They’re getting increasingly popular. But what are vegan leather bags made of?
By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi
The vegan vs cow leather debate is one that always sparks passionate discussion in the sustainable fashion community.
For vegans, there’s really no debate: killing animals for fashion is wrong, period. But on the other hand, leather lovers argue that when you ask ‘what are vegan leathers made of,’ the answers can be pretty horrific. And that’s true. Kind of.
There’s a lot of nuance in this debate, so to make it easier, I’ve decided to examine what really goes into creating a vegan leather.
Eluxe has published many articles already about eco friendly vegan bag brands, but did so only with a passion mention to the materials. We’ve also published something called: What The Heck Is Vegan Leather. But since then, textiles have evolved, and many new vegan bag brands have popped up, using innovative new fabrics.
It can be hard to objectively state which textiles are better or worse than others. Some use tools such as the Higg Index, and I have relied on this to some extent for this article. They have a graph clearly shows how all animal derived materials are much more detrimental than others — with alpaca wool, cow leather and silk leading the way.
The approach used to measure the MSI score (Materials Sustainability Index) of a material is based on a life-cycle assessment that involves a thorough inventory of the energy and materials needed to make the product and distribute it. Hence, it calculates the lifecycle of a product from manufacturing, through retail and consumer consumption, all the way to its final disposal.
However, this index, developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, is far from perfect, as it doesn’t have ratings for petroleum based materials. Given the environmental impact of this non-biodegradable material, this is a serious flaw. But what’s worse is, analyses of textiles are made on a comparative basis. So, for example, alpaca gets a very low rating relative to say, cotton – but how would it rate compared to nylon?
Here, I’ve done my best to answer the question: what are vegan leather bags made of, and have summed up the good, the bad and the ugly (in other words, materials that should be avoided at all costs.)
What Are Vegan Leather Bags Made Of?
There’s really no better vegan fabric than cork. It’s sourced from the cork oak, and removing the bark of these trees to make it does them no harm in any way. Quite the contrary! Cork is removed every nine years, when the tree has had the chance to become stronger. Demand for cork is also preserving cork oak forests, which would otherwise be cut down for lumber. The Higg Index says so and clarifies that cork has a very low impact on the environment.
With regards the benefits of using it for bags, this material is waterproof, durable and resistant, and even has the feel of smooth leather.
That’s why we love JORD bags, who has made a unique material from the stuff to create many of the bags in their recent collections.
Piñatex and Fruit Fibres
This material is produced from waste pineapple fibres. Piñatex itself is biodegradable, PETA approved, and registered by the Vegan Society. When it comes to its performance in fashion accessories, it is resistant to water, strong and flexible enough to be shaped into durable vegan bags.
Pineapple is not the only food being transformed into vegan leather: apples (Pellemela), mushrooms (Mylo) and even kombucha are being employed with the same purpose, and often through similar methods of production.
The Higg Index states that the effects of the non-woven mechanical process to extract Piñafelt, as much as the biochemical treatment to eliminate the impurities from the pineapple fibre, attain a low MSI score of 60.
While the other food based materials are not yet common enough to be assessed by the index, I would assume since the processes they go through to create fabric are similar, their rating would be, too.
Although food-based materials still contain some PU to bind it, a few vegan handbag brands are aiming to phase that out. At the moment, we love how Nuuwai has put apple fibres to use in their vegan handbags.
Straw, Jute and Raffia
The use of these strong grasses goes way back in history. They have been used for centuries as a natural fibre to create fashion as well as basket containers — the ancestral version of today’s handbags. Fast-forward to our era: this extraordinary material, which comes from drying out stalks, is still popular today for its rustic elegance and its reliable robustness.
These materials not only boast sturdiness and versatility, but lovely natural hues that don’t even need to be dyed. They all provide a wonderfully light, neutral material that biodegrades over time, and also matches any summer outfit.
Sure, it’s not exactly the same as leather, but if you could choose from a bag made of woven leather, woven jute or woven plasticky vegan leather, you know which one would be the best choice for the planet!
The sustainable bag brand Kayu (pictured above) has been using straw in their stylish clutches and customisable bags for several years, and we think they’re adorable!
While the use of bamboo in clothing often involves the use of many harsh chemicals to break down the fibre and soften it, this is not the case for the bamboo used in bags.
Not only is it environmental-friendly, but it has a smooth patina and is incredibly diverse, with around 1,000 bamboo species.
Sustainable luxury fashion brand Cult Gaia (pictured in the main pic and below) has put bamboo to excellent use in its vegan friendly bags. Their Ark bag, in particular, has been a smash hit with fashion influencers for years. It may not in any way imitate the texture or look of leather, but it is a wonderful substitute for accessories.
