Vegan Leather

Vegan leather is trending as more and more consumers are putting veganism at the forefront of their personal mission towards living well, and sustainably. But is Vegan Leather an ethical, sustainable alternative or is it just plastic in new wrapping?

Consider that the global synthetic leather market is predicted to hit US$85 billion by 2025. This shift, propelled by the affordability of synthetic over natural leather, is gaining reinforcement through the Facebook and Instagram feeds of millennials; searching #veganleather yields over 206,000 posts on Instagram alone — scroll through Facebook and the posts go on forever. But are these purchases better for the planet?

The vegan leather industry is dominated by fast-fashion giants who want to cycle through trends as quickly as possible. So while it may be true that buying fake leather reduces direct harm to animals, it may be redirecting harm elsewhere.

As it stands, most faux leather (or “pleather,” often used interchangeably) contains polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a versatile plastic that essentially takes forever to decompose and is highly corrosive to plants. Of particular concern to those focused on animal welfare is PVC’s tendency to biomagnify, which means its effects on animals in the wild get worse as it continues up the food chain.

Not all vegan leather is created equal

But according to Marta Palma with the Portuguese footwear brand Nae, “some vegan leathers can be more ethical than others.”

Sustainable vegan options can, for example, be made from upcycled plastics, bioplastics or natural, non-plastic material as well. Nae (“No Animal Exploitation”) is currently transitioning their vegan shoes towards the latter, focusing on plant-based materials like organic cotton, cork and pineapple leaf fibers so as to bypass fossil fuels altogether.

Plant-based may at first glance seem the most sustainable option.  Using natural materials like cotton, linen thread, vegetable wax and natural latex, for example, has the additional advantage of being biodegradable – especially useful for shoes, which remain difficult to recycle. But making a plant-based product has its own challenges, as this requires carefully sourcing each material for its social and environmental impacts while making sure it can perform like its plastic or leather counterparts.

For Marta, these challenges are just part of the appeal:

“We wanted to produce vegan leathers without any waste of water or energy. We felt that we needed to move on in a more sustainable way.”

So while it’s true that much of the vegan leather industry relies on petroleum and comes with its associated risks, sustainable vegan leathers that reduce both animal and environmental harms are out there.

Cristiana Voinov