Materials with dramatically lower impacts than leather and no animal welfare issues, vegan leathers are in demand. But can they match leather’s durability?
What is Vegan Leather?
Vegan leather, or “Faux leather,” is any synthetic material that aims to imitate or substitute actual leather. In addition to having the same “look” as leather often at a fraction of the cost, vegan leather is also attractive to those seeking to avoid animal products due to climate or animal welfare concerns.
What is vegan leather’s impacts on the environment and health?
There are many different materials used for vegan leather, each with their own production impacts. As it stands, much of faux leather commonly found in products is petroleum-based and as such contributes to the petroleum industry’s impacts on climate change, sea and air pollution. Moreover, vegan leather often contains polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a plastic that is highly corrosive and is essentially non-degradable. This means that it can persist in the environment for a very long time, causing adverse health impacts all along the food chain – including in humans. Finally, while significant gains have been made in improving the durability of vegan leathers, few can match actual leather in terms of potential for longevity and ability to look and feel better the older it gets. This means that most products using vegan leathers must be replaced more often.
Are more sustainable alternatives on the market?
Not all vegan leather entails plastics derived from the fossil fuels industry, however. Some can be made from organic material, such as cork or pineapple leaves, which have been bioengineered to look and feel like leather. Biosynthetics that convert agricultural biomass into usable materials, are another option. But these have their own set of environmental concerns. In short, while more sustainable vegan leathers are out there that bypass both the livestock and fossil fuels industry, those hoping to sidestep the ills of traditional leather should be aware that vegan leather can have a few ethical hurdles of its own.
Vegan Leather Standards
No standards exist exclusively for vegan leather, but various certifications otherwise used in the food industry to designate vegan products can be found on some apparel and footwear. Otherwise, common industry certifications for recycled content, biosynthetics and more can be used.
Illustration: Kiki Fjell