The great vegan rebrand
When plastic turned plant-based.
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Do you ever stop to think about the weight our words hold?
Let me give you an example. Think of “pleather” and you’ll likely imagine tacky, shiny plastic, but call the same thing “vegan leather” and you’ll conjure up another idea entirely. This image makeover is as deceiving as is it is effective. The vegan prefix gives what is essentially plastic an ethical pretence, while leather has close ties to the luxury market.
When exactly did plastic turn plant-based?
Fashion journalist Jillian Goodman dubbed 2013 “the year of pleather” and we have the likes of Stella McCartney to thank for that. While PETA celebrated the “cruelty-free” material’s rising popularity, other designers steered clear of the vegan label and stressed that their clothing wasn’t limited to animal activists.
Then in 2016, pleather went through a drastic rebrand. Google Trends data shows that this was the first year global searches for “vegan leather” outnumbered searches for “pleather”. It should be noted, however, that searches for “faux leather” have always trumped both, which is to be expected when veganism is not quite yet mainstream. But it soon could be. According to EDITED, the UK has experienced a 43% year-on-year increase in fashion products labelled as “vegan” in the last 3 years alone. By 2027, the global vegan fashion market size is forecasted to reach a staggering $1095.6 billion - and that’s just for womenswear.
So, what’s the problem? When we talk about vegan leather, what we’re often describing is plastic. Non-biodegradable, often toxic, far less durable plastic.
PVC (or polyvinyl chloride) used to be the most popular choice for synthetic leather. Once categorised as the “single most damaging type of plastic”, PVC is harmful to both planetary and human health. The production of PVC requires the use of injurious plasticizers and gives off dioxins, a carcinogenic by-product. When left to rot in landfill, PVC releases poisonous chlorine gas into the atmosphere.
Polyurethane, better known as PU, is now the standard imitation leather, though it’s only somewhat better than PVC. While PU won’t chemically react with its environment, it still requires the use of toxic substances in production and is ultimately derived from fossil fuels. But what does that matter when it’s devoid of animal materials?
This is the argument put forward in a surprising collaboration between H&M and PETA. Co-Exist Story is the latest in a growing number of vegan-friendly, “sustainable” fashion collections, except this one is PETA-approved. Promising “leather made from grapes” and “down made from flowers”, the collection is said to showcase disruptive innovation.
The reality is that much of the collection is derived from plastic fibres, not plant-based leather. Take these vegan leather trousers, for example. Crocodile-patterned Vegea™ imitation leather sounds great, right?! Let me translate that for you. That’s a mix of polyurethane, polyester, polyamide and elastane. Or in other words, plastic, plastic, plastic and more plastic. The Changing Markets Foundation estimate that 65% of H&M’s clothes contain fibre made from crude oil and gas. This figure rises to 72% for their so-called annual “conscious” collection.
There’s also the glaring issue of microplastics. A study carried out by Dr Imogen Napper at the University of Plymouth calculated that, when a synthetic garment is washed, it can shed up to 700,000 individual microfibres. These synthetic fibres enter our waterways, are ingested by fish, are then ingested by us and even end up in the placentas of unborn babies. The contamination of fish doesn’t sound particularly vegan to me and that’s because it’s not. Plastic-based leather substitutes are no more vegan than air or a glass of water. All vegan leathers are animal-free, but not all vegan leathers are animal-friendly.
And they certainly aren’t sustainable, despite what PETA claims. Displaying an on-brand level of stubbornness, PETA brushed off social media critics by claiming the collection isn’t fast fashion because it “includes groundbreaking vegan materials”. The last remaining items from the collection are currently on sale, so I’d happily bet that these garments were overproduced in their thousands, churned out by H&M’s finetuned fast fashion model.
PETA went on to declare that vegan alternatives are “far ethically and environmentally superior”, backing this up with data that shows “that wool, silk, alpaca fleece, and cow leather have global warming impacts that are over three times larger than vegan textiles like polyester fabrics or polyurethane leather”. This is incredibly misleading and was taken from the questionable Higg Index. Natural fibres are biodegradable, synthetic fibres are not. Putting the moral argument aside for a moment, animal leather is durable and long-lasting, cheap plastic clothing less so. By claiming that natural fibres are worse for the environment than their plastic alternatives, you’re essentially calling for the expansion of fossil fuels. How “sustainable” of you.
(By the way, if you’re interested in what H&M really thinks about sustainability, take a look at this now-deleted post by H&M Germany’s Social Media Manager - yawn!)
The main difference between “pleather” and “vegan leather” is that the former is only derived from petroleum-based materials while the latter is an umbrella term for a wide range of alternatives to animal leather. In recent years, we have witnessed the growth of truly plant-based options. Sounding good enough to eat, you can now buy bags made from mushrooms, pineapples, apples and coffee grounds. Some vegetable leathers make use of agricultural waste, some are as durable as animal leather and some imitate leather in feel and appearance. Most are environmentally-friendly.
