What is Vegan Leather and is it Sustainable?
Vegan leather sure has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? A ring that states, “No animal had to suffer for this fabulous look.”
But the merits of vegan leather alternatives are a little more complex than that.
When you zip up your vegan leather jacket, you could be zipping up something that’s made from PVC (yuck) or polyurethane or pineapple leaves or any other bizarre or unsustainable material. It’s one of the more confusing fabrics (is it even ‘leather?’ for example)—and its sustainability is just as convoluted.
We’re explorers at Sustainable Jungle, and we’ve recently been delving into the world sustainable fashion, from ethical fashion brands to eco friendly fabrics. This foray into fashion that’s better for people and the planet has led us to question one of the most controversial topics in the field: vegan leather.
So then, what is vegan leather and how sustainable is it?
When we try to figure out if a fabric is sustainable, we consider things like sourcing practices and transparency, as well as how it’s produced and it’s longevity / durability.
While the ethical credentials of faux leather are pretty obvious (ahem, ahem, no animals are killed), its sustainability is a little more obscure. Cruelty free alternatives to leather may be cruelty free from an animal-welfare perspective, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t cruel to our planet. There’s a lot of nuances involved.
So, let’s wriggle into those faux leather chaps (do people still wear those?!) and simultaneously get into the sustainability of vegan alternatives to leather.
IS FAUX LEATHER ECO FRIENDLY?
Let’s just tackle the biggest question right out of the gate to the cow pen. In order to determine if faux leather is eco friendly, we should take a look at all of the ways regular leather is not.
Leather’s Impact on the Planet
Let’s start with the fact that traditional leather (made from animals) has a pretty big impact on the planet. It may technically be a natural material, but its cradle to grave environmental impact will have most sustainable shoppers mooving to vegan leather.
Cow leather (and leather from other animals) is associated with a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions first and foremost at the farming level (even higher than other animal fabrics like wool and silk). It contributes to damaged water sources and water scarcity and it’s been associated with eutrophication (runoff that causes a nutrient overload in a body of water).
Once you move beyond the impact of raising the animals, you have to consider the chemical required to tan the leather (300 kilograms of chemicals per every 900 kilograms of animal hides, if you were curious). There are around 250 different chemicals (including heavy metals, arsenic, and cyanide) used in traditional leather tanning.
Who wants to wear all of that?!
Combine that with the fact that these chemical treatments then render this natural fiber into one that isn’t biodegradable (and would take hundreds of years to fully break down anyway), that leather jacket loses all sustainable credibility.
Leather’s Impact on People
The tanning process doesn’t happen in a bubble; it needs workers, meaning each and every tannery worker is exposed to those harmful chemicals day in and day out.
From the health problems suffered to the fact that many of them work extended hours without a decent living wage, the leather industry joins other fashion industries (like diamonds) for their slew of ethical issues.
Leather’s Impact on Animals
Leather means dead animals. There’s no way around it. Even upcycled leather, the most sustainable form of leather, was still once a living being.
You need your skin for survival, and so do the cows, pigs, goats, sheep, crocodiles, and ostriches (to name just a few) that end up as leather.
Billions of animals are killed every year for leather and contrary to common belief, leather isn’t typically just a by-product of the meat and dairy industry.
So, Is Vegan Leather Eco-Friendly?
Off the bat, vegan leather means no animals were harmed (yay!).
The same previously mentioned Global Fashion Agenda report that looked at the cradle-to-gate environmental impact of cow leather found that synthetic leather had only a third of that environmental impact. The report authors themselves are fans of alternative leather and say that “switching to alternative materials can directly improve a product’s footprint.”
We don’t know too much about the supply chains involved in most vegan leather manufacturing (so we can’t draw too many conclusions about worker conditions or fair pay). For that, you’ll need to look at the traceability and information provided by individual brands using these materials.
However, we can say that in most of the plant-based vegan leather materials, a waste product is being reused—which provides additional income opportunities for communities, while also reducing the need for landfills.
Vegan leather certainly isn’t perfect, but we’re pretty convinced that there is no reason to use animals for fashion—and the vast improvement of the sustainability of newer vegan leather technology just makes it more of a no brainer.
WHAT IS VEGAN LEATHER MADE OF?
We know what vegan leather is not made of, so now we need to ask the ever-elusive question of what vegan leather is made of. This is a question with several answers.
Plastic-Based Vegan Leathers
Maybe you’ve seen all sorts of newfangled types of vegan leather recently. From fungi to fruit peels, strange ingredients are making their way into leather-like fabric. Unfortunately, most of the vegan leather on the market is still either blended with plastic or made entirely of plastic.
