Vegan leather is a synthetic, plant-based, or man-made material constructed to look and behave like animal-based leather. True vegan leather should contain no bovine hide, fur, skin, exotic skin, or any other animal-derived solvents, solutions, or fabrics.
It is often touted as being ethical, sustainable, and more environmentally friendly than animal-derived leather. And as the new kid on the block, it is revolutionizing the fashion industry, with both retailers and designers flocking to fill the demand for none animal-based products.
However, is vegan leather really the eco-friendly choice. Or are the marketing men just creating a new, and very lucrative, revenue stream?
For example, 60 years ago no-one bought bottled water but now it is a multi-billion dollar industry. And an industry with a criminal record for plastic pollution!
So I ask the question; is vegan leather just another bottled water money-spinner.
Or is it the perfect material to replace animal-based leather?
Let’s dive in and find out.
What Is Vegan Leather?
The definition of leather is…
“a material made from the skin of an animal by tanning or a similar process.”
The term ‘vegan leather’ is used when describing materials that mimic the attributes of animal-based leather. But do not contain any components derived from animals.
The words “derived from” is important here as it prohibits manufacturers from including any and all animal material within their products.
This is a crucial element of wording for vegan leather as there are many types of glue, dyes, and solvents that contain animal derivatives. And it is the exclusion of these animal-based derivatives that distinguish vegan leather from other fake leathers.
However, buyer beware as when it comes to fake leather, no manufacturer is legally obliged to disclose all the components within their products.
Nor are they bound to a single set of operating rules or guidelines. Therefore, fake or ‘faux’ leather can be processed from a wide variety of materials, and these materials can include animal derivatives.
Of course, it needs to conform to government standards but there are many ways to achieve this.
Therefore it is best to only buy vegan leather from trusted sources who have had their products third party verified.
What Materials Are True Vegan Leathers Made From?
True vegan leather can be broken down into two distinct categories:
- Synthetic vegan leather
- Natural vegan leather
Synthetic vegan leather
Synthetic vegan leather is made from petroleum-based materials (oil). These materials are generally polyvinylchloride (PVC) or polyurethane (PU), or in other words, PLASTIC!
Now I am not into wearing plastics and few people desire their fashion wardrobe to be classed as synthetic or plastic.
So to make this type of material more palatable to the paying public it is marketed as vegan leather.
Other names for synthetic leather include pleather or fleather, PU leather, and leatherette.
Of all of these only vegan leather whos, components can be verified, can be guaranteed not to incorporate any animal derivatives.
Vegan Leather Containing Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
PVC is the most widely used synthetic in vegan leather. However, PVC is also the most toxic of all plastics and is incredibly hard to recycle.
There are also concerns about PVC because of production challenges and environmental impact. Plus, when burned PVC produces carbon monoxide, dioxins, and chlorinated furans.
Dioxins and dioxin-like compounds (DLCs) are a group of chemical compounds that are recognized as persistent environmental pollutants (POPs).
Burning PVC can also cause hydrochloric acid in your lungs and cause possible ulceration of your respiratory tract.
Furthermore, PVC is a rigid plastic and requires plasticizers such as phthalates to be added in order to make it flexible.
One phthalate, Di (2-Ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), is an endocrine disruptor and can cause cancer. It is also thought that some other phthalates may adversely affect reproduction or development in humans.
PVC could also contain traces of other chemicals including bisphenol A (BPA). (BPA is another known endocrine disruptor).
Greenpeace calls PVC “the single most environmentally damaging of all plastics.”
How it’s made synthetic leather.
Vegan Leather Containing Polyurethane (PU)
PU (polyurethane) is the most commonly used synthetic alternative to leather for footwear. It is also a highly contested product as supporters will tell you that it is not plastic.
However, that really depends upon the manufacturing process so the distinction is largely semantics.
But apart from the questionable semantics, another concern is that when making polyurethane-based synthetic vegan leather, various solvents are used.