But like anything still in its infancy, plant-based leathers aren’t quite there yet and still rely on a plastic resin topcoat to imitate the feel of leather. Cactus-derived leather alternative, Desserto, uses a PU top coat, meaning the material won’t biodegrade fully.
Where these innovations really excel, however, is in their vision, where the future of fashion is cruelty-free, naturally-derived vegan leather. The vegan label, with its planet-saving connotations, is a good fit here. Where it doesn’t sit well is on the packaging of plastic-based clothing and accessories, unless this packaging includes a mandatory disclaimer that vegan isn’t synonymous with sustainable or ethical.
Words hold weight, so let’s use them wisely.
In other news…
When the key to change is regulation, does the New York Fashion Act go far enough? A landmark legislative bill threatens to disrupt the “out of sight, out of mind mentality” that has long plagued the fashion industry. If passed in the state of New York, The Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act will require fashion retailers with a minimum revenue of $100 million to disclose their environmental and social policies. In practice, eligible brands will need to divulge their labour policies and report on their energy, greenhouse gas emissions, water, plastic, and chemical management. They will also have to prove that they have effective due diligence processes in place, though there is no provision to ensure these processes are actually followed.
Let’s start with the good. The bill’s scope is revolutionary, effectively forcing all global brands operating in New York to comply. And comply they shall, unless they want to risk being fined 2% of their overall revenue. The money accrued from these fines will be redistributed among the community’s climate organisations. Other standout clauses include the crystal clear requirement for brands to set and achieve Science Based Targets and the need to report the total volumes of materials they produce. The second is particularly important because it makes it harder for brands to claim they’re reducing their impact while continuing to increase their production. We need degrowth, baby, degrowth.
Some critics question how effective transparency is as a tool of change. Remake argue that the bill “lacks the language necessary to truly hold brands accountable for their behaviour”. That is the bill lacks the mechanisms to ensure brands are actively doing what they are saying. At times lacking in ambition, the bill falls short of demanding total transparency by, for example, only asking brands to map out at least 50% of their supply chain. Co-signing this, Fashion Revolution are calling for the bill to be strengthened and amended because, as Céline Semaan reminds us, “the devil is in the details, and the enforcement”.
The conservatism of the bill is surely indicative of the climate it was proposed in; anything too radical will be shut down pronto by the business lobby. To get everybody on board, sometimes progress has to be painfully slow. Time will tell how the bill is received and who it ultimately serves. But for now, if the recently passed Garment Worker Protection Act is anything to go by, it seems the future of fashion is unavoidably justice.
Speaking of regulation, the UK greenwashing watchdog is keeping a close eye on the fashion industry. Less than a month after the Green Claims Code came into effect, the Competition and Markets Authority has launched an official probe into the sustainability claims made by fashion retailers. Further investigation is obviously needed, owing to the sheer scale of fashion greenwashing (otherwise my newsletter would not exist!) If brands are found guilty of deceiving shoppers, they will be liable and forced to either revise their advertising or face court action. The legal enforcement of consumer protection law and, more importantly, the financial incentive to follow it, will go a long way in turning the tide against greenwashing. If you come across a misleading campaign, you can report it via the CMA’s website.
“But what about the jobs?” is something you’ll inevitably hear whenever you advocate for a fairer fashion industry. Well, what if the answer was deceptively simple? What if, just maybe, paying living wages to garment workers is “the key to social and environmental sustainability”? This is the provocative argument put forward in environmental scientist Roland Geyer’s book, The Business of Less: The Role of Companies and Businesses on a Planet in Peril. He argues that raising global garment workers’ wages by a much-needed $100 a week would “immediately cut 65.3 million metric tons of CO2 out of the global economy”. He explains this in reference to the “reverse rebound effect” where money spent on something fairly made is effectively money not spent on something environmentally damaging. This living wage approach to climate action is an interesting but uncertain one. You could say that raising wages would kill jobs, as processes are automated, the price of clothing increases and consumers buy less (though this is surely the end goal). This is unlikely to happen, Geyer argues, for industries where pay is “excessively low”, plus policies and tax incentives could be put into place to prevent this. Another argument that clothing will become too costly is unconvincing when, according to one study, paying Indian garment workers living wages increases the cost of a T-shirt by a mere 20 cents. Whatever your thoughts, it’s a tricky concept to get your head around so I highly recommend reading Elizabeth Cline’s review and analysis of Geyer’s thought-provoking theory.
