Your fingers reach out to touch the buttery soft surface of a perfect pair of ankle boots and in a heartbeat, the smiling shop assistant flits to your side to tell you how the pair in your hands was lovingly made by a local, boutique shoemaker in Spain and that the leather-like texture you feel, is actually an innovative use of pinatex. Your forehead wrinkles just a little, but seeing your confusion, the assistant kindly tells you that this just means it’s made of vegan leather and how wonderful it is that more people are making conscious choices to buy from sustainable brands.
Vegan leather is having its moment
There’s a lot to unpack from that exchange and we’re willing to bet if you haven’t already encountered this yourself, you’ve heard the term “vegan leather” highlighted in product descriptions by eco-friendly brands, defined as cruelty-free and aligned with more transparent and sustainable fashion practices, and there’s little doubt that vegan leather has been on the rise over the last few years.
Many mainstream and often iconic brands have been quick to declare their commitment towards a more sustainable future of fashion and many still have proudly announced a commitment to include vegan friendly textiles in future collections. Similarly, smaller brands have likewise established themselves as early adopters of vegan leather with many committing to only using products made from ethical and ecologically sourced materials.
With so much attention now focused on the distance and effort that brands are making to distance themselves from the use of traditional animal hide or leather, it’s unsurprising that consumers themselves are embracing and advocating for a greater number of non-leather alternatives, and why shouldn’t they? Isn’t vegan leather better for the planet and isn’t it safer to make?
We decided to shed some light on these questions to find out just how much better vegan leather is compared to traditional alternatives.
What exactly is vegan leather?
Certification bodies such as the Vegan society or Vegan.org may verify businesses producing vegan products and act as helpful guides to alert a customer on the authenticity of vegan leather, but this does little to shed light on what vegan leather actually is and most importantly, how it’s made.
In the past, any material masquerading as animal-based leather was better known as faux leather, fake leather or plastic leather (sometimes called pleather) and commonly made using polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane (PU), both of which are plastic-based and synthetic materials.
Fast forward to today, these PVC and PU polymers have had to make space for innovative new materials that are touting the overall improvement to, and quality of non-animal and non-plastic leather; cork, pineapple leaves, apples, mushrooms, and even silica are now used in conjunction with plastic based adhesives (phthalates) to make what marketers and fashion brands increasingly refer to as vegan leather.
Rolling off the tongue, ‘vegan leather’ started to grace the lips of the fashion world around 2010 and when it was novel, piqued the interest of the environmentally conscious fashion community who prior to this, had only really heard of – and weren’t particularly impressed with – the quality of the faux leather, plastic leather, or other fake leather offerings available at the time. Vegan leather, like an answer you didn’t know you’d been searching for, emerged as a concept and product material that really basked in, and was accepted in all its plant-based-material-glory.
Makers of vegan leather have gone to extreme lengths to promote environmentally friendly ethics and have laid claim to promising techniques that use far less pollutants, consume less water, and even help to decrease material waste in processing. Many and almost all however, still struggle with the uncomfortable and often under discussed fact that in order to manufacture vegan leather, it still needs to undergo a ‘tanning’ process that emits harmful chemicals into the air and one that cannot (as of yet) be avoided outright.
The finished vegan leather products, whether faux leather, pleather, or plant based leather, have found their way into our closets, homes and lifestyles in the familiar form of faux leather car seats, grandma’s fake leather purse, and fast fashion clothing brands bearing some pretty common household names.
Taking on a life of its own, it’s become hard to keep track of the products that have now materialised thanks to the research and development within the world of vegan leather. Almost anything that conventional leather had previously wrapped around or formed is highly likely to now have a vegan leather alternative.
A popularised vegan leather that has gone “mainstream” and is widely used by fashion, interior and furniture makers around the world is Pinatex, a natural non-woven material created from pineapple leaf fibres that can be produced in different levels of thickness and varying colours. Soft, versatile and lightweight, Pinatex is somewhat of a fashion designer’s ethical dream.