Let’s start with microfiber vegan leather (which will likely say either PVC or PU on the label). Our advice for this leather alternative: avoid it if you can. Both of these plastic-based materials are commonly used in faux leather but have nearly the same carbon-intensive footprint as the ‘real’ stuff!
But if you can only avoid one, let it be PVC. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) releases toxic chemicals during its production phase and requires plasticizers like endocrine-disrupting phthalates to make them flexible enough to go into those pleather leggings.
According to the WHO and US Center for Disease Control, PVC has been linked to all kinds of health problems, like cancer, developmental disorders, infertility, Type II diabetes, heart and liver disease, and CNS and other respiratory disorders.
On the environmental side, there is literally NO safe way to dispose of PVC. Recycling it requires tons of equally bad chemicals, and trashing it means they’ll all just leach in into the earth for centuries. The Safe Water Advocacy Alliance has a great video on the topic.
PU, or polyurethane, is still associated with a chemical-intensive production process, but it’s slightly better because it can at least be recycled. It can even be recycled mechanically (through shredding into small bits) rather than chemically.
If you’re sold on a vegan leather wallet or handbag and more natural options aren’t available, PU (especially when made from recycled materials) is definitely the better choice over PVC.
Still, there are even better options to be had in the form of plant based leather alternatives.
Plant-Based Vegan Leathers
So then, what about all of the other types of leather you’ve been hearing about? Are they plastic too?
Mostly, no, or at least not entirely. New innovative faux leather fabrics are using plants and other bio-based materials, sometimes combined with a little plastic. But still, a little is better than a lot!
It’s made from pineapple leaves, a normally-wasted byproduct that typically gets burned by the fruit industry. The pineapple fibers have surprising strength and flexibility and as Piñatex is made from waste, its production doesn’t require any additional agricultural inputs or water. Plus, it provides an additional income stream for the communities involved in pineapple farming.
Unfortunately, it is coated with a petroleum-based material for greater durability, making it non-biodegradable. Hopefully, the technology will continue to improve without this input.
Frutmat, otherwise known as apple leather or Pellemela (in Italy where it’s produced). Apple leather is similar to Piñatex but it is made using wasted scraps (peels and cores) from the apple juice industry). The shoe brand Veerah is using it.
Mirum is a high-performance material made from 100% natural inputs and 0% plastic. It takes things like waste coconut oil and vegetable oil and combines it with waste cork and hemp to make a leather-like product.
Cork is also being used as a leather substitute. Cork leather comes from Cork Oak trees, which grow in the Mediterranean (specifically Portugal) and is associated with sustainable forestry. When cork is harvested through a process of shaving away the nark, it doesn’t harm the tree. Instead, it helps encourage a process of regeneration, which lengthens the tree’s lifespan!
The cork forests continue to grow and help our planet. On average, each hectare of Cork Oak forest sequesters 14.7 tons of CO2!
The production process is just as green—the cork is simply boiled in water to gain some pliability before being flattened into sheets. Sometimes, plant-based dyes are added, but otherwise, the process is complete.
Recycled rubber leather is another trending fabric, particularly in regards to shoes like ethical sandals and flip flops. The density and texture end up being very similar to regular rubber and materials that would typically end up in a landfill can be used to create bags and accessories.
And since there’s so much surplus leather laying around (hello, TIRES!), there’s pretty much no end to the supply.
MuSkin is made out of the caps of the Phellinus ellipsoideus mushroom. The fungus grows in the subtopics and is a perfect substitute for leather. It feels like suede, absorbs moisture, and limits bacteria proliferation so it’s perfect for skin. We’re seeing it in shoes already and can’t wait for it to be used in more products.
Malai is the India-based startup that has turned leftover coconut water (agricultural waste) into vegan leather. Not only does this prevent the wasted materials from being dumped but it also creates a durable vegan leather-like fabric that can last many years. Once it reaches the end of its life cycle it can even be composted because it breaks down naturally.
Washi is a Japanese paper traditionally used in arts and crafts, but some designers have even made handbags out of it. Bottega Veneta, for instance, released a washi paper leather handbag, though it’s sadly no longer available.
SCOBY is short for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. That might not mean anything to you, but if you’re a kombucha enthusiast, you’ll recognize it as the live culture used to make the fermented tea beverage. SCOBY is basically just a mushy blob of bacteria, and if it’s dried flat, it becomes a leather-like material.
Vegan Leather of the Future
So, to answer the question: vegan leather is made from nearly anything and everything, from plants to paper to popular probiotic beverages!
If you think those natural vegan leathers sound futuristic, that’s just the tip of the tannery. There’s far more experimentation going on at even smaller scales.
While they aren’t ready to roll out full-scale production quite yet, we could see a completely animal-free cultured leather in the vegan leather of the future. Modern Meadow’s Zoa material is bio-engineered to look, feel, and stretch exactly like leather. It could be a few years still until we see this on shelves but get excited because this is a real game changer.
