NYT: How Petrol Ind. Makes Vegan Leather Sexy

NYT headline: How Fashion Giants Recast Plastic as Good for the Planet

An influential system overseen by retailers and clothing makers ranks petroleum-based synthetics like “vegan leather” as more environmentally sound than natural fibers.

By Hiroko Tabuchi
June 12, 2022
Updated 9:37 a.m. ET


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.

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The rise of vegan leather, which is typically made from polyurethane, a type of plastic that has a more favorable Higg rating, has brought unintended consequences, industry officials say. Even as leather is replaced by synthetics, Americans are still eating lots of beef — which means the hides from those slaughtered cattle have nowhere to go. In 2020, a record 5 million hides, or about 15 percent of all available, went to landfills, according to the U.S. Hide, Skin and Leather Association, a Washington-based trade group.

“They’re throwing the hides in the offal barrels out back,” said Ron Meek, a former meat processor who has been helping smaller plants weather the downturn in leather demand.