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Are Vegan Leather Alternatives Actually Better For The Planet?

Clothing
Photo from Shutterstock

It's more complicated than you might think

As someone who is constantly exploring the growing world of sustainable fashion, finding quality alternatives to leather that are both animal-free and good for the planet is something that's constantly on my mind. And, in all honesty, that's partially because they're pretty rare to find.


As an editor, I get pitched a lot of brands. And with the growing climate crisis, over the past year in particular, I've seen a pretty substantial increase in pitches regarding sustainability. But, to my frustration, I can't tell you how many times I get pitched a "sustainable" brand's "vegan leather" products, only to go to their website, and find that they're made of plastic-derived PVC (which is definitely not sustainable, guys). Look, I wouldn't call myself an expert on the subject, but I do know that many "vegan leather" options on the market, especially the ones you'll find at fast-fashion retailers, probably aren't the most environmentally sound alternatives to wearing animal leather.

With that said, I wanted to do a deep-dive and get to the bottom of it: Are vegan leather alternatives actually better for the planet than animal leather? And if they are, which ones are the most sustainable and the least harmful to the environment? While I knew the answer wasn't going to be a simple "yes," and definitely wasn't going to include PVC, the actual answer is surprisingly complex, in similar ways to the animal fur versus faux fur argument.

Charlotte Turner, head of sustainable fashion and textiles at Eco-Age, a brand consultancy agency specializing in sustainability, explains why:

It's difficult to definitively compare such different materials, as there will be so many variables involved—for example, where the leather hide came from, the environment in which the animals were raised, how the leather was treated. Or if, in fact, the leather already existed—it is a durable material, so it is entirely possible to reuse vintage leather.
Then there is the other side. For example, what the alternative leather is made from, such as petrochemicals or lower-impact natural or waste raw materials. Additionally, we need to understand what is going to happen to these materials at the end of their life, as the impacts at that stage—for example whether or not a material can safely biodegrade or be efficiently recycled—can really affect the overall environmental impact.

We know that, in many ways, the manufacturing of animal leather is bad for the planet (to say nothing of the meat industry). In fact, in 2017, leather was deemed "the most unsustainable material of all commonly used fashion materials" by Global Fashion Agenda's Pulse Of The Fashion Industry report. But going to Zara and buying a $50 faux leather jacket isn't doing the planet any good, either. Sure, maybe an animal wasn't harmed in order for it to be made (though, it's common knowledge that fast fashion isn't ethical—like, at all), but many of the vegan leather alternatives out there, especially the more accessibly priced, are pretty far from being environmentally friendly.

First things first, let's clear one thing up: "vegan leather" is not the term to be used here. As fashion forecaster and trend consultant Marie-Michèle Larivée explains, that term in itself is misleading. "It's used in contemporary context to mention any substitute for leather that does not require the usage of animal skin, but, by definition, the term 'leather' is an animal product." So, let's not refer to any animal-free textile as "leather," but rather a "leather alternative" or "faux leather."

Many of the brands offering leather alternatives or faux leather offer an animal-free, cruelty-free product choice, but that doesn't necessarily deem them sustainable. In fact, usually, it's quite the opposite. As Turner explains, traditional faux leather (which is commonly used in fast fashion) is made from petrochemical-based materials like polyvinyl chloride (PVC), acrylic, polyester, polyurethane, and nylon. "These synthetic materials have a significant impact on the environment; they are made from petroleum oil, their production can be highly polluting, and they are not biodegradable or easily recyclable, adding to landfill, breaking down into smaller plastic particles and potentially contributing to water, air, and land pollution."

Some of these materials have more of an impact than others, too. Polyurethane is considered substantially less harmful to the environment than PVC, so many brands opt to use it over other options. But, at the end of the day, it's still a plastic-based material and, therefore, has environmental implications that come along with it.

As Turner explains, there's a growing number of leather alternatives available that are made from innovative and lower-impact materials. "From food industry by-products and plant-based faux leathers to bio-based and bio-fabricated options. But—it's important to remember that this does not automatically mean these materials are fully sustainable, so it's important to find out how they are made and from what," she says. But keep in mind, "lower-impact" certainly doesn't mean "no impact."

