Just because vegan leather is plastic-free doesn’t mean it is truly sustainable. But it’s still better than animal leather.
Being a strict vegan, but also a conscious fashion consumer, I have never been a big fan of vegan leather. Don’t get me wrong: I’m always thrilled to hear about innovative vegan and sustainable solutions in the textile and fashion industry, the third most polluting industry after fossil fuels and animal agriculture.
But diving deeper into vegan alternatives to leather, I came to realize there is often tension between having a vegan product that also ticks the ecological checkbox.
We are in the midst of an intersectional fashion revolution, where all materials and processing are securitizing through many lenses, primarily through the sustainability lens. What was initially welcomed as a cruelty-free solution to animal leather now undergoes securitizing examinations that raise questions regarding its sustainability and ecological impact?
It is greenwashing to label plant-based fibers combined with plastic as sustainable, and yet it is far worse to promote the use of vegan leather as sustainable just because it does not contain plastic.
When we talk about vegan leather, we usually talk about materials made of two different plastic polymers.
Polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). These two most commonly used due to their wrinkly texture that helps give the effect of animal leather.
There are also many fantastic vegan leather alternatives out there today: cork, upcycled rubber, recycled plastic, leather made from cactus, mushrooms, grapes, apples, and pineapples, and lab-grown leather.
However, these raw materials will almost always have to combine with a ranging percentage of 10% to 60% plastic polymers to achieve a durable material. The most commonly used materials today are damaging to the environment and human health.
Their synthetic materials will never fully biodegrade, contributing to microplastic pollution. Currently, vegan leather is not a great alternative to animal leather, but it is the best of a bad lot. Here is why.
As problematic as vegan leather maybe. But plastic does not come close to competing with the problems that the animal agriculture industry causes, not by a long shot.
In the vast majority of cases, leather contributes to the animal agriculture industry as meat farmers sell the meat’s so-called ‘byproducts’ to several industries: skin to the leather industry and bones to the gelatin, fertilizer and pharmaceutical industries.
Hence, leather production is directly related to the animal agriculture industry, which competes with the fossil fuel industry for being the largest contributor to human-made greenhouse gas emissions (at least 51% of global emissions), a leading cause of deforestation, destruction of water resources, air pollution, biodiversity loss, soil erosion, and the spread of infectious diseases and pandemics.
And this is without even mentioning the animal agriculture industry’s water consumption (ranges from 36 to 74 trillion gallons annually in the US alone) and the detrimental effects of chrome tanning on the environment.
Then, the process of chrome tanning requires even more water. The skin treated with toxic chemicals that harm human health and the environment.
The tanning process not only pollutes the environment but also turns the leather into a non-biodegradable material that will leave a trail of non-compostable, toxic waste.
The problem aggravates in the developing world where there are less regulation and control regarding waste disposal. Therefore, you could say leather is undoubtedly not a sustainable material by any standard.
So, what is the alternative? Two Mexico-based entrepreneurs have founded Desserto, a company that makes plant-based leather from Nopal cactus. Desserto will hopefully become the first company to offer PU- and PVC-free biodegradable vegan leather without any toxic chemicals.
Its cactus-based raw material today is only partially biodegradable. It is on the verge of issuing a 100% biodegradable material that blends cactus and cotton. The problem is that cactus leather costs double the price of premium animal leather.
The high cost is due to the research and development combined with the technology required to produce it. The company hopes to significantly reduce the price in the upcoming years.
Is vegan necessarily the sustainable choice when it comes to the leather industry?
Probably. But creating alternatives that are both vegan and clean is an ongoing process of experimenting and learning.
It requires significant efforts on the research and development fronts. The more consumers understanding that the product they buy has traveled the world several times before arriving at their hands.
It is unlikely to disintegrate and biodegrade, the more incentive there is for fashion companies to refine vegan. Alternatives to be as locally sourced and sustainable as possible.
If you do decide to purchase a vegan leather product.
I recommend purchase one that has the lowest percentage of synthetic, non-biodegradable materials and locally sourced. Yes, it might not last for a lifetime. You might have to change your shoes or bag every couple of years.
But you will not be hurting animals and the environment as much. Use existing resources, buy secondhand, upcycle, repair, and buy less to reduce manufacturing, waste, and carbon footprint.