“Vegan leather” in the apparel industry turns out to be a bit of a scam

The New York Times has an article more or less exposing the “greenwashing” of the fashion industry that uses the “Higg Index” to rate the eco-friendliness of its products, all while using nonsense terms such as “vegan leather.”

It’s soft. It’s vegan. It looks just like leather.

It’s also made from fossil fuels.

An explosion in the use of inexpensive, petroleum-based materials has transformed the fashion industry, aided by the successful rebranding of synthetic materials like plastic leather (once less flatteringly referred to as “pleather”) into hip alternatives like “vegan leather,” a marketing masterstroke meant to suggest environmental virtue.

Underlying that effort has been an influential rating system assessing the environmental impact of all sorts of fabrics and materials. Named the Higg Index, the ratings system was introduced in 2011 by some of the world’s largest fashion brands and retailers, led by Walmart and Patagonia, to measure and ultimately help shrink the brands’ environmental footprints by cutting down on the water used to produce the clothes and shoes they sell, for example, or by reining in their use of harmful chemicals.

But the Higg Index also strongly favors synthetic materials made from fossil fuels over natural ones like cotton, wool or leather. Now, those ratings are coming under fire from independent experts as well as representatives from natural-fiber industries who say the Higg Index is being used to portray the increasing use of synthetics use as environmentally desirable despite questions over synthetics’ environmental toll.

“The index is justifying the choices fashion companies are making by portraying these synthetics as the most sustainable choice,” said Veronica Bates Kassatly, a fashion industry analyst and critic of the industry’s sustainability claims. “They’re saying: You can still shop till you drop, because everything is now so sustainably sourced.”

The article goes on to say:

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), which runs the index and counts among its members almost 150 brands, including H&M and Nike, as well as retail giants like Amazon and Target, said the index uses data that is scientifically and externally reviewed.

“This is years of work to compile and put together the best available most up-to-date data,” said Jeremy Lardeau, vice president of the Higg Index at the apparel coalition. “We’re not actively pushing for the synthetic numbers to be low. We’re just collecting the data in one place.”

Critics counter that some of the data underpinning the index comes from research that was funded by the synthetics industry that hasn’t been fully opened up to independent examination. Other studies incorporated into the Higg Index are sometimes relatively narrow in scope, raising questions about their broad, industrywide applicability.

The index rates polyester as one of the world’s most sustainable fabrics, for example, using data on European polyester production provided by a plastics-industry group, although most of the world’s polyester is made in Asia, usually using a dirtier energy grid and under less stringent environmental rules. The Higg rating for elastane, also known as Lycra or spandex, draws on a study by what was at the time the world’s largest elastane producer, Invista, a subsidiary of the conglomerate Koch Industries. (Invista sold its Lycra business in 2019.)

The SAC said in response to the data issues brought up in the article:

What is crucial is the pressing need across the industry to close the data gap, which can only be done through collaboration. We strongly appeal to all parts of the materials industry to invest in deeper data on materials’ environmental impact – and to share that data across with each other. Collaboration is the only way we can accelerate progress on climate issues and provide the best possible data to enable businesses, policymakers and customers to make informed decisions.  

While we of course recognize the need for data sets to continuously evolve and grow – this will always be an ongoing task – we are confident the tools we provide to members are effective in achieving what they have been designed to do – enable a benchmark for continuous improvement and the lessening of environmental impacts. 

We will continue to work to find common ground with all parties, because our focus, like theirs, is ultimately to improve the environmental impact of our industry. We live in a climate emergency and it will take all actors from across the value chain to drive change. This is what we were set up to achieve, and what we remain ardently committed to.  

Until we come up with alternatives to real or plastic leather, I will just avoid both when I can.

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