It’s increasingly popular for ethically made bags and shoes. But what the heck IS vegan leather?
After hearing from my sister that the Falabella bag by Stella McCartney was constructed from a vegan 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, may well inflate the price.
While a few vegan leathers are plant-based, and although the amount of eco-friendly vegan materials produced is growing every year, the vast majority of faux leather has been around for decades, and is still made of scary materials like polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyurethane (PU) and textile-polymer composite microfibres.
In other words, generally speaking, ‘vegan leather’ reeks, literally and figuratively, of petroleum and/or chemicals.
What Is Vegan Leather? How Does It Impact The Planet?
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. Phthalates cause breathing problems, breast cancers, hormonal disruptions and birth defects.
Microfiber, Mega Problem
So, what is vegan leather, according to the brands themselves? Many claim their products are made of ‘eco friendly’ PU (Polyurethane) microfibers, used because their ‘feel’ is similar to that of leather, and it can be imprinted with grains that mimic suede and natural skins. But make no mistake: there is no such thing as ‘eco friendly’ PU.
In the production of microfiber-based synthetics, textiles and polymers are often 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.
According to an article in the Observer, a study conducted in 2011 showed that 60-85% of human-made material found on shorelines consisted of microfibers from textiles. The leading author of the study, Mark Anthony Browne, is currently working with researchers at the University of South Wales and University of Sydney in Australia to create libraries of the different types of micro fibers omitted into the environment from our clothing and how they adversely affect aquatic life. His research has attracted the attention of marine science researchers and government agencies in Australia, Europe and USA but has received no support from major clothing brands.
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.)
If you’re looking for eco-friendly vegan leather accessories, there are few that beat the sustainability of those made from cork. Derived from the bark of cork oak trees, this material not only conserves forests, but biodegrades, too. It’s durable, waterproof, and no trees are harmed to make it.
There have recently been even more plant-based leather innovations, including textiles made from apple and pineapple waste and cactus fibres. These still use plastic based polymers to bind them and make them more durable, but the manufacturers have all said they are working on ending this for a more eco-friendly alternative.
Speaking of plastic-based, other brands are upcycling PET bottles and other plastics into bags. While microparticle shedding of petrol-based materials is a serious issue in clothing, it’s not a concern for bags. This is due to the fact that unlike clothes, they’re rarely, if ever, laundered.
The Harsh Reality
‘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. 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 quite right.
But the harsh reality is that most ‘vegan leather’ is far from an environmentally friendly alternative. Unless it’s made from cork or recycled materials, saying it is so is nothing but pure greenwashing.
Ultimately, even the most adamant vegans need to consider this fact: the pollution caused by most ‘vegan leathers’ seems to hurt all other animals, including humans, in the long run. It’s a sad fact, but there’s a happy possible future, since an increasing number of companies are creating innovative new plant-based materials that will save the animals – and the environment.
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Images: 1 & 4 Stella McCartney 2&3 Vivienne Westwood for Melissa