The term ‘vegan leather’ came into vogue in the mid-2000s. Before then, we called that leather-look fabric ‘pleather’, and it was generally not something you made a statement about wearing.
How times have changed.
Looking back, Stella McCartney might be the most memorable high-end designer to successfully marry the idea of fake leather with style. The brand is certainly still the epitome of luxury vegan leather goods. Associating the look with a cause is nothing short of clever marketing, however the phrase was first born.
But is vegan leather really sustainable?
The answer is the same as that for just about any question related to sustainability: It depends.
There aren’t any regulations governing what materials can be marketed as vegan leather, leaving brands with a wide berth to piggy-back off the popularity of the term. The only thing you can be assured of is that vegan leather is not made of any animal products.
The OGs – PU and PVC
A vast majority of vegan leather is actually just plastic hiding under a friendly name and an expensive price tag. Polyurethane (PU) and polyvinal chloride (PVC) –still the most common vegan leather materials – are made from fossil fuels so their manufacture emits carbon dioxide. If left to degrade, PVC produces microparticles that eventually end up in waterways and kill marine life.
Even water-based PU, which is often marketed as the more eco-friendly form of PU, is not actually very eco-friendly because it is still bonded to a synthetic fabric such as nylon, which is made with its own energy and water intensive processes.
On the flip-side, PU and PVC are highly recyclable, so they can reappropriated into different products over and over again. And while different manufacturers go to varying lengths to minimise their impacts, the recycling and re-manufacturing of plastic is generally considered less energy and water intensive than the production of the original PU and PVC products. So products made from recycled PU and PVC fibres are considered more sustainable than their original counterparts because they contribute to a circular economy; They reduce the need to extract virgin (raw natural) materials from the environment AND they prevent the material from becoming true waste.
Thanks to technology, plant-based materials such as cork, pineapple and mushroom are making their way into mainstream fashion. But organic doesn’t always mean better; The material alone is not enough to judge something as sustainable or not. You have to delve deeper into how crops are grown, harvested and manufactured. Even traditional organic materials come with environmental issues if they aren’t carefully managed, like cotton and its association with pesticides and water.
Cactus leather is exciting because the leaf is abundant, requires little to no irrigation, is easy to manufacture, and a small amount of leaf goes a long way.
The best plant-based accessories are those made with by-products that would have otherwise gone to waste. An Auburn university researcher has found a way to turn a fermented green tea by-product into shoes that were found in trials to be even more comfortable and durable than leather.
Quick tips for buying vegan leather
- Look further than raw materials to how those materials were harvested and manufactured. If the brand doesn’t make that information readily known on their website, reach out and ask them.
- Recycled plastics are better than virgin plastics. Organic materials are better than plastics. And organic materials made from waste by-products in a reduced energy and water intensive way are benchmark (in my humble opinion).
- Shop less overall, and choose forever rather than seasonal accessories; Whatever they’re made from, a pair of shoes aren’t really sustainable if you wear them once and then lose interest in them. Aim for pieces that have a long-standing home in your wardrobe and bring you joy for years to come.
- If you are ready to retire your pieces or they break, never put them in your red bin or send them off to landfill; For broken products, reach out to the brand and find out if they have a donation policy (to give your product a second life), and consider resale for products that are still in good condition.