“Sustainability” is a word that is now on everyone’s lips, especially in the fashion world.
Many brands, even those labelled as “fast fashion”, have presented to their customers a change of course: garments produced with “sustainable” materials, production processes with a reduced environmental impact and fair working conditions for workers. But are they truly committed to this?
It seems clear that today’s consumers are even more concerned about the environment than in the past: they are clamouring for greater attention from big corporations, also driven by continuous information communicated by environmental associations, governments and even prominent figures on social networks and television.
Companies and manufacturers, therefore, have moved in this direction in order to respond to a market requirement that nowadays cannot be ignored, as it has already happened in other sectors, such as the automotive and food industry.
But how much do these sudden “green-turning point” respect the dictates of sustainable fashion?
The fashion market is striving
For some years now, on the catwalks of the most prestigious fashion brands, we have been seeing real examples of the much heralded “green-turning point”: clothes made by upcycling the leather interiors of cars, accessories created by reusing common objects (such as plastic caps or bottles) up to the settings of the catwalks adorned with trees to be replanted at the end of the show.
But it is not just about big brands. By now, even the world’s least sustainable clothing companies have made their voices heard, using organic cotton, polyester or recycled plastic. The slogans feature respectable claims that aim to communicate to the consumer that even the so-called “fast fashion” industry is thinking about the health and wellbeing of our planet.
Certainly, it is good to see arising interest and effort in reducing the impact of waste, but it is clear that there is still a long way to go and it is full of pitfalls.
The false promises that hurt the planet (and your wallet!)
For companies that have always neglected the problem of the environmental impact of their business, turning towards a “greener” approach is anything but simple. Just think about the production chains, which have been relocated: most of the factories that make garments and accessories for these brands are based in the other side of the world because of lower costs, both in terms of labour and raw materials. What does this mean? It means that working conditions are increasingly precarious, production processes are often not compliant with waste disposal regulations, and product distribution has a staggering carbon footprint, accounting for an estimated 10% of global emissions.
It is therefore difficult to think how, in a few years, all these dynamics have been totally revolutionised in the name of the planet. Certainly, awareness is higher, but much has yet to be done in practice.
The “sustainable proclamations” and product sheets that boast of recycled or even organic materials, are – in light of these considerations – to be taken cautiously: the phenomenon of greenwashing, in parallel to the “green promises” of fashion brands, has seen an exponential increase and the most attentive consumers are well aware of it.
The fact that a t-shirt is described as made from recyclable materials is not enough to make the product sustainable if the person who made it has to suffer from unfair working conditions. When you buy a pair of pants made with certified organic cotton, you cannot be sure that every single fiber of the garment is actually made of the declared material, because the production chain is so long that it is impossible to trace each single stage.
What about a bag made of the so-called “vegan leather”? Also in this case, a trendy adjective is not enough to make a truly sustainable choice, quite the contrary: most of these innovative materials contain only a part of vegetable fibres, the rest is often made of plastics that can be extremely harmful to the environment if not properly disposed of. Polyurethane, for instance, which also needs a consuming production process in terms of energy, water and chemicals.
The result is garments and accessories that are only apparently “sustainable”, but which are sold to the end customer at higher prices both for them and for our planet; and this is anything but being green.
Not to mention that the misleading use of the noun “leather” can be sibylline for the consumer: in fact, it must be used only and exclusively for products of animal origin, while in the case of synthetic or vegetable materials the term “synthetic leather” should always be used for transparency towards the consumer, including vegans, who have the right to understand exactly the type of garment they are buying.
Vegetable-tanned leather for truly sustainable fashion
In the ruthless race towards sustainability, brands and manufacturers have focused on innovation: the infamous “vegan leather” mentioned above is a glaring example. But it is precisely this innovative material that came under the spotlight a few months ago, with the Tesla car scandal.
This proves that it would be necessary to take a step back, returning to the past and the use of valuable but actually sustainable materials, which have allowed our ancestors to make durable and environmentally friendly products for generations: we are talking about the vegetable tanned leather.
Its history goes back a long way, involves many traditions and crafts handed down from father to son, and continues to this day, offering brands and consumers a timeless product that lasts a lifetime. It is only by focusing on this type of material that we can reduce the enormous environmental impact of the fashion industry.
There are many reasons for this: the leather, as it upcycles a by-product from the food industry, is recovered and then processed and tanned according to traditional methods, which are fully compatible with current sustainability requirements for environmental protection.
Vegetable tanned leather can be entirely upcycled at the end of its life cycle, and its production waste are reused for the production of fertilisers for organic farming. Tanning a hide using tannins, moreover, makes the garment or accessory durable over time, putting the brakes on “disposable” fast fashion, made of poor-quality products, to be discarded after only a few wears.
In addition, tannin extraction and leather tanning processes are easily traceable, thanks to a short production chain, where sustainable working conditions are ensured for the sake of local economies.
The real green turning point for fashion companies is therefore to be found in the traditions of the past, in the ancient craft processes, in the use of natural materials and upcycling. Vegetable tanned leather with tannin can be considered one of the few materials that can really meet the green needs of the fashion industry.