Vegan leather has become a very controversial subject nowadays. Misinformation, intentional or not, has caused a lot of confusion, which in turn has impacted our perception of sustainable fashion products.
I have carefully chosen the word intentional misinformation as there is serious interest in devaluing vegan leather in consumers’ eyes.
Most misinformation comes from the animal leather industry, which is somehow understandable.
But what’s not acceptable is seeing reputable fashion magazines and even PETA, regurgitating and spitting wrong information about vegan leather.
In the following article, you’ll see why animal leather is bad not only for animals and the environment but also for you.
You’ll see why vegan leather is not the same as pleather (plastic leather) and much more, as listed below:
– The problem with animal leather.
The concept of vegan leather has become popular with the boom of ‘veganism in late 2018.
Since then, Google searches for ‘vegan leather’ have increased ten folds in the last year.
Moreover, the global market of vegan leather is predicted to reach 45 billion USD by 2025, showing a staggering demand for vegan leather products.
Unfortunately, right now, there’s a lot of confusion around vegan leather, described as a new name for PU and PVC faux leather.
The problem stems from recklessly defining vegan leather as PVC and PU faux leather, which confuses ethical consumers a lot.
To them, it is hard to understand how vegan leather – describe as similar to the old plastic-based alternatives – can be ethical and environmental.
If the same, how can vegan leather solve the issues caused by plastic-based leathers and even animal leather?
So what exactly is vegan leather?
To date, there’s no universally accepted definition for vegan leather. The term ‘vegan leather’ is used to describe an alternative material to leather made from animal skin. Thus, vegan leather has become an ‘all-together’ term for materials that look like leather but do not contain anything of animal origin.
However, this oversimplified definition of vegan leather is the source of all confusions surrounding this material.
As you’ll see later in this article, a better definition of vegan leather is given, that makes much more sense.
But, let’s start with animal leather and see how it has become so popular in fashion.
Why Is Leather So Popular?
Animal leather has been used for millennia, not only to protect and cover our bodies but also as a status symbol for the upper class.
Given its durability, flexibility and resistance, animal leather has become one of the most used materials in fashion.
To date, some of the most common types of ‘real’ leather are made from the skinks of cows, sheep, goats, horses, pigs.
However, there’s also leather made from rare animals such as crocodiles and snakes.
As this type of skins is harder to procure – more expensive – rare animal leather is usually found in luxury bags, shoes and accessories.
In luxury fashion, where goods made from leather are the primary source of business revenue, rare animal leather is in high demand.
So much so, that from the total market of personal luxury goods, leather products account for nearly 40 per cent!
The Problem With Animal Leather
However, while made from the skin of animals, and thus, a natural product, producing animal leather comes at a huge cost.
First, most people seeking vegan leather products are doing it on ethical grounds.
Their desire to avoid the killing of another animal is what drives them to buy vegan leather shoes, accessories and bags.
Moreover, on the eco-friendliness of leather, even though is not an artificial product, leather requires extreme processing.
For example, several toxic chemicals are needed to convert the skins of dead animals into the material that we all call leather.
All these polluting chemicals, use of water, energy, and generated waste is what ultimately makes animal leather such an unsustainable product.
To put this into perspective, Kering Group, one of the largest fashion conglomerates in the world, that owns Stella McCartney label amongst other luxury brands, has stated that 23 per cent of the group’s entire environmental impact is caused by cattle ranching – EP&L 2016 statement.
Similarly, the 2017 Georgetown Environmental Law review shows that animal farming requires tremendous amounts of land and water.
Farming animals for their skins also amounts to 18 per cent of the global greenhouse gas emissions, second after transportation.
Thus, manufacturing leather from animal skins requires tremendous amounts of energy, water, toxic chemicals.
Moreover, once discarded, leather takes hundred of years to decompose, given all chemicals used to make it.
Otherwise, it would rotten in your wardrobe.
Farming Animals For Fashion
And there’s much more on the eco-friendliness of animal leather.
If sustainability is your thing, regardless of the lens you’re looking at it, we can agree that animal farming is one of the most detrimental industries ever to our planet.
Animal farming and the use of animal leather as raw material is fashion industry’s the number one cause of negative environmental impact.
According to the U.N., clearing space for livestock is the cause of over 70 per cent Amazon deforestation.
Even worse, raising animals for meat and skin is responsible for 18 per cent of global CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions.
Eco-facts like these, combined with the moral reasons behind sacrificing animals for fashion is what has led to the advent of the vegan movement.
First, avoiding animals as a source of food, and now, the rejection of animal leather and other animal-based materials from fashion.
The replacement? Vegan leather.
What Is Vegan Leather?
Long before the term ‘vegan leather’ got traction, there was another alternative to real leather: faux leather, also known as synthetic leather or plastic leather – pleather.
However, it is important to understand that vegan leather is not just a new way of describing faux leather.
While similar in their looks, designed to imitates real leather, faux leather and vegan leather are very different in their construct and role.
“It is unfortunate that consumers still confuse vegan leather with faux leather made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU),” explains Anika Kozlowski, an assistant professor of Fashion Design, Ethics & Sustainability in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University.
Faux leathers, pleather, synthetic leather, or PVC-based leathers are manufactured using petrochemicals and fossil fuels. Whereas, vegan leather is an animal-free and eco-friendly material made from plant-based biodegradable materials such as vegetables, fruits, mushrooms, corn, discarded food, and other sources of biowaste.
True vegan leather is made from plant-based biodegradable materials.
It is critical to know that vegan leather does not describe faux or plastic-based leathers.
Nevertheless, people still confuse vegan leather with ‘pleathers’; PU, PVC, plastic-based leathers, and other types of faux-leathers that have been on the market for some time now.
Just as the definition of vegan leather states, because ‘vegan leather’ does not have any animal-based components, most people apply the term ‘vegan leather’ to describe all other types of leather-like materials.
However, there are fundamental differences between plastic leathers (pleathers), eco faux-leathers, and genuine vegan leather.
Moreover, there’s a new type of vegan leather coming out, the lab-made leather, but we’ll talk later about that.
Is Pleather Vegan Leather?
There is a lot of greenwashing in fashion right now.
Labels poping overnight, seeking to ride the wave of vegan fashion, getting PETA approved, and churning lots of vegan leather products every day.
However, eco-conscious fashion consumers must make a clear distinction between vegan leather and faux leather.
As the number of companies playing with the vegan terms and hiding objectionable data under the veil of distorted marketing and greenwashing, understanding where faux leather compares to vegan leather is key.
While used in most ‘vegan products’ approved by PETA, pleather, or plastic leather, is a leather looking like material belonging to the general category of faux-leathers.
In comparison to vegan leather that’s made from organic materials of vegetal origin, pleather, plastic leathers, and almost all faux leathers are made from polyurethane.
Polyurethane is a petroleum-based polymer that can be customised to match the designer’s choice and expectation and how the final product will look like.
Other types of faux leather, generally described as synthetic leathers are made from petroleum-based components such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and polyurethane.
However, despite being described as vegan leathers, pleather and faux leather materials are not good for the environment.
The Problem With Synthetic Leather
Some vegans argue that as no animals are sacrificed for their skins, faux leather is a great alternative to animal leather.
However, despite being PETA-approved, all faux leathers are synthetic and not eco-friendly.
The manufacturing of synthetic leather is equally harmful to animals.
Mostly because of the impact the oil industry has on the oceans and the environment.
Moreover, synthetic leather has a much shorter durability and life span when compared to animal leather.
Right now, millions of tones of discarded faux leather packing the landfills, and the number grows at an accelerated rate.
Granted, the tanned and processed animal leather also biodegrades slow or it would mould in your wardrobe.
However, synthetic leather is even worse, as it does not biodegrade but breaks down into microplastics.
Eventually, washed by rains, these tiny plastic particles end up in rivers, lakes, and oceans, poisoning marine life and even the water we drink.
Types Of Synthetic Leather
There are many types of synthetic leather.
However, two types of faux leather are very common right now: PVC-based leather and PU leather (pleather).
While the ‘must-go-to’ vegan leather for years, PVC has recently fallen out of favour.
“Over the last few years we’ve seen growing concerns regarding PVC’s PVC’s toxicity to the human body, because of its release of dioxins and other hazardous chemicals, when burnt,” says Andrew Dent, Vice President of Research Materials at a consultancy company.
PVC is a very rigid material that requires mixing with phthalate (a plasticiser) to make it flexible.
More than that, new research shows that phthalates have a profound negative impact on the human body and its hormonal balance.
“Some phthalates are more toxic than others. However, with time, or when exposed to sun, they all leach out,” says Dent.
An arguably better leather alternative to PVC is polyurethane, also known as PU.
Nevertheless, polyurethane has its own environmental issues.
For once, polyurethane is much more expensive than PVC.
Then, with very complex chemistry and hard to create, this type of faux leather often has severe quality and performance issues.
Finally, in its various baking stages, polyurethane-based faux leather requires several solvents, paints and highly toxic liquids.
All of these chemicals are known to cause serious damage to the environment.
Faux Leather vs Animal leather
Which one is worse?
It depends on who and how it is assessed.
For vegan consumers, who favour animal welfare above pollution, animal leather is out.