These solvents are required to make the polyurethane into a liquid which is then painted onto fabric. And these solvents are highly toxic and will eventually leach into the environment.
So polyurethane (PU) may be a better choice, but it is still a synthetic, man-made material created from hazardous chemicals. One of these chemicals is dimethylformamide (DMF).
Dimethylformamide (DMF) is used in the production of PU material for footwear and has been associated with toxicity to humans.
Another negative factor against the use of (PU) is that doesn’t age well and may only be serviceable for a couple of years.
Furthermore, burning (PU) releases harmful toxins including carbon monoxide into the atmosphere and so requires specific end-of-life measures.
Burning PU based sealants and adhesives produce a yellow cloud of smoke and varying amounts of hydrogen cyanide and phosgene.
This is why alternative materials must be considered and the word vegan must not be abused.
“If we want to move towards a low-polluting, sustainable society, we need to get consumers to think about their purchases.”
– David Suzuki
Synthetic Vegan Leather Summary
The global synthetic leather market, which in 2019 was valued at $29.3 billion, is projected to reach $40.9 billion by 2027.
For me, that’s criminal, as it means those people who are refusing a plastic bag, (a good thing IMO) are also unnecessarily fueling the plastics industry.
If it’s unacceptable to carry your shopping home in it, why is it acceptable to wear it?
Is it solely because the manufacturers have prefixed it with the word vegan?
Think of the bottled water analogy, then consider what harm will this ‘synthetic leather’ plastic shoe be doing over the next 60 years.
In my opinion, calling something vegan is just an easy way to target and manipulate those with a kind heart. If it’s labeled as synthetic or plastic it will stay on the shelf, however, labeling it as vegan gives it instant appeal.
Therefore the people who are using this term are not doing it for the right reasons. But they are taking advantage of the name to make a fast buck and to exploit customer emotions.
However, there is a cost to all of this.
A cost that will have to be paid by the very environment. And also a devastating cost to the animals that the people buying vegan described products are trying to prevent.
So if you have an open mind just stop and think about these few short notes:
- Synthetic vegan leather was created from fossil fuels dug up, transported, and refined, at a great cost to the environment.
- The refining of these fossil fuels was achieved at chemical plants and resulted in CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere. Extra CO2 as part of the linear system.
- Hazardous, and toxic to life, chemicals are created and then used to form synthetic vegan leather.
- Fake leathers (synthetic plastics) have a short usable life span and do not age or repair well.
- The ultimate destruction of these plastics may take 500+ years and result in the creation of microplastics and chemical leaching.
- Microplastics are ingested by and have a negative effect on all animal life.
- Leaching of hazardous chemicals is harmful to all organic life
So synthetic vegan leather doesn’t actually minimize the harm to animals or help in resource sustainability, it just deflects it.
Furthermore, it directly feeds environmental harm and animal abuse in the long term.
“We need to think of the future and the planet we are going to leave to our children and their children.”
– Kofi Annan
Therefore in my opinion the use of synthetic vegan leather is unethical, unsustainable, and not eco-friendly.
Natural Vegan Leather
Natural vegan leather is made from organic matter such as cork, fruit, coconut, corn, and even waste food. There is also testing at the moment to lab-grow leather from DNA editing.
This editing will eventually grow collagen, (the protein from the skin), from yeast and the early lab results look positive.
This will be a great innovation for the vegan world as this will be a true leather. However, it will be grown without the involvement of animals.
Read all about this innovation here. Modern Meadow’s leather doesn’t grow on a cow.
I believe that this to be an advancement but it brings with it a whole new world of ethical conundrums.
For example, collagen-based leather is essentially real skin, so, will this material encourage the wearing of actual dead animals? By this I mean, if you can’t distinguish the fake from the original then will it encourage a black market in the skin trade.
The growing and processing of collagen-based leather may be expensive. However, the illegal rearing and slaughtering of animals may not be!
It also be noted that these innovations are all still in the development stages and few of them have reached the marketplace. And as such, and are not ready to replace the dominance of synthetic vegan leathers just yet.
