Eco fabrics and the sustainability of leather: an analysis

Eco fabrics – what are they and how are they made? How much do we truly know about these materials that claim to be better for us, the environment, and those who work with them to create our garments? We can identify a few problems currently faced in the clothing industry:

  1. Poor working conditions of workers, and their exploitation in sweatshop environments.
  2. The process of dyeing fabric with chemicals that end up in our waterways and are harmful for the environment and our health.
  3. Harmful manufacturing practices of using oil, coal or natural gas to produce synthetic fibres used in clothing materials.
  4. Synthetic fibres which release microplastics into the environment when washed and worn.
  5. Overproduction of garments which end up as waste in landfills.

While it is quite clear that current manufacturing standards and practices are harmful to our environment both from the outset to the very end, it is also worth questioning the production methods and consequences of eco fabrics which are newly produced and essentially man-made.

Then we have the issue of natural fabrics like leather – is it sustainable or not? Being a natural material, is it in any way sustainable to use it and wear it? My answer here would be a resounding ‘no’. While some brands specifically make it their duty to utilise otherwise discarded leather resulting from the meat industry, and in some respect make the best of a bad situation, most of the leather we see on clothing racks and in store windows are products of the leather industry – equally as cruel and troubling as the meat industry, and resulting in the deaths of millions of animals.

With this in mind, here are a few eco fabrics that we often come across in sustainable fashion:

  • Organic cotton: made of natural fibres and biodegradable, its only drawbacks are that it could be pricey (due to fair wages paid to workers and the more ethical farming of cotton), and the amount of water it requires to grow.
  • Tencel: this material is made of natural fibres, requires less water than cotton and is biodegradable. Its drawbacks are the chemical processing required to make it into fabric, however even the chemicals in this process are recycled rather than released into the environment.
  • Hemp: natural, biodegradable and uses less water than cotton. It can be slightly pricier, however.
  • Linen: natural, biodegradable and lightweight. Like cotton however, it also uses more water.

Despite their various (though comparatively few) cons, all these fabrics have one thing in common: they are cruelty-free and do not result in the deaths of millions of animals. Using leather that would otherwise go to waste is fine, however be sure to check that the brands you buy from do not support the leather industry and that they take extra care in making sure their manufacturing processes are as ethical as possible. If the alternative to something cruel is there, should we not support it?

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