How fashion brands are embracing vegan leather in innovative ways

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Consumer interest in vegan leather is on the up. While faux leather has been around for a while, brands like Phool and Modern Meadow are coming up with innovative solutions.

According to the 2020 Conscious Fashion Report, internet searches for vegan leather have sky rocked by 69% year on year, proving that that eco-based leather or ‘fleather’ is in demand. Misconceptions about vegan leather, such as it not looking as good or having the same longevity as the real stuff are slowly fading away, as more companies are using innovative materials and creative manufacturing techniques to prove that vegan leather can be as luxurious as the real thing.

From a business standpoint, there is no question that vegan leather is cause for economic gain. Take footwear brand Dr. Martens for example. Last year, its profits soared by 70% thanks to a new range of vegan shoes. This accounted for £72 million in online sales. That’s a lot of moola, even for a big multinational company.

It’s also a great motivator for smaller companies to invest more money into vegan leather products, as they take inspiration from great success stories like this. There is no question that consumers are willing to part with their money for genuinely vegan leather.

Unfortunately, it can be very hard to find true vegan leather on the high street. Most synthetic leathers are made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU). The use of these materials raises questions about how environmentally friendly leather really is, because materials such as these do not fully biodegrade and release toxins, which harms flora and fauna.

More alarming is the fact that many so-called vegan leather products are not actually made with natural materials like cork or kelp. So, next time you fancy buying some vegan leather, read the small print to see what you are actually getting. You might be surprised.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom for those who want to purchase some vegan leather. With a little bit of research, you will be sure to stumble upon a whole host of small startups selling genuine vegan leather.

Few companies have truly unique selling points in today’s melting pot market, but Indian startup Phool (Hindi for ‘flower’) has hit the nail on the head with its unique approach to sustainable leather: by trying to solve the temple waste problem. Founded in 2015, the company manufactures a vegan alternative to leather made from leftover temple flowers discarded in the Ganges, one of the world’s largest and most polluted rivers.

 

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Co-founder Ankit Agarwal told the Hindustan Times he was “intrigued by the formation of a leather-like white layer on unused piles of flowers”. Agarwal’s business approaches leather making from both an eco-conscious and religious standpoint. Growing up near the banks of the Ganges, the Indian native was brought up with the tradition of throwing sacrosanct plants into the river once they had served their purpose in religious ceremonies at the temple.

Leather contains collagen, which provides it [with] strength and durability, whereas fleather has chitin, a kind of protein, that gives it the same properties,” Agarwal added. It wasn’t until he was older that Agarwal understood the detrimental effects this had on people and the rover itself. The toxic arsenic and insecticides found in the Ganges, in large part due to the 1.2 billion pounds of waste disposed in the river every year, mix with the plant remains, thus polluting the water.

These high levels of pollution are directly linked to water-borne diseases prevalent throughout the nation, such as cholera, hepatitis and typhoid. When Agarwal and his team came to learn that these diseases are accountable for 86.7% of the child mortality in India, he decided to begin recycling the flowers, thus eliminating the stream of pollution.

Up until now, Phool has recycled over 11,060 tons of flowers and produced some truly unique products that it sells worldwide straight from its website. Operating from an economically deprived area, the company has made significant strides since its initial launch. It now employs 73 women, helping provide a living for families in need.

 

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Moreover, the incredible work that companies like Phool are doing all over the world cannot go unnoticed. Take New Jersey startup Modern Meadow, for example, whose bioengineers work tirelessly, using their unique knowledge of material science to transform yeast into collagen, then moulding and tanning it to form leather, without compromising the environment at all.

 

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Or look at a company like Vegea, which makes wine leather by using seeds, skins and stalks of grapes as the main ingredients to create shoes and bags, totally guilt-free.

So, next time you’re in the market for vegan leather, it’s worth doing your homework to find out what is truly vegan and what isn’t. You’ll probably come to the conclusion that buying from one of the smaller companies talked about here is the better option, for you and for the environment.

Want to know more about vegan leather? Read our story about Desserto, a company that makes cactus leather.

Matt Donaghy
Matthew is a journalism student from Ireland, living in London. He is an avid musician, a keen reader and always looking to delve into new things. Motivated by his vegan friends, Matthew is open to exploring the world of vegan subcultures and how they link with the world around us. You’ll probably find him in a hip London music venue listening to new bands and finding new things things to write about.