Other plant based leathers like Lino leather, a mix of plant-based oils and resins, and Palmleather, made from the leaves of the Areca Betel Nut, have enabled designers to create aesthetically pleasing furniture in familiar colours of tan and deep chestnut browns. So high is the quality, look and feel of these vegan leather and fabric couches, chairs and tables, that picking this material out from a crowd of “real leather” impostors becomes an exercise of better design and not simply one of animal leather vs vegan leather.
Is eco leather a greener alternative?
If in its simplest explanatory version, vegan leather is a material alternative to conventional leather made without any animal byproducts, then eco leather can be thought of as its opposite number in greener clothes.
In order to make a more comprehensive distinction between the two, a look into their manufacturing processes will tell you all you need to know to decide just how much better vegan leather really is.
Unlike vegan leather that is “made from scratch”, eco leather is made from materials that have already served their purpose, namely products or items that in another life, took the form of leather jackets, leather car seats, leather sofas, and all those other leather items that otherwise would have ended up in landfill. Assuming that eco leather isn’t taking anything else from the planet, is what gives this leather the “eco” okay stamp of approval. It’s considered an eco-friendly step because, while the original product was created from animal sources, no new animal byproduct is used. Instead, old leather is picked up to be effectively reused and recycled.
The eco leather category also takes “sustainability” into account when byproducts of the meat and fishing industries come from organically raised cattle or sustainable fishing, and whether or not the skins are tanned and dyed with vegetable based materials; an effort to increase the transparency of how the material came to be in its final form as a consumer product.
From an ecological standpoint at least, the manufacturing process of both leathers can be considered as gentler and kinder to the environment, something that’s been continuously supported by evidence based research conducted between 2017 to 2020.
Looking into the impact of vegan leather
As conscious consumers we understandably want to know whether we’re making a difference by choosing to use vegan leather and ultimately answering this questions means looking at the wider issues of vegan leather and its larger impact.
A bit like peeling an onion, the answer to these questions is often somewhat complex, and in the case of vegan leather, it’s threefold.
The manufacturing process of vegan leather may be less harmful to the environment overall. In order to be truly animal friendly (and not just vegan) the absence of animal byproducts is a start, however the products and the brands manufacturing them should also steer clear of activities related or contributing to deforestation or water and land overuse, all of which exacerbate the plight of animals. However these do not in themselves, exclude the use of plastic based substances, fossil fuel extraction, or the general use of toxic dyes in the making of vegan leather.
As a finished product, vegan leather doesn’t age in the same way that animal leather does. It doesn’t form a patina over time, it doesn’t stretch and it doesn’t get softer with each use. Chemically treated to be resistant to sunlight, scratches and fire, vegan leather still weakens quicker than traditional leather and with the presence of plastic in the material, it also becomes impossible for many forms of vegan leather to truly decompose.
While this may not be reason enough to give vegan leather the cold shoulder, the status of a product’s life after use is should always be a cause for consideration in these instances. Knowing that plastic will outlive you several decades over is jarring in itself, but coupled with the certainty of microplastic seeping into our oceans and soil via wastewater and treatment plant sludge, or being circulated in the air we breathe, your resolve in choosing vegan leather becomes much more calculated.
Non-biodegradable, it wouldn’t make much sense to wait around for vegan leather to break down on its own, and due to this, the industry found a way to speed things up with the help of powerful technology, but at a cost to the air we breathe. Often omitted in conversations around vegan leather and its effects on the environment, is the issue of thermal degradation, the process in which the polymers we’re familiar with (PVC and PU), are broken down by overheating at high temperatures, and one that when carried out, releases harmful and toxic gasses into the air.
Vegan leather materials that are made out of cork, pineapple, apple, mushroom, coconut, soy, and kombucha (yes, kombucha!) remain attractive alternatives for brands offering vegan leather products because the technology, research and development of these raw materials are still ongoing, and seen from this perspective (hoping for alternatives that do not use plastic based adhesives or tanning in their production), the positives begin to stack up and can eventually meet even the highest expectations for a conventional leather alternative.
The ‘biofabrication’ of leather is a promising method and could be the answer to a material unlike both animal and vegan leather. Research into “growing” this material using cells and protein is developing and is definitely one to watch if both brands and consumers are looking for products that mimic the characteristics of leather but that don’t harm the earth or the people involved in the manufacturing process.
So, safer but still not totally safe?