Green fashion entrepreneur Alice Genberg has developed a vegan leather made from used coffee grounds. We’ve seen something similar before with S.Cafe, a yarn spun from recycled coffee grounds, so a leather-like version isn’t too hard to imagine.
Another one that’s well on it’s way to market is MyloTM, by Bolt Threads Technology. It’s another nature-based leather that’s grown from mycelium (the root structure of mushrooms). Its production has less environmental impact and doesn’t use solvents like dimethylformamide (DMF), which is found in other types of synthetic leather.
They’ve created a prototype in collaboration with Stella McCartney, but we can’t wait until they start selling the real thing!
WHAT IS THE BEST QUALITY VEGAN LEATHER?
The quality of vegan leather depends on a lot of factors.
Its quality for the planet depends on how much (if any) of the plant-based material is blended with a plastic-based material (PVC or PU).
Vegan leather’s look and feel (and even smell!) depends on what it’s made of, too. Some will look much more real than others. Cork looks like, well… cork and many of the other plant-based options won’t have the patina (a weathered sheen that develops over time) that’s found in animal leather.
Pinatex probably comes closest to the look of real leather but unfortunately, it doesn’t last as long.
Which brings us to our next question…
HOW DURABLE IS VEGAN LEATHER?
One of the downsides to vegan leather is that it’s less durable than the real thing. If it’s plastic-based (PU or PVC in the label), some say it’ll last about two to five years on average, though some reviews claim longer for items like handbags that see less wear and tear. Keep in mind, that when the vegan leather contains plastic it’s not biodegradable and will release small plastic particles as it decomposes.
What about when it’s raining – is vegan leather waterproof? The positive side to using plastic is that, in most cases, it makes it waterproof (though cork leather is waterproof sans plastic).
Some of the plant-based vegan leather alternatives will have similar life spans (two to five years) but owe their longevity to a plastic coating that keeps them looking good for longer. Without any plastic, you can expect less durability and a shorter life span.
Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a tradeoff between being plastic-free and durability. On the one hand, plastic isn’t great for the environment, but having a bag that lasts is.
If ethics, durability, and sustainability are of equal importance to you, an upcycled or recycled leather product might be the best bet (or opting for a different material entirely). This is a personal choice, you’re navigating a grey area of sustainable fashion where there is no right or wrong. And with time, the options will undoubtedly become more and more sustainable.
HOW TO CLEAN VEGAN LEATHER
To improve the durability and longevity of your vegan leather, there are just a few simple things you can do:
- Remove spills or stains immediately with baby wipes or a damp cloth
- Do a deeper spot clean with warm water and dish soap when you can (*be sure to remove soapy residue)
- Use a clean and dry cloth to remove any excess water
WHAT BRANDS USE VEGAN LEATHER?
As mentioned above, footwear brands EcoAlf, Po-Zu, and No Saints use Piñatex regularly in their sneakers, but that’s just the start. For eco friendly vegan leather sandals, you’ll love Insecta’s recycled plastic options, NAE’s Piñatex and cork leathers, and Indosole’s PU alternative “Envirofiber” made of coconut fiber and latex.
HSF Collective is one of our favorite eco friendly purse brands, and they also make use of materials, like Pinatex, cork, and eco suedes made from post-industrial recycled polyester and post-consumer recycled plastic bottles. Marand’s Nuuwaï is the first major brand to start using apple leather for handbags on a larger scale.
You’re probably gonna like what we’re going to say about LaBante London: they only use recycled materials for their bags. Oh, and the vegan leather is PETA-approved and PVC-free.
Using PVC-free PETA-approved vegan PU leather, PINKSTIX is a Toronto-based studio that has a line of ethically made crossbody and tote bags. Their company is just as ethical—they support several women’s empowerment projects. GUNAS is another all-began handbag maker using PVC-free polyurethane for their bags.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON VEGAN LEATHER ALTERNATIVES
So, is vegan leather ethical? Absolutely.
Is vegan leather eco friendly? It depends.
As with many trending eco friendly fabrics, like modal and bamboo, the sustainability of vegan leather exists on a spectrum. For us consumers, we just need to put in a little bit of effort to scrutinize its sustainability specs and be aware of greenwashing.
While there are certainly downfalls when it comes to vegan leather, it’s still a relatively new industry that is evolving quickly as more and more people demand ethical fabrics that are free from animal abuse. The creativity and innovation are there; it might just be a few years until the newest and most sustainable types of vegan leather make it to market.
We’ll be sure to keep our eyes peeled for more vegan (fruit) leather.
Speaking of which, what type of vegan leather is your favorite? And did we miss any that should be on this list? Let us know in the comments below!