That being said, and as stated, there are some natural vegan leathers out there. In fact, several designers and manufacturers are racing to get ahead of the game and produce the world’s first truly sustainable vegan leather.
Experimentation is occurring with biodegradable sources such as cork, paper, kelp, mushrooms, tree bark, food waste, recycled rubber, pineapple fibers, and even apples and kombucha tea!
But none of these materials can completely mimic the look, feel durability, and texture of the real thing.
Moreover, they all suffer from using a percentage of synthetic material within their makeup which affects their biodegradability.
One such alternative is Pinatex, which is made from pineapple waste and is becoming hugely popular in the fashion industry.
On the surface, Pinatex looks like the perfect material as it states that it is 100% animal-free. And to be honest, it does look good, even if the texture is a little off at the moment. (Personal taste).
On the downside however, it is coated in a water-based PU resin which is petroleum-based and not biodegradable.
Furthermore, the substrate/base material is 20% PLA which has a very slow decomposition rate outside of a controlled environment.
PLA is a vegetable-based plastic made from corn starch and often called biodegradable.
However, even though PLA plastic is biodegradable, it will only be fully decomposed within three months when having specific and controlled composting conditions.
Plus, the vast majority of PLA plastics are discarded into the trash by consumers and end up on landfill sites. Once there it can take an estimated 100 to 1000 years to decompose and any PU chemicals present will leach.
I use Pinatex only as an example as they are very transparent about their materials.
Which is a good thing and I genuinely and unreservedly applaud them for it.
But it must be recognized that virtually all of the natural vegan leathers use PLAs and/or PU in their manufacture.
(Apple leather by Frumat for example has 50% PU in it.)
What Is PLA In Natural Vegan Leather?
Plastic is a petroleum-based product derived from fossil fuels, namely oil. Whereas PLA is a bioplastic, meaning that its base was once organic in nature.
As such, PLA should be a safer, cleaner, and more sustainable material to work with.
Both materials are polymers but are processed in very different ways.
PLA starting materials are harvested mainly from corn starch and sugar cane, both crops that are easily available worldwide. In the laboratory, these materials are broken down into lactic acid and converted into monomers then polymers i.e plastics.
However, bioplastics are not as strong or as durable as petroleum-based plastics at this time. This is why some manufacturers are still incorporating petroleum-based plastics into their vegan leathers.
Furthermore, in order to maintain structural integrity, at least 50% of the finished product is in the form of a bioplastic.
And don’t let the name fool you. Durable bioplastics need a very specific set of conditions to biodegrade and these are not easily achieved.
That being said, PLAs do show promise.
However, here are some of their moral and ethical drawbacks.
Ethical Considerations Of PLA-Based Plastics
- The world’s population is rising and manufacturing PLA requires a lot of base material, ie corn. Therefore is it ethical to produce vast amounts of corn for PLA-based plastics, rather than feeding an increasing population?
- Large crops of corn require vast amounts of land, water, pesticides, nutrients, human intervention, and possibly GMO’s. Are we replacing one problem with several more and are GMO’s even ethical?
- The large landmass required to grow extra crops may lead to an increase in deforestation. Even if you reduced the animal herds that supply meat, you would need even greater ground coverage for human food. This would cause a rapid extinction of many ecosystems.
- PLA-based plastics are not strong and become brittle with age and that requires products to be wasted and replaced sooner. This excess wastage defeats the sustainability question.
- A larger mass of PLA-based plastic waste would increase the opportunity for this waste to end up in our oceans. This would endanger all marine life and would defeat its original purpose.
- Mixing PLA plastics with traditional plastics would contaminate the recycling process. Being chemically different from plastics marked #1 to #6, PLA-based plastics marked #7 should be properly separated before the recycling process begins. Read my article, Plastics by numbers
- Composting PLA-based plastic needs special conditions and specific commercial composting facilities which are uncommon at this time.
