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Leather in fashion has always been considered a timeless essential, but something that seems equally as timeless as the material is the controversy and debate surrounding it. The natural leather industry has been an incredibly lucrative one for many years, but given the rise of sustainable fashion within the past few years, the general public’s growing concern regarding the fashion industry and its environmental impact, and interest in responsible and ethical fashion, a search for sustainable options for popular materials, especially those that use animal products and animal skins, has made its way into popular fashion.
Vegan leather had its origins in the 19th century and had its widest use during World War II due to the rationing of animal leather, and since then, synthetic leather products have remained just as successful as traditional leather in the wider market. And in recent years, the environmental impact of many industries has been subject to debate and reform, such as the destructive nature of the food industry and meat industry on animal welfare and the overall destructive impact of the fashion industry, leading to a demand for animal leather vegan alternatives.
Many people have turned to the vegan diet to lower their environmental footprint, and while cutting out meat and dairy from one’s diet has been proven to be better for the environment, it’s important to note that putting the ‘vegan’ tag on different products does not necessarily mean that they’re good for the environment, especially when it comes to clothing.
Vegan leather has grown in popularity, and many designer brands have started using the material to wide acclaim. However, it’s important to understand the distinction between what vegan leather is versus animal-based leather, and how vegan leather production and the material itself can be just as, if not more, harmful as the real thing.
Vegan leather refers to any faux leather that is absent from animal skin and animal hides. Synthetic leathers can range from plant-based leather to plastic leather, with the latter being the most common. This kind of vegan leather is most often made from two kinds of plastic polymers: polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
Aside from synthetic materials, vegan leather can also be made from more natural materials. Plant-based vegan leathers like pineapple leather, cork leather, apple leather, and recycled plastic leather can be found on the market as well.
While you may be tempted to pick up a vegan leather product because it doesn’t contain any animal product, it’s essential to know that not all vegan leather equals environmental friendliness. Plastic-based vegan leather products such as polyurethane leather and PVC leather are petroleum-based, making them far from sustainable and just as harmful as real leather due to the chemical-intensive production process.
Clothing made from plastic material poses a threat during and after its lifespan because it could end up in water or landfills, and this remains just as true for PU leather and plastic vegan leather goods. These take years to degrade and release toxic chemicals into the environment, which has just as negative an impact on the environment as the genuine leather industry does on animal welfare.
Polyvinyl chloride, as well, is a very rigid material, so a phthalate is added to make it flexible and wearable. Phthalates are highly toxic for the human body and the surrounding environment and are even banned in several countries. This chemical can be found in many mainstream vegan leather alternatives, from vegan leather bags to your favourite faux leather jacket. Although PU is most popular nowadays, PVC is still used to create leather-like materials, and the combination of plastic and chemicals definitely serves zero positive purposes for the environment and human welfare.
Additionally, the use of plastic-based materials during the production of plastic-based leather is just as hazardous to human health due to the production of greenhouse gas emissions, eventual microplastic pollution, and even the tanning and dyeing process utilising heavy metals which can leach into waterways and also causes harm to manufacturing plant workers.
While the continued use of plastic in vegan leather products is less than ideal, it is good to learn that one end of the vegan leather industry is focused on providing genuinely sustainable vegan leather alternatives.
Many vegan fashion brands and sustainable fashion labels create plant-based leathers made from things like pineapple or apple peels, or cork leathers made from cork oak trees. In addition to this, they’ve also turned to the vegetable tanning process, wherein vegetable-tanned leather uses vegetable tannins to displace water in the tanning process. Tannins occur naturally in certain plants, so they ensure the leather is completely biodegradable.
Aside from buying plant-based leather, consumers are also doing a much better service for the environment by buying second-hand, real leather items. While this may seem to go against one’s veganism, it’s much more sustainable to buy real leather products that already exist that would have otherwise been thrown away rather than buying a brand-new plastic leather alternative that supports further production of that process.
And if you do want to purchase brand new animal-based and cow leather, you can also research brands that focus on animal agriculture, are transparent about their sustainability efforts, and prioritise ethical production.
While we may be tempted to support and shop all vegan leather items, we have to recognize that not all vegan leather items are created equal, and be able to distinguish what’s really created for the benefit of the environment against what’s created purely for demand and profit.
Truly ethical fashion brands are dedicated to creating vegan leather from raw materials and other materials that are kinder to the environment than the production of natural leather, so the next time you’re on the hunt for vegan shoes or a bag, make sure to really scrutinise the brand they’re from and material they’re made of.