why).
One of these problems is microplastic, which occurs when plastic breaks down at a microscopic level. Yeah, I know, stating the obvious here. But these particles are so small they’ve even been found in blood cells. And while most of us picture plastic particles floating in the sea, causing harm to marine life, a lot of it also is transported through the air. It’s all around us, like invisible confetti.
Its effects on marine life, according to research, is…not great. Take this study published in Science of the Total Environment in 2018, examining the effects of microplastics on a type of zooplankton:
In relation to the control group 1, microplastics-exposed females (group 2) had significantly (p ≤ 0.05) reduced growth, total offspring, mobile juveniles and population growth rate, and they produced immobile juveniles (Table 1, Fig. 2A). No significant (p > 0.05) effects on the age at first brood release and on the number of broods were found (Table 1). Such results indicate that microplastics had a negative effect on D. magna growth and reproduction. Moreover, microplastics caused a reduction of the fertility because females exposed to the particles produced a lower total offspring than control ones, and caused mortality among the offspring (Fig. 2A). As the result, the population growth rate decreased (Table 1) indicating a reduction of the population fitness in one generation only.
Later on in the study, researchers hypothesize that microplastics could induce satiety, causing zooplankton to consume less food. This could explain the reduced growth and population growth patterns. It may also come from the toxicity of chemicals in plastics, found in other research to induce neurotoxicity (it’s linked in the study itself, if you’d like to verify.) Different types of chemicals are found in microplastics, depending on how it is produced and what chemicals it absorbs in the environment.
But one study alone isn’t significant evidence that microplastics are detrimental. For that, we need to look at all of the research available to see if it shows a common pattern. As research is still ongoing (microplastic research is relatively new), that’s hard to quantify.
So let’s look at this review article published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans in 2020. Review articles summarize the current data and research available, providing a broader picture about a topic.
One thing it points out is that the rate of microplastics surpass those of carbon emissions. This means when evaluating is something is sustainable or not, focusing solely on carbon emissions is ill advised, as it doesn’t encompass the entire problem.
Of all of the microplastics found in marine environments, the biggest contributor are synthetic textiles. That includes plastic-based leather, like that made from polyurethane. That’s the vegan leather the bag company claimed was sustainable. According to their email, they use “solvent-free polyurethane (PU) vegan leather, free of harmful chemicals such as dioxins, in the production process.” They also claimed it used 95 percent less water and 50 percent less energy, which is commendable.
In addition, this brand offsets their carbon emissions to further reduce their environmental impact, called carbon neutrality. That’s a good first step for any sustainable brand. However, carbon emissions are only a part of the sustainability equation. When I asked them about the biodegradability of their polyurethane-based leather bags, they didn’t answer me at first. When I finally did receive a response, they were quick to spin it in a positive light, citing that their packaging was biodegradable.
The greenwashing is…pretty blunt here. Sure, it may be less energy intensive, but ultimately their leather will break down into microplastics. And, in an ironic twist, animals will ingest them, causing serious harm. It may not be directly involved in the slaughtering of animals, but animals don’t remain unscathed due to the use of this leather.
Given just how prevalent synthetic textiles are when it comes to microplastic pollution, I question how you can call yourself sustainable, or even spin the use of polyurethane in a positive light. And to brush past this is something that rubs me the wrong way. In my interactions with other brands who aren’t completely sustainable, they either tell me:
- They realize their products aren’t completely sustainable, and don’t hide that fact, explaining they plan to make changes in the future
- Or have actual sustainability initiatives outlined on their website, showing they have actual plans within their business to become more sustainable in the following years, like Cheekbone Beauty.
I know sustainability is hard, but I’ll generally trust a brand that’s open and honest about their practices, including the ones that aren’t as positive. If you try to hide it, or make it seem better than it actually is, as is the case with polyurethane-based leather, I question what your real intent is. And for many brands, profit is prioritized over everything else.
That’s a big problem. Do we promote veganism to stop animal suffering and change our views depending on the research that is available? Or will we stick to outdated definitions of it because that’s what sells better? The latter serves to maintain a company’s branding, regardless of the actual evidence presented.
Alternatives to Polyurethane
As commendable as it is to avoid animal cruelty, simply not using animal leather isn’t the solution. Polyurethane-based leather is one of the most prolific types of vegan leather available, being both cheap and easy to access. It’s why not only vegan bag companies love it, but fast fashion giants such as Forever 21 and H&M.
Luckily, this isn’t the only solution to animal leather. Recent innovations in the vegan leather sector have begun developing leather from food, such as mushrooms and apples. There’s also Desserto, leather made from prickly pear cacti.
Headed by entrepreneurs Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez, the process of creating this leather is less energy and water intensive. Cacti don’t need much water to thrive, for one thing. The “leather” is also tanned using natural sunlight, and not harsh chemicals that would necessitate a long production process in a factory, contributing to carbon emissions. These are bonuses that cacti leather offer without the use of plastic-based leather.
On the contrary, these alternatives are rarely budget-friendly. While Forever 21 offers vegan bags starting as low at $10, bags made by Nuuwai, a company that manufactures apple leather bags, start at $63. Some of this has to do with the material used, but also factors in paying employees livable wages. That’s something that Forever 21 is notorious for not doing, with employees earning as little as $4 per hour.
Regardless of the ethics of it, however, some of us can’t afford the splurge. So are we doomed to make an unethical choice? Are polyurethane bags our only solution?
Luckily, the answer is no! Remember the zero waste hierarchy I posted earlier? Number two is reuse, which is where buying secondhand comes into play. Purchasing a previously owned bag from a thrift store or online is also a good ethical choice to make that won’t cost much. It’s the option I prefer too, as I’m on a strict budget. The bag I featured in this video about sustainable bag essentials was purchased from Poshmark for $20.
But of course, remember that being ethical isn’t the consumer’s responsibility. It’s the brands themselves that need to take initiative. Most of us are lower to middle class who may not have the time or energy to ensure what we purchase is ethical.
These companies, on the other hand, have a plethora of resources available to them, and contribute more to carbon emissions and microplastic pollution. As consumers, we can make ethical purchases to show brands what we prioritize in our own lives. And wherever the money flows, businesses follow.