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 as a “trend” has been on the uptick in the last few years.
Iconic, mainstream brands have been quick to declare their new initiatives toward a more sustainable future of fashion and have proudly announced a commitment to include vegan friendly textiles in future collections, while smaller brands with their cult following had long since established themselves as early adopters of vegan leather and have ever only featured products made from the very best of eco-friendly materials.
With so much attention now focused on the distance and effort brands are making to sever themselves from the use of traditional animal hide or leather, consumers themselves are embracing and advocating for non-leather alternatives, and why shouldn’t they? Isn’t vegan leather better for the planet and isn’t it safer to make?
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 2020, 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 affectionately call 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 before this had only really heard of, and wasn’t very impressed with the quality of faux leather, plastic leather or fake leather. Vegan leather, like an answer you didn’t know you’d been searching for, emerged as a concept and product that really basked in, and was accepted in all its plant-based-material-glory.
Makers of vegan leather have gone to extreme lengths to be environmentally friendly and have laid claim to promising techniques that use far less pollutants, water consumption, and even help to decrease material waste in its process. Many and almost all, though, still struggle with the uncomfortable and often, under discussed fact that to manufacture vegan leather, it still needs to undergo a tanning process that emits harmful chemicals into the air and one that cannot be avoided as of yet.
The finished products, whether faux leather, pleather, or plant based leather, have found their way into our cupboards, homes and lifestyles in the familiar form of faux leather car seats, grandma’s fake leather purse, and fast fashion clothing with labels that bear the brands H&M, Zara and Mango, or high end ateliers such as Stella McCartney and Nanushka.
Taking 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 of vegan leather. Almost anything traditional leather previously wrapped around or made up, vegan leather now does it too.
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 thicknesses and colours, is soft, versatile and lightweight- a fashion designer’s 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 luxe and high quality is the look and feel of of these vegan leather and fabric couches, chairs and tables, that picking it out from a crowd of “real leather” furniture becomes an exercise of better design and not one of leather vs non 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 is its opposite in greener clothes.
To distinguish between the two, a look into their manufacturing processes will tell you all you need to know. Unlike vegan leather that is “made from scratch”, eco leather is made from materials that have already served its purpose, namely products or items that in another life, served as leather jackets, leather car seats, leather sofas, and other leather items that otherwise would have ended up in a 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 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.
From an ecological standpoint at least, the manufacturing process of both leathers can be considered as gentler and kinder to the environment, a knowledge that’s been continuously supported by evidence based research conducted between 2017 to 2020.
Looking into the Impact of Vegan Leather
Conscious consumers will want to know, am I making a difference by choosing to use vegan leather? Which really, is in part a bigger issue of vegan leather and its impact.
Like peeling an onion, the answer to that is complex, and here, it’s threefold.
The manufacturing process of vegan leather may overall be less harmful to the environment; the absence of animal co-products means steering clear of associations with deforestation or water and land overuse, all of which we know are major climate change triggers, but it does not in any way, exclude the use of plastic based substances, fossil fuel extraction, or some use of toxic dyes in the making of vegan leather.
As a finished product, vegan leather doesn’t age in the 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, it still weakens quicker than traditional leather and with the presence of plastic in the material, it becomes impossible for vegan leather to truly decompose.
While this may not be reason enough to give vegan leather the cold shoulder, its life after use is the main cause for concern. 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 farmland via wastewater and treatment plant sludge, and 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 for that 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 missed out in conversations around vegan leather and its effects on the environment, is 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.
Vegan leather materials that are made out of cork, pineapple, apple, mushroom, coconut, soy, and kombucha (yes, kombucha!) remain to be 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), the positives do stack up and would eventually meet the highest of expectations.
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 one to watch if both brands and consumers are looking for leather mimicking products that don’t harm the earth or the person making it.
Safer but Still not Totally Safe?
Transparency isn’t 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 that is vegan leather workforce.
The preparation process of vegan leather may not involve animal-based products but it is by no means green or clean for the people involved. Close proximity to manufacturing plants 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, results in a laundry list of medical issues affecting fertility, immunity and the nervous system. In developing countries where vegan leather is still mainly outsourced and families live on smaller incomes, the luxury of drinking clean and filtered water isn’t something that’s easily afforded. The alternative is using water that’s untreated and loaded with harmful toxins for drinking, bathing and watering crops- a healthy body living 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 a “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 effect on people who work with vegan leather isn’t well documented and brands 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 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 effective in taking up the space that consumers may have used to ask questions around “what about the people who made this material?” What about them?
Impressing consumers with how “vegan” their product is works to draw the attention away from nitty, gritty details of manufacturing woes or what the lesser evils of vegan leather actually are.
So, 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 information 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 you may be drawn to.
For the ones who’ve embraced veganism, the answer is simpler and much more straightforward but even then we know, no vegan leather is made perfect. Not yet, anyway!
Whether plastic based or plant based with plastic backing, the vegan leather manufacturing process has been proven not to damage the environment as much as the making of animal leather would. Less harm to our planet and animals are the choices to be made here and if the increasing number of Netflix documentaries on the fragility of our planet are of any indication, it’s something that should be on your radar, if it isn’t already.
The vegan leather industry isn’t immune to fast fashion and with so many options of plant-based material, type, colour, and finish, 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.
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 is going to match or go with more than 4 outfits you own, you know you’ll get 30 uses out of them in different settings, doesn’t already look similar to something you have in your cupboard and you know they fully align with your own values…you’re already doing the hard work of being more environmentally conscious!
Ultimately, being just curious enough about the quality, durability and sustainability of the vegan leather alternative offered by a brand is enough in the making or unmaking a purchase decision, on your own terms.