One alternative that's growing in popularity is Piñatex, a material made from pineapple plant fibers leftover from pineapple harvests. Being that it's priced pretty accessibly and available in a variety of colors and finishes, it's become a popular material for sustainably-minded accessory and clothing brands.

It is important to know that Piñatex does have a PU-derived coating on it for increased durability, which means it's not 100 percent biodegradable. However, it is still significantly less impactful than the PU and PVC of high street fashion, and Turner adds that it has a very positive social impact, as well.

Similarly to leather-like textiles derived from pineapples, there are options derived from other plant-based sources, such as apples, mushrooms, leaves, kombucha, and coffee. Some brands, such as Hozen, use a "biopolyoil" leather alternative that is grain-based.

Some designers, displeased with the majority of leather alternative options available today, have sought to create their own materials. Vicki von Holzhausen, who founded her namesake vegan handbag and small goods label von Holzhausen, formulated her Technik-Leather material, an innovative vegan leather that is significantly less toxic than PU or PVC and also maintains the wear and durability of premium animal leather.

"Most vegan leathers in the market place are not high-quality, durable, or even sustainable," she says. "Many contain VOC [volatile organic compounds] and toxins. Typical vegan leathers also don't wear very well with time and can crack and come apart. They're not designed for longevity." Von Holzhausen ensures that her Technik-Leather passes some of the most rigorous environmental testing, such as California's Prop 65, which tests for over 900 toxic chemicals.

The future of vegan leather alternatives is looking bright, too. Céline Semaan, sustainable fashion activist, designer, and founder of Slow Factory, sees the industry shifting away from plastics, entirely. "Vegan leather will move away from plastic, as I hope the entire industry will have to at some point, and incorporate a circular model, similar to Piñatex. It can be turning fruit and vegetable waste into leather, which already exists with apple, mushrooms, and grape leather," she says.

While many of these newer textiles are not yet available too widely (or, at all), Turner explains that the number of bio-based options that are grown in labs from bacteria (!!!) are increasing, and could be the way that leather alternative innovations are heading. "They have the potential to be up-scaled and become affordable, potentially without the associated impacts of the leather and leather alternatives available today," she says. Semaan also feels that lab-grown options, such as Bolt Threads, will become a more common option, but adds that it does come with significant concerns about biowaste, so transparency about its emissions is key.

At the end of the day, there are still times when animal leather may be a more environmentally friendly option, such as wearing upcycled or secondhand options that will one day be able to biodegrade, as Semaan explains.

However, when asked which was, overall, a better choice, animal leather or a vegan leather alternative, Semaan answered "None of the above." She explains that even as better options and viable solutions are being vetted, explored, and measured against their impacts, the safest thing to do is just refrain from over-consuming. She says:

So what do we do knowing that? We stop ourselves from shopping for entertainment. We continue to pressure companies working with leather, plastic or animal, to offset their impact by investing in planting trees, in preserving natural reserves, and do rapidly shift into a circular system that regenerates instead of exploits.
The animal industry—mainly including meat, and leather not as a byproduct but as its own industry—surpasses the oil industry as the world's biggest polluters. However, when we look at the end of life, plastic [as in leather alternatives] can't be recycled, while animal leather can either maintain its value and be repurposed, or if disposed properly (which it rarely is) can be—and I say, can be—biodegradable. Leather goods made from animal products are arguably more durable. In fact, PVC has been described by Greenpeace as the "single most environmentally damaging type of plastic."
It isn't an easy comparison, and I would like to continue researching and exploring the topic before offering anything final.

And so, if we're going to shop at all, it's most important to do so after educating ourselves on the topic. "We are at a point where retailers push on 'selling terms' like 'vegan leather,' so more than ever, consumers should look into the labels and really research the traceability of the materials," says Larivée. "It means looking up abbreviation of fibers and looking deeper in the product description. There are even apps to help you track your environmental footprint."

As ever, we should shop the brands that are transparent as possible, so we know what we're getting and can make an informed purchase decision. Are you comfortable with what the product is made of, or how it was made? Do you feel good knowing how long it will last, or what will become of it when it can no longer be used? The sustainable fashion industry is imperfect, but the brands that we should be supporting are the ones that share our values and that strive to constantly improve from a sustainable and ethical standpoint. "If your favorite brand isn't doing this already, then ask them to do it," says Turner.

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