Unfortunately, transparency isn’t currently vegan leather’s strong suit, and although there’s been an upsurge of social campaigns to support sustainable fashion and a global effort by the sustainable fashion industry to shed light on the conditions of garment factory workers worldwide, we’ve only been allowed a peek behind the curtain when it comes to understanding the working conditions involved in vegan leather manufacture.
The preparation process of vegan leather may not involve animal-based products but it is often far from ethical when it comes to the people involved in processing and manufacturing. For example, close proximity to manufacturing plants of some vegan leather alternatives may expose workers to harmful emissions that could disrupt their endocrine systems.
The endocrine system is responsible for regular hormone production and when an imbalance occurs, it can result in a laundry list of medical issues affecting fertility, immunity, and the nervous system. In developing countries where vegan leather production is still largely outsourced and families live on smaller incomes, the luxury of drinking clean and filtered water isn’t something that’s easily afforded. The alternative of course is using water that’s untreated and potentially loaded with harmful toxins for drinking, bathing and watering crops – a healthy body living within a healthy environment doesn’t immediately spring to mind here.
Even if polyurethane (PU) is used instead of PVC, worker health issues are still far from crossing into the “cleaner and greener” zone. Potential health risks remain high and can cause increased irritation to the eyes, nose, throat, and allergic reactions to the lungs and skin.
The research into the effects on people who work with vegan leather isn’t particularly well documented and brands often make it hard for consumers to truly understand the impact of worker conditions when they constantly highlight how “cruelty-free” and plant based their leather is when compared to animal-based leather or a different brand of vegan leather. The deliberate choice of spewing comparative facts about the varying vegan or non vegan materials is an effective tool in taking up the space that consumers may have otherwise used to ask questions such as “what about the people who made this material?”.
Impressing consumers with how “vegan” a product is certainly works to draw the attention away from nitty, gritty details of manufacturing woes or diverting questions away from what manufacturers may view as the ‘lesser evils’ of vegan leather production.
What’s the bottom line with vegan leather?
Passion to reduce waste in fashion, urging more people to recycle, lowering your carbon footprint or choosing vegan leather are not all spontaneous lifestyle choices or actions. They’re a result of exposure to the information you have at hand, and your inner monologue is never exempt from being influenced by facts, figures, friends or fads.
Vegan leather sits comfortably in any one and all of those influences. There are facts you can study, figures you can cross-check, friends you can ask, or fashion fads we may be drawn to.
For those who’ve embraced veganism, the answer is often simpler and may be much more straightforward, but even then, we know that if we’re talking about the ‘perfect’ material alternative to conventional leather, no vegan leather is made perfect. Not quite yet, anyway!
Whether plastic based or plant based with plastic backing, the vegan leather manufacturing process has been proven to be less harmful to the environment than the processing and production of animal leather and its associated products. Less harm to our planet, the animals who live here, and the other people we share it with are the choices to be made here and if the increasing number of Netflix documentaries on the fragility of our planet are any indication of where things stand, this is something that is probably making its way onto your radar, if it hasn’t already.
The vegan leather industry isn’t immune to the allure of fast fashion and with so many options of plant-based material, type, colour, and finish out there, purchasing a vegan leather product is going to cost less than shelling out a few hundred for a designer leather handbag. This gives you an almost infinite feed of vegan leather goods and a ‘forever’ expiration date – and with this in mind, the true ‘cost’ of these items (both during manufacturing and at end of life) should be considered carefully before taking the plunge on a low cost solution. After all, cheap only means the financial cost is low, not the true costs of the item throughout its life journey.
As consumers of any type of fashion, being aware of what we want versus what we need is really the only age-old advice for choosing not just vegan leather, but any material good.
If the vegan leather shoes you have in your hand are going to match or go with more than 4 outfits you own, you probably know you’ll get 30 uses out of them in a whole range of different settings, doesn’t already look similar to something you have in your cupboard, and you know they fully align with your own values, then you’re already underway with the hard work of being more environmentally conscious!
Ultimately, being just curious enough about the quality, durability, sustainability, and the full story behind the vegan leather alternative offered by a brand is enough in the making or unmaking of a better purchase decision, on your own terms, that looks to do better by everyone involved.