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 2017Sustainable 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: