What the Heck is Vegan Leather?

Why We Just Say ‘No’ to Vegan Leather

By Jody McCutcheon

After hearing from my sister that the Falabella bag by Stella McCartney was constructed from a leather substitute, and that Natalie Portman was starting her own vegan leather shoe line, I started to wonder: what the heck is meant by ‘vegan leather’ anyway?  And is it really more eco-friendly than ‘normal’ leather?

This leather substitute is used to make clothing, shoes, accessories, upholstery and more. It’s often indistinguishable from the real thing, and is much cheaper to manufacture than leather–even though designers, like McCartney, inflate the price. While a few vegan leathers are cork- or kelp-based, the vast majority of faux leather has been around for ages, and is made of scary materials like polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyurethane and textile-polymer composite microfibres.

In other words, generally speaking, ‘vegan leather’ reeks, literally and figuratively, of petroleum.

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Vegan Leather and the Environment

It gets worse. Both leather and vegan leather production emit chemicals harmful to environment and factory workers alike. Leather production’s preparatory stage, in which the raw animal hide is prepared for tanning, usually incorporates substances (like hydrogen sulfide and ammonia) which put factory workers at risk for skin, respiratory, ocular or nerve damage, or in cases of extreme overexposure, death.

The tanning stage prevents hides from rotting (as normal skin would normally do), often through the use of  chromium, which then leaks into nearby soil and water at high enough levels to be carcinogenic and mutagenic. For every tonne of hide produced, twenty to eighty cubic metres of chemically toxic, pathogen-contaminated wastewater is unleashed on the environment. And Amazon rainforests are being depleted at a rate of one hectare every eighteen seconds by cattle ranchers looking to cash in on a bustling market for luxury leather items.

Despite these eco-horrors, many eco-warriors find vegan leather production even worse. For example, the manufacture and incineration of PVC-based synthetics produce one of the most toxic chemicals known to man: dioxins. Found in almost every single modern human’s body, dioxins promote developmental disturbances and increase cancer risks tenfold.

Since plastic-based synthetics don’t fully biodegrade, they produce micro-particles that are ingested by animals and thus enter the food chain at all levels: even Arctic polar bears have been found to have dioxins in their bloodstream. When it does break down, vegan leather releases phthalates—initially added as a softening agent—which subsequently enter the food chain and the atmosphere, causing breathing problems, breast cancers, hormonal disruptions and birth defects.

Rachel's

So-called ‘ethical’ brand, Melissa, with whom Vivienne Westwood often collaborates, uses mainly PVC in their ‘vegan leather’ shoes.

In the production of microfiber-based synthetics, textiles and polymers are layered together and compressed several times through metal rollers, then submersed in a coagulation solution to solidify. This chemical process requires excessive levels of toxic substances like dimethylformamide, which has also been linked to cancer and birth defects, and acetic acid, high doses of which can damage skin and eyes.

Some manufacturers, including Valentino and the entire Gucci Group (now known as Kering) are very much aware of the issues surrounding leather production, and have now vowed to use only vegetable dyes, natural tanning processes, and slaughter only cattle raised on old farmland, as opposed to newly razed rain forests. (Valentino and Kering are also phasing out harmful PVC from their fashion goods–unlike the allegedly ‘eco friendly’ designer, Vivienne Westwood, who continues to use it in some of her bags and shoes.)

Others are using alternative leathers, including fish and eel skins, which usually thrown away as waste in the food production process.

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Freedom of Animals is one of the few eco friendly vegan leather brands

‘Real’ leathers have been used by man for millennia, and when sourced from sustainable ranches and tanned and dyed naturally, these have the potential to be less damaging to the environment than most ‘vegan’ leathers, save those rare ones created from natural materials like cotton or cork. Of course, animal advocates will abhor the use of hide leather, due to the fact that animals die for us to use their skins, and that is their right. But the hard reality is that most ‘vegan leather’ is far from an environmentally friendly alternative, and saying it is so is nothing but pure greenwashing.

Ultimately, even the most adamant vegans need to consider this fact: the pollution caused by ‘vegan leathers’ seems to hurt all other animals, including humans, in the long run.

Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pvc

Images: Stella McCartney and Te Casan

13 Responses to What the Heck is Vegan Leather?

  1. Dominique Drakefird Sep 16, 2013 at 7:42 pm #

    Hello, my name is Dominique Drakeford- an eco fashion publicist in NY and I am interested in submitting an article called “Dumpster and Christian Dior- Rubbish Scented Dress”.

    I would love to know how I can go about getting my article published.

    Thanks and I look forward to hearing from you.

    Best,

    Dominique Drakeford

  2. Maria Oct 19, 2013 at 4:26 am #

    It is a good point that man-made leather is not as eco-friendly as some think (doesn’t bio-degrade same way and does involve harmful chemicals in the production process).

    Some stores selling real leather products (shoes, bags, furniture) say they use the leather that is a by-product of meat industry. I can see how if we are not vegetarian as a specie – we might as well use the skin of the animals who are being killed for food anyway.

    But what many people don’t consider and not aware of is that many of those meat farms really abuse animals their entire lives. If you ever seen an average meat farm where cows stand back-to-back without ever having a chance to lay down or even turn around – it would break your heart.

    And sadly, a leather is often sourced from third-world countries, where there is just no concept of animal rights and anything goes.

    So if you chose to use leather – just do some research as far as where did the animal skin came from and how the animal was treated there.

    Wholefoods, for example, has entire program that monitors human treatment of farm-animals, where top-grade farms have animals roaming around green fields their entire lives as oppose to be caged, beaten and abused. So there must be some decent sources of leather out there. Unfortunately it has proven hard to find.

    But the bottom is – as long as we support business practicing or being complacent with animal cruelty – we are being part of that and it is our money that fund further animal abuse.

    P.S. While not on entirely same subject, but it is related – if you like real fur, you should know that the animals on fur farms are kept in very small cages their entire lives, beaten and subject to gene mutations to produce better furs (red fox turning pure white to sell as arctic fox). These genetic mutations cause animals cancers.

    But worst of all – animals are often skinned BEFORE they are even fully dead. So just remember that. Every time you buy real fur – you keep those sadistic people in business and animals in the worst nightmare imaginable.

    • Chere Oct 19, 2013 at 1:09 pm #

      Hi Maria

      Your points are all valid and very interesting. At Eluxe, we agree that animal welfare must be of paramount importance, and we endeavour to only cover those companies whose policies are to use leathers and furs from carefully monitored sources where abuse does not happen. Additionally, we will not cover brands that use leather from cattle raised on former rain forest land in the Amazon.

      Some luxury companies are strict about this. For example, Valentino, all the companies in the Kering group, including Gucci, St Laurent and Alexander McQueen, but also smaller brands like Husna sandals. Other leather brands we cover include Rebecca-Jane, which uses only upcycled leathers.

      If you ever see a brand written up in Eluxe who is using leather from unsustainable sources, please let us know asap. We appreciate your feedback!!

    • huaquer Jan 22, 2014 at 8:02 am #

      Faux leather are made in china, wich is a country with zero human rights (Tibet issue), no workers rights (slaves conditions and child labour) and no enviroment protection laws. I don’t think the faux leather is more eco firendly than the real leather, china is a cancer in this world, if you buy faux leather that is made in china, you are contaminated the world!.

  3. Mary Feb 28, 2014 at 10:57 am #

    Your use of the word ‘scary’ in front of the polymers you have listed show your lack of understanding of polymer science. Whilst there have been toxicological scares of both PVC and PUR, the toxicity is from the inhalation of the gas that is emitted once burnt as well as being in contact with food. It is of no concern when worn as clothing, unless of course you are eating food off it or planning on melting it. Most PVC used in vegan leather is made using recycled materials and whilst there are environmental issues with oil-based plastics as a whole you seem to be forgetting the environmental concerns we have with the cattle industry where ‘real’ leather comes from. Whilst it is better to get plant-based polymers for everything, your use of scare tactics to justify your love of animal flesh is ridiculous and inaccurate.

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