For those not much interested in animal welfare but environmental protection, animal leather scores high in many ways.
- Faux leather does not age well. When PVC and polyurethane-based leathers begin to wear out, it looks bad.
- In comparison, animal leather gets better with time. The more it is worn, the better it looks and feels.
- Moreover, in comparison to faux leather, animal leather can be upcycled and reused.
The main argument is that not all animals are sacrificed for fashion but milk and meat.
Thus, once killed, discarding their skins would be even more wasteful.
You might conclude that in comparison to PVC and polyurethane leather, animal leather is organic, sustainable and thus, it has an environmental edge. Not so fast.
Animal leather suffers from a much bigger problem, namely the tanning process.
Research shows that over 35 toxic solvents pollute the air around tanning factories.
One study shows that most tanning chemicals are based on cyanides, formaldehyde, and coal-tar derivatives.
Moreover, it is a well-known fact that people in tanning jobs have one of the shortest lifespans in all industries.
Vegan Leather vs Animal Leather
Every day, over a billion animals, are sacrificed just for their skins.
Alligators, snakes, pigs, cows, even cats and dogs are transported for thousands of miles, with open wounds, horns, tails and teeth removed without painkillers, hungry and thirsty just to be slaughtered en-masse for their skins.
Processing animal skin to turn it into leather requires polluting cocktails of chemicals and pollutants and requires tremendous amounts of energy consumption.
In stark contrast, vegan leather does not require the killing of any animals. In fact, it does not require the shed a single drop of blood.
It is biodegradable, plant-based, eco-friendly, safe to the skin, it makes the wearer look great and feel good as well.
Is Vegan Leather Eco-Friendly?
If we include faux leathers into the category of vegan leathers, then no. Not all vegan leathers are eco-friendly.
However, real vegan leathers, made from plants are biodegradable and thus, eco-friendly.
Types Of Vegan Leather
Now that we’ve covered some of the reasons to replace animal leather and learned what is vegan leather, it’s time to detail on the types of vegan leather used in fashion right now.
Before we start, let’s have a quick recap of what is vegan leather: “A leather-like product made from plants and other biodegradable materials.”
True vegan leathers are made from plants, fruits, and other organic materials, true to their name of VEGAN leather.
To date, some of the most popular materials used in high-quality vegan leather are mushrooms, algae, apple peels, orange fruit waste, pineapple leaves, cork, barkcloth, glazed cotton or waxed cotton, barkcloth, and even paper.
A creation of Dr. Carmen Hijosa, a Spanish PhD, Pinatex, is the world’s most known plant-based vegan leather to date.
Made from the cellulose fibre extracted from discarded pineapple leaves, Pintex leather is used by over 500 fashion brands.
Two notable users of Pinatex vegan leather are H&M and Hugo Boss.
Moreover, the number of companies creating biodegradable materials (vegan leather) keeps growing.
There is vegan leather made from apple skins, also called apple leather.
Vegea, an Italian company makes vegan leather from fermented grapes, juice and other wine by-products.
And the latest addition to the growing family of vegan leathers, cactus leather, created by two Mexican entrepreneurs from the prickly-pear cactus plant.
As the plant is free, available everywhere, with no needs for water or nutrients to grow, it seems that this type of leather alternative will replace animal and synthetic leather in South American countries, very soon.
Biofabricated Vegan Leather
The most exciting vegan-friendly leather of all is the bio-fabricated leather.
Initially used to grow tissues and organs, Modern Meadow, a New York-based company has used bio-fabrication to create animal cells and skin, that was later turned into leather.
A result of combined efforts in the landscapes of science, technology, and biology, lab-made leather has the potential to change the fashion industry in many ways:
- It is grown in the lab, rather than made from the skin of slaughtered animals.
- It is ethical, sustainable, and eco-friendly.
- It is of the highest quality, with no defects, and thus, very fashionable.
This animal-free kind of leather solves the moral issues surrounding the exploitation of animals, associated with conventional leather production.
Moreover, given its eco-friendly and sustainable construct, lab-made leather has the answer to most manufacturing and recycling issues battling the fashion industry right now.
Do Designers Use Vegan Leather?
Given its versatility and close resemblance to animal leather, vegan leather is used by a growing number of fashion designers.
Nowadays, you can find vegan fashion apparel and accessories in every style and colour.
From little black dresses to biker jackets, handbags, billfolds, sneakers, high-heels and boots, to intimate products, there are millions of vegan leather products launched every day, designed to satisfy everyone’s taste.
For example, Stella McCartney’s initial choice for leather alternatives was ‘alter-Nappa’, a type of polyurethane leather but water-based and solvent-free.
