The leather and meat industry go hand in hand. Leather often comes from factory farmed animals, enduring overcrowding, dehorning, tail-docking and castration. Leather is often dismissed as a by-product of the meat industry, when it is actually a very lucrative co-product. The majority of leather is produced in countries such as China, Bangladesh and India, with little or no animal welfare, health and safety worker protection or environmental standards. To top it all off, the tanning of leather is the fifth biggest pollution threat in the world. Alternatives certainly sound like a good idea. But what is vegan leather made from, and what are the pros and cons of going cruelty-free?
Like other cruelty-free alternatives such as faux fur, faux leather is not hard to find. Vegan leather can be made out of a number of different materials, each with varying degrees of resemblance, quality and eco-friendliness, but all with maximum animal kindness. Here is a brief background of the most common materials on the market.
Back in the sixties and seventies, vegan leather was often made using PVC, which has an infamous reputation for making you sweat (gross). It is waterproof and, if anything, it is too durable.
PVC is no friend to the planet. It has been singled out as the most environmentally damaging plastic by Greenpeace. The production of PVC releases dioxins, which are extremely toxic, and disposal of PVC is problematic. PVC poses serious environmental and health risks, so much so that the European Commission carried out several studies and issued a Green Paper on PVC in 2000 to address the complex environmental issues it causes. It is safe to say that PVC should be emphatically avoided when you are buying vegan leather.
In the EU, the demand for PVC has been gradually decreasing since 2011, and PVC has largely been phased out of mainstream fashion, now restricted to niche fetish clothing. However, some vegan leather still includes PVC within its composition, so it is wise to check the labels or enquire before purchasing.
Modern vegan leather is typically made of PU (polyurethane) plastic bonded to a cotton backing. It is the closest fabric to the real thing, matching it in terms of durability, water resistance and aesthetics. This fabric is completely breathable, and is far less toxic than PVC.
In terms of environmental impact, however, it does still produce hazardous toxins when manufactured, so it is not perfect. For this reason, manufacturers of PU in the EU and USA operate strictly in accordance with environmental law to keep emissions at a minimum, but these controls are not in place worldwide. Also, as PU is often made using oil-based polymers, the raw material uses fossil fuels, which of course are not exactly the heroes of the hour.
Recent technological advancements in textiles brought about a new PU, made using 100 percent recycled PU with a plant-based faux leather finish. This material has significantly less chemical hazards in production than oil-based PU, and is more biodegradable. This new improved PU is a high quality, durable, sustainable vegan leather that is eco-friendly as well as cruelty-free, and is being used by fashion brands at the forefront of cruelty-free fashion, such as vegan footwear brand Beyond Skin.
The Future of Vegan Leather
Other new materials are being researched and developed to be used as alternatives to leather, such as Piñatex™, made using pineapple leaf fibres, cork leather and fruit leather. The sustainability and environmental friendliness of vegan leather is constantly improving along with textile technology, so the future is bright for cruelty-free fashion.
The best way to encourage more sustainable developments for this material is to vote with your money, and buy responsibly produced vegan leather from brands dedicated to the environment as well as animals, such as Vaute Couture, Beyond Skin, Matt & Nat, Pamela Anderson’s Pammies, Brave Gentleman and Stella McCartney. If sustainable vegan leather is out of your price range, it is still worth showing your support online and on social media for these pioneering brands to spread the message that there are quality alternatives to leather that are as kind to the planet as they are to animals. Fingers crossed, more and more will see that vegan leather is far superior to the real thing, and this in turn will bring another aspect of veganism into the mainstream.