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Style Are synthetic fabric alternatives like vegan leather really more sustainable?

Swedish mass fashion retailer H&M recently launched its Conscious Collection offerings for spring, an assemblage created as a reaction to the persistence of the megabrand’s impact on the environment. A few pieces – cowboy boots and a co-ordinating moto jacket – were instantly intriguing thanks to a novel fabrication element: Pineapple leather.

Evoking thoughts of sunny climes and the warm-fuzzies associated with pina coladas and shopping sustainably, this faux leather is formally called Pinatex and is made of fibre from by-product pineapple leaves. It’s just one of the many forward-thinking fabrications fashion’s biggest names are banking on to curb the damage caused by the seasonal consumption habits the industry has nurtured over the past 50 years.

H&M

H&M's Conscious Collection included a moto jacket and cowboy boots made from Pinatex, a faux leather made from pineapples.

H&M

We so often hear of the dismal statistics attributed to the manufacturing of fashion goods. It’s been named as the second-largest polluter in the world, a statistic that was called out by fashion editor Vanessa Friedman at the close of last year for being hyperbolically untrue – yet with the acknowledgment that the industry does largely contribute to the environmental crises we’ve witnessed in recent years. In response to the continual urging of organizations and shoppers to step up and innovate, you’ve likely noticed more brands flaunting fabrics that resonate with the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra or adhere to “ethical” production practices. But just what is vegan suede or Orange Fiber, and how is it better than the conventional fabrics that came before? Here’s what to know for the next time you shop.

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Leather/Suede Substitutes

Non-animal-derived fabric alternatives have long been desired by consumers, but not only because of their cruelty-free pedigree; the environmental damage caused by animal agriculture is well documented in the fashion industry. High-end designers, most notably Stella McCartney, have capitalized on the production of faux (often called “vegan”) leather and suede to make luxe garments and accessories. Most of these non-animal alternatives are made using various polymers, from polyester to polyurethane, but a few are fabricated from things such as cork (or pineapple). Depending on a brand’s manufacturing practices and partners, the creation of such materials can be very wasteful and toxic; many faux leathers are made with plastics and require a lot of oil to be produced, and they do not degrade the same way animal leather products do – meaning they’ll be on the planet for a longer time. Biotech company Modern Meadow introduced Zoa, its biofabricated materials offering, in 2017, although it’s not technically vegan since it uses animal matter in its composition.

Organic cotton

One of the more established textile terms on this list, organic cotton is used in everything from t-shirts to tampons. The cultivation premise is similar to that of food, in that the fields where the cotton is grown is held to the same standards of unadulterated agriculture practices (with the exception of say, natural pesticides being used instead of chemical ones). The primary difference in advantage lies in organic cotton producing at a smaller volume and therefore requiring more acreage and water than “traditional” cotton in its farming stage. Today, many brands including Toronto’s Kotn have built their business around the use of organic cotton and its appeal to the sustainably-minded; keep in mind that knowing how the cotton was dyed will impact its ultimate eco-friendliness.

Biodynamic and peace silk

These swish silk alternatives are slowly worming their way (sorry) into fashion’s collective conscious. One type describes the way in which the silkworms are raised (“biodynamic” or “mulberry” silk), in a method that uses fewer resources and can be done in conventionally inhospitable terrains for other types of farming. The other, termed “peace,” “non-violent” or “ethical” silk, gets its name from the fact that the silk is extracted through means that don’t result in the silkworm dying. Amour Vert, an emerging brand based in San Francisco that uses mulberry silk, was featured in Forbes last month – a testament to the appeal of these unique methods of material creation. Its price points, which are similar to that of major brands such as Reiss and J. Crew, also prove that sustainable fashion is becoming more democratic in pricing.

Orange Fiber

In a similar concept to that of the zesty pineapple’s leaves being used in clothing manufacturing, the humble discarded peels from oranges used in juice production have been elevated to haute status. Fashion house Salvatore Ferragamo launched a capsule collection in 2017 made of a silky twill composed of a polymer derived from the reused natural product, marking it as the first brand to utilize the textile. Orange Fiber was launched by an Italian company of the same name in 2014 and produces three other materials in addition to the twill: a poplin, a jersey and a white jersey.

Recycled plastic

This is perhaps the most talked-about sustainable material on the market right now – brands such as Patagonia, Lane Bryant, Adidas, Ralph Lauren and Montreal-based Frank and Oak have harnessed the power of recycled plastic to make items such as outerwear, polo shirts and sneakers. The benefit of this process is that it limits the need for oil used in garment manufacturing, and also makes use of the billions of plastic bottles thrown away each year. But as with all the other fabrics on this list, the sustainability element of the material is lessened depending on other processes, such as dyeing, that it goes through.

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