Is vegan leather the answer to our leather problem?
The leather industry is one of the largest industries in the world, equating to $200 billion, but with our demand for leather goods increasing each year, such figures can only be expected to increase. Many people often justify wearing traditional leather goods because they are a by-product of the meat industry, meaning that animals are not being killed for the sole purpose of fashion, whilst also addressing the issue of waste. Secondly, being a natural product, originating from an animal, people also argue that leather goods are non-plastic and therefore biodegradable.
In theory such an argument is correct. However, there are several issues surrounding the production of leather goods:

1. Due to the profitability of leather, many farms actually rely on leather rather than meat as the primary commodity. This is highly problematic as it can often result in a reduced/lack of animal welfare practices.

2. While the main raw material is natural, the way in which the raw hides and skins are converted into leather uses several harsh chemicals and mechanical processes, including bleaching and tanning. With more than 60% of the world's leather being produced in developing countries like India and Bangladesh, both their stunning landscapes and communities are being polluted and poisoned by these highly toxic chemicals. For example, for 1kg of processed hide, approximately 30 litres of effluent (liquid waste) is released from tanneries.

3. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that 14.5% to 18% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are due to animal agriculture. With 65% being a direct result from the cattle industry.

Vegan Leather

In the UK alone, products defined as 'vegan' have increased by 75%. However, the difficulty with the use of this term is that, in principle, products that are deemed 'vegan' should ensure sustainable practices such as:

● Cruelty-free

● No animal products or by-products
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Prima Linea Cactus Bag by
And, in essence, these products do avoid the core issue, which is the use of animals, whether it may be cattle or exotic leathers like crocodile, alligator, snake, etc. However, the majority of vegan leathers are in fact synthetics. And, as you may already know, synthetic materials are by definition substances "made by chemical synthesis, especially to imitate a natural product." So, from the definition alone you can already identify the problem…chemicals! Chemicals are by no means promoting sustainability.

Polyvinyl chloride, or more commonly known as PVC, was the first alternative leather material. For those of you who own PVC products, you will know that as a material it does an absolutely great job of replicating the characteristics of traditional leather. But being a plastic-based material ultimately means that it is non-biodegradable and also acts as a pollutant, with the material releasing toxic fumes which the WHO have revealed to be associated with cancers. Greenpeace has also referred to PVC as the "single most environmentally damaging of all plastics".

Now, where does polyurethane (PU) come into the topic? Well, unlike PVC, which is known for being a cheap material, PU has been highly popular amongst luxury brands…even Stella McCartney! But, whilst PU may be a synthetic plastic polymer, the use of the material has been justified due to its non-toxicity and elasticity (which ensures a longer lifespan of products). But it must be emphasised that Stella McCartney openly recognises the issues regarding the use of synthetic alternatives such as PU.

"I think one of the biggest compliments is when I know people go in and buy a Falabella bag or a pair of shoes, or a faux leather skirt, and they have no idea they're not real leather. I think that's really where it becomes sexy. Where you're not just providing an alternative…you're creating a great product." Stella McCartney in Vogue 2017

Sustainable Leather Alternatives

Contrastingly, sustainable leather alternatives are made to not only replicate the characteristics of traditional leather but also ensure that the product is environmentally friendly. Sustainable leathers can be found to be made from pineapple, apple waste, mushrooms, and recycled plastics. Here's a few bio-based leathers:
Mylo by Bolt Threads: A material made from mycelium, more commonly referred to as the "branching underground structure of mushrooms." The mycelium is produced in a sustainable way, mimicking the way in which it would naturally grow. This involves controlling factors like temperature and humidity. Furthermore, the finishing process does not use any harmful or toxic agents and creates the classic leather-like pattern through the process of imprinting. In 2018, Mylo was used to create Stella McCartney's iconic Falabella bag and have since collaborated to create black bustier tops and utilitarian trousers. Unfortunately, these products are not on sale!

Piñatex by Ananas Anam: A leather alternative that is produced from pineapple leaf waste in the Philippines. It was founded by Dr. Carmen Hijosa, who after consulting on the Philippines leather export industry was left shocked at the environmental impact of its production. And realising that existing alternatives (e.g. PVC) were simply not a valid solution, she was inspired by the use of plant fibres in traditional weaving techniques. Piñatex not only avoids the burning of 825 tons of waste pineapple leaves but also provides farming communities with a sustainable means of income. This leather material has become one of the most popular innovative materials, and is highly regarded by several luxury brands, including Hugo Boss.
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Piñatex men's shoes by Hugo Boss
beLEAF by Nova Kaeru: is made by the Brazilian brand using the leaf of the elephant ear plant. This giant plant is produced using organic and sustainable production methods and is also grown on reforestation farms. Additionally, beLEAF promotes a clean production chain as, rather than emitting CO2, it actually captures it from the atmosphere. Expressing that "everything is in nature and nature must be in everything," beLeaf maintains the natural texture, shape and colours, by using organic tanning methods.
Article by Natalija Jovasevic
Main photograph by Tamara Bellis