The benefit of organic cotton, as opposed to regular cotton, is that it’s free of harmful pesticides and other chemicals. Instead of damaging ecosystems, organic cotton replenishes them, since it is famous for improving the quality of the soil and requiring less water.
Cotton is easy to clean, can look like leather when it’s turned into canvas and waxed, and always provides a fresh and graceful flair to the wearer. The Higg Index encourages the use of sustainable cotton for its low impacts on the environment.
The only caveat? It takes up a lot of water. This isn’t a problem in places like the American South, where there is plenty of rainfall, but it is an issue if it comes from very dry places like Australia, where cotton production sucks up much of that country’s water supply, to the point where there was no water left to put out the fires that raged through Australia recently.
If you want to be a truly conscious consumer of cotton, ensure it’s not from dry areas.
Yes, it’s true that the use of recycled plastics in clothing isn’t as eco-friendly as you’d think, since they shed microfibres of plastic with every wash.
Not so for bags made of the stuff, though!
Since we rarely, if ever, wash our handbags, there’s no threat of microfibres ending up in the oceans or water supply. In fact, it seems that recycled plastics are a great vegan friendly material to use not only for handbags and shoes, but the linking of these accessories, too – which is what Matt and Nat does in their bags, (pictured below) for example.
However, beware: this same brand also uses PVC in some of their bags, which is a big no-no for the planet, as we shall see below.
The answer to what are vegan leather bags made of is, sadly, often polyurethane, also known as PU.
Sure, PU prevents a carnage of living creatures as well as wreaking havoc on the environment, since the meat industry is one of the largest causes for greenhouse gases and the process of tanning leather usually uses a chromium salt bath, which is highly toxic. For these reasons, PU is often referred to as a valid vegan alternative to animal leather. But is it fully sustainable?
The answer is no. Producing polyurethane, such as that used in Angela Roi’s bags, pictured below, is not completely toxin-free, since it comes from fossil fuels. According to the Higg Index Polyurethane (PU) synthetic leather, “ensures a high resistance to hydrolysis effects (affected by humidity, heat and light).”
That being said, PU has a Higgs Index score of 43, as opposed to cow leather, which scores a much higher 163, meaning it’s actually better for the planet than leather.
Furthermore, for those who insist on arguing that leather is much better for the planet than PU based vegan leather, they should note this fact: PU is often applied to leather!
That’s right: this plasticky coating imparts a glossy finish to regular leather and gives a nicer sheen to lower quality leather, making actual leather doubly bad for the planet!
It’s a common mistake to believe that normal cotton is kind to the environment, simply because it’s a natural fibre. This plant has been cultivated by humans since the dawn of time, but ever since the ‘green revolution‘, it’s environment impact has been highly negative. This is because the urge to augment cotton production on an enormous scale has come with implications that involve loads of pesticides, chemical fertilisers and intensified pressure on water supplies.
According to the Higg Index, normal cotton has a high planetary impact at every level, from its sourcing, yarn and textile formation, right down to its coloration.
This is, without shadow of a doubt, one of the worst materials to use for anything, any time.
Vinyl is a type of plastic made from ethylene (found in crude oil) and chlorine. When processed, both the substances are combined to form Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) resin, or as is commonly referred to – vinyl.
It was first invented in 1920 by scientists who wanted to develop a material that would help to manufacture everyday products that were easier to make, durable, and cheaper than what was available. Today, it has become the second largest manufactured and sold plastic resin in the entire world.
Unfortunately, it’s highly toxic, from its extraction from the Earth, all the way down to its production into bags and other common objects. In fact, it’s so bad for the environment that Greenpeace has defined it as “the poison plastic.”
The reason it’s so popular (besides the fact it doesn’t use animals) is that is incredibly cheap and resistant, but it comes at a very, very high health cost for all Earthlings. Shame that some brands, like Matt and Nat, pictured below, still use it.
For more information, read our article about it, here.
Avoid at all costs!
So, what are vegan leather bags made of? The answer is: vegan leather isn’t one thing. It’s an umbrella term used for many different kinds of fabrics.
While technology is providing interesting ways to create various animal-free leathers, the truth is, we’ve always been provided these by nature. From straw and jute to organic cotton, there are plenty of textile possibilities to create fabrics that are just as durable as leather, but that are far more eco-friendly.
While science can be helpful in transforming certain fibres into something that really imitates leather’s texture and durability, it seems the more technology involved, the worse the material is for the planet.
Go vegan, and go natural!