- PLA-based plastics placed in landfill can take up to 1,000 years to degrade. Plus,(at this time), natural vegan leather with PLA-based plastic can incorporate hazardous PU material.
Natural Vegan Leather Summary
The world of natural alternatives to leather is an exciting place to be if you are a vegan. From lab-grown collagen to pineapple waste or even the bark from trees.
It would seem that innovation is the key to unlocking new and sustainable materials.
And to be honest, I only mentioned a few of the products in production here.
However, my research always led me back to the same point. And that is, that all the variants of natural vegan leather require some sort of plastic additive.
Which opens up the ethical question.
Are we just potentially saving the life of one animal in the present by creating microplastics and poisons that will kill all animals in the future?
Is Vegan Leather Ethical, Sustainable, And Eco-Friendly?
I refer back to an earlier question, is vegan leather really the eco-friendly choice, or are the marketing men just creating a new, and very lucrative, revenue stream?
After all, the information contained within this article is freely available but how much have the marketing men made you aware of?
Remember that the global synthetic leather market, in 2019 was valued at $29.3 billion and is projected to reach $40.9 billion by 2027.
That’s a massive financial incentive to create a new material, NO MATTER WHAT THE ECOLOGICAL COST!
A material that is meant to perfectly mimic a material that is already available. And more importantly, a material that would otherwise be wasted and is 100% organic.
60 years ago the marketing men made bottled water popular by telling everyone that it was better than purified tap water. However, no mention was made of the plastic component.
As a result of this hidden information, billions of plastic bottles are now polluting the planet.
And billions of dollars have since flowed into the marketing men’s hands whilst our ecology suffers.
So, ethically speaking, is it right to create a new synthetic material that will only mimic an organic material that is already on the planet?
Is it morally right to make a new synthetic material that may increase microplastic numbers that will ultimately contaminate our world?
Presently, microplastic release, particularly through garment washing and wear is one of the most dangerous environmental pollutants of our time.
Definitions of microplastics vary, however, most are classed as plastics that are smaller than 5mm in length down to a few microns across.
Why create a fake leather and call it leather?
True leather is a by-product of the meat industry and the hide only represents 2% of the value of the animal. Therefore the vast majority of animals are not slaughtered for the monetary value of their skins.
Those animals that are breed for skins are exotic animals and those skins are easily identifiable.
Highly identifiable skins mean that they can be recognized as undesirable to the fashion industry and the killing will stop.
Creating a new material almost indistinguishable from the original will only create a demand for the real thing.
For instance, Coca-Cola saw its sales increase when the fake colas hit the markets. They even capitalized on this by bringing “the real thing” into their advertising slogans.
And herein lies the real question.
Why do we want to create a fake leather and call it leather?
Does calling any fake leather material leather, just encourage people to seek out the original material anyway?
Therefore is it ethical to profiteer from the name or to drive people towards the thing that you are fighting against?
So the real question we should be asking, then, isn’t whether to buy real leather or faux leather, it’s whether to buy anything at all.
So here’s my final thought.
In considering a new ‘vegan’ material you must consider its entire lifecycle.
- Will its manufacture be at a cost to animal welfare?
- How long will the product last?
- When will I need to replace it?
- How long will I use it?
- Will I use it enough to justify its existence?
- When I do dispose of it, what will happen to it?
- Is it truly 100% biodegradable without specific conditions needing to be met?
- Will there be a cost to animal welfare in the long term?
- Am I swapping one evil for another in the name of fashion?
Then ask the question, Is this material ethical, sustainable, and eco-friendly?
Certainly, a lot more than is it just, fake, vegan, or organically-based in origin?
Or as Joshua Becker put it;
“The most environmentally friendly product is the one you didn’t buy.”
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Mark Aspland is a proud father of two boys, would be amateur actor and green living enthusiast. He has been sharing hints, tips and sustainable living content on his website Sustainability Dad since august 2019.
He now has an army of followers who are like hearted individuals passionate about the environment and how to affect positive change through peaceful action.