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Vegan leather is trending as more and more consumers are putting veganism at the forefront of their personal mission. But is vegan leather an ethical, sustainable alternative – or just plastic in a new wrapping? Rosemir Follas from Vegano Shoes weighs in.

While the leather industry is booming, it has long been plagued with issues of environmental pollution, human health violations and animal welfare. Cheap hide has become widely available thanks to factory farming and non-transparent supply chains, and the negative impacts are well documented (read “Everything You Need to Know about Leather”). But aside from animal rights activists, leather’s drawbacks have not gone unnoticed by the synthetic leather market, which is predicted to hit US$85 billion by 2025.

Enter faux leather. With its relative affordability and availability, faux seems like the right alternative for those wanting to avoid the ethical pitfalls of the factory farm.

Faux leathers, however, often come with their own set of environmental issues. As it stands, most faux leather contains polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a petroleum-based plastic that essentially takes forever to decompose and is highly corrosive. Add to this the petroleum industry’s role in climate change, sea and air pollution, and it’s clear PVC-based faux leather is at best an accessory to the oil industry’s environmental degradation.

But not all fake leather entails plastic: Some can be made from organic material like cork or pineapple leaves that have been bioengineered to look like leather. Bioplastics, which convert agricultural biomass into usable materials, are another option. In short, while vegan leathers that bypass animals and fossil fuels do exist, they are harder to find and are more expensive – but the same can be said of ethical leather.

Can vegan match leather’s performance?

The Brazilian company Vegano Shoes specializes in vegan leather footwear, and its CEO Rosemir Folhas agrees that the discussion is complex:

“We can say that petroleum products are also vegan because they don’t deal with direct exploitation of the animal. However, we know that veganism connects to the idea of sustainability and environmental preservation.”

For Rosemir Folhas, ethical vegan leathers do more than just address animal exploitation. They look to bypass the fossil fuel industry altogether. Sustainable options are abundant, and can include bioplastics and upcycled plastics, or natural material like cork or vegetable wax. The biggest challenge of vegan products, according to Folhas, is to create high-performance materials that are soft and resistant.

“This process has evolved with the discovery of new technologies and materials. We’ve worked with products as durable or even more durable than leather.”

Bioplastics in particular can mimic real leather while being derived from renewable bio-sourced materials. These hold the potential to reduce footwear’s reliance on traditional plastics and cut CO2 emissions. But even bioplastics are not free from critique, as debates relating to land-use and food security as well as crops grown from fossil-fuel driven monocultures remain unresolved.

Thus, while more sustainable vegan leathers are out there, those hoping to sidestep the ills of traditional leather should be aware that faux leather has a few ethical hurdles of its own.

Cristiana Voinov
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