“We do acknowledge that synthetic leather alternative is not free from environmental issues. However, by not using animal leather, we’ve reduced both, animal cruelty and environmental impact,” stated the British designer.
A different stance was taken by Veja, a company, criticised from starting to use animal leather again – after branding itself as vegan.
According to Sébastien Kopp, one of its co-founders, PU and PVC leathers are not the right solution:
“Replacing leather with plastic does not sound like a smart solution to us”.
“I’m looking at water-based PU options since there are less chemicals in it, it’s less harmful for the environment and [uses] less energy. There are so many options that are better every time we out and do our search. Even for spring 2020, we were able to use 100% recycled bottles for our lining.”
Moreover, vegan leather is taking over other industries as well.
For example, in the auto industry, after Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, and Ferrari, Tesla is also joining the club of leading luxury cars replacing leather interiors with vegan leather alternatives.
Is Bio-Fabricated Vegan Leather The Future?
The significant progress made in the past decades in the field of bioengineering shows that this might be the case.
Modern Meadow has merged science, biology and innovative design to challenge the way we think about leather.
In one of the most exciting projects in the field of material innovation, the company has embarked on leading a new era of vegan leather manufacturing for fashion through bio-fabrication, paving the way towards a more sustainable future.
The production of bio-fabricated vegan leather would result in a substantial decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, land use, and energy consumption.
Bio-fabricated vegan leather is a digital manifestation of innovative technology in fashion.
It is ethical and sustainable, pushing the entire fashion system forward towards a promising future.
Fashion is the ever-changing element of an industry that thrives on a continuous cycle of newness and replacement.
‘Societal reformations’ and novel ruptures of antagonistic ideas emerge, displacing old rooted notions with concepts that encapsulate cruelty-free, sustainability, and life on this planet.
Vegan Consumer – What Can You Do?
Right now, you must be a bit more considerate and ask yourself these questions:
- What is the long-term impact of my purchase on both, animals and the planet?
- The vegan leather shoes or handbag I want to buy, are they truly made of vegan leather or faux leather marketed as vegan?
- If you buy a faux leather purse, arguably, you’re not killing animals. But, you’re destroying their environment and poison them with microplastics.
However, soon, with the help of lab-made leather, we’ll be able to bypass the unsustainable processes of animal farming and jump straight to the product.
Bio-fabrication is a nature-friendly way of manufacturing raw materials for fashion.
There’s growing research and development in the realm of vegan leather alternatives.
The industry is shifting towards a more transparent future seeking to embrace the needs of the modern-day “eco-conscious” consumers who ask for the story and the impact behind each product they purchase.
Finally, we are departing from animal-based materials to bio-fabricated leathers.
And yet, this change might require a rethinking of the fashion industry and its capitalistic business lens.
It might need an in-depth exploration of fashion with the help of fashion, psychology, sociology, and ethics. But, that’s the subject of a different story.
Vegan Leather – Conclusion
As you have realised by now, vegan leather is more than a replacement word for plastic-based leather alternatives.
Sadly, even PETA is confused about what vegan leather is. According to them, “vegan leather is often made from polyurethane and can also be made from sustainable materials”.
That’s not right, PETA. Leather alternative made from polyurethane is, as explained above, pleather.
True, no animals are killed to make pleather. However, its constituent parts are poisoning habitats and waters, eventually killing animals as well.
Vegan leather is made only from sustainable materials such as apple peels, pineapple leaves, cork, mushrooms, and other organic waste.
Vegan leather fulfils both functions of stopping animal cruelty and environmental pollution. That’s what makes vegan leather so special and valuable.
WTVOX – ‘Voicing the Future of Fashion’
For more similar content and lightning-quick updates delivered directly to your inbox subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Finally, if you want to interact with thousands like you, join your tribe on the Future of Fashion Group.
At the start of the next decade in fashion…
… we are asking you, our readers, for help.
The past decade has been a turbulent one across the world – climate crisis, child labour, racism, gender inequality, animal cruelty, plastic pollution, just to name a few.
These are critical times that define our existence, but also times of social media misinformation and independent views silenced by commercial ownership.
Therefore, finding media that reports with integrity at heart, tenacity, and rigour is increasingly difficult.
Finding media that fight to inform and educate all – regardless of where they live or if they can afford to pay – is even harder.
Your support allows us to do that. To deliver independent, trustworthy, quality news.
It allows us to uphold our editorial independence and ensure honest journalism.
It makes us a voice for the voiceless, free from commercial ownership and political bias.
We are grateful to you as none of this is possible without your generosity and continue to count on your support, however big or small.
Click here to support us from as little as £1 – it only takes a minute.