Fast fashion is a master manipulator, says Megan Doyle. Whether you’re online browsing or window shopping, fashion brands use “every trick in the consumer psychology playbook to convince us that the more we buy, the better off we’ll be”. With flashing neon sale lights at the ready, brands feed into our impulsivity by offering time-limited deals, recommending products you need to add to your basket and by notifying you that, yes, 12 other people are in fact looking at that same skirt of which there is only limited stock available (how kind of them?!). Megan’s article provides a great overview of marketing tricks to look out for, with the added insight of fashion psychologists.
Unpicking the humanisation of brands
When I first Googled “the humanisation of brands”, I scrolled through hundreds of positive headlines, each promising to tell me the best way to personalise my marketing. Humanisation, the articles insist, is the key to building real customer connections and seeming relatable and approachable.
Since the dawn of Wendy beefing customers and rivals on Twitter, brands have competed for the next viral post by appearing unsettlingly human. Appealing to millennials’ dislike of being directly advertised to, brands have appropriated TikTok humour and online depression culture to seem cool and detached. Which means I’ve now seen somebody dressed in a Duolingo owl suit on my for you page more times than I’ve seen my own family.
The problem with humanisation is that, well, brands aren’t human and it’s just a bit weird. There’s being conversational and then there’s posting like an unhinged teenager who grew up on Tumblr, when really you’re a multinational conglomerate with an old white male CEO.
While it’s great for hits, one 2013 study found that “the anthopomorphization of a brand can negatively affect consumers’ brand evaluations when the brand faces negative publicity”. 9 years later and I’m not so sure this conclusion still stands. By pretending to be self-aware, brands can deflect criticism and evade accountability.
When H&M was forced to own up for falsely claiming to be the most transparent brand in the world, they apologised like a tear-forcing Youtuber caught in a scandal. Oops, H&M had got “a bit too excited”, graciously admitted that they took it “a bit too far” and are now “on a journey” to do better. But this wasn’t the action of a silly little marketing team or a naïve intern; this was the communication strategy of a global fast fashion brand looking for any opportunity to greenwash its customers. It was a deliberate move, not an innocent mistake made by an individual.
In the fashion word, Boohoo, ASOS and I Saw It First have mastered the whole girl boss, Fiat 500 Twitter vibe. It’s easy really. Simply find trending tweets and memes, repost a screenshot without tagging the original poster and add a short caption like “me”.
Pretty Little Thing have perfected this formula, posting daily relatable content where the worst thing that can possibly happen is when your hair wash days don’t align. I’d imagine the garment workers in their supply chain can think of far worse scenarios. Herein lies the problem with the humanisation of brands. Brands are free to post out of touch memes, while the people who make their products continue to be exploited and ignored. To demonstrate my point, I analysed PLT’s tweets throughout January and here are the main themes I found:
Whinging about money: Like me, you might find it odd that the only way for a multi-million pound brand to seem relevant is to pose as a broke person. On the 23rd Jan, PLT reposted a tweet that reads '“what part of ‘do not spend money’ do I not understand”, complete with a grimacing emoji caption. 3 days later, to really hammer the point home, they shared a near identical tweet that says “what part of saving money do I not understand”. But nothing beats this struggle meme about having a £10 budget for the rest of the month, an amount that’s three times the illegal hourly rate paid to their Leicester garment workers in 2018. That’s incredibly insensitive, don’t you think, bestie?
Manifesting your dream life: When you daydream, what do you dream about? Are you hoping you’re “gonna have everything [you] prayed for” or fantasising about decorating your own house? Maybe all you think about is holidays? Well, that’s what PLT aspires to. Meanwhile, garment workers can’t even hope to wear the beautiful clothes they make.
If he wanted to, he would: They have a point here - actions do speak louder than words. Tweeting as a “big believer in if they wanted to they simply would”, PLT are a bit too on the nose. If they wanted to be an ethical, environmentally conscious brand, Pretty Little Thing simply could be because gorgeous, gorgeous girls pay their garment workers a living wage.
We all have the same 24 hours in the day: Did you know that the only thing holding you back in life is yourself? Well that’s what this tweet - “keep pursuing your goals whether you’re alone, broke, tired or scared” - implies. It felt particularly reminiscent of that Molly Mae 24 hours comment and one PLT garment worker had this to say about it: “try and make one of your designs [in 24 hours]. Make the cuttings, put the labels on, sew them all together. In fact, give her 48 hours, she won’t be able to do it.” Touché.
Yes, brands might post funny content that demonstrates a remarkable grasp of Instagram trends and, yes, you might be tempted to repost it to your story but I’d think twice about buying into this marketing strategy. To brands, we are just numbers, convertible money makers, so there’s a certain satisfaction in not giving them what they want. In this day and age, refusing to like fast fashion brands’ content is one small way to raise that middle finger.
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