Does Vegan Leather Have a Place in the Future of Fashion?
Leather holds a controversial place within the history of the fashion industry, and many are boycotting leather, and even ‘pleather’ products entirely. With the increase in production of synthetic fibres, and the slow decline of the meat industry, we’re taking a look at the truth about vegan leather.
2020 saw the biggest drop in meat consumption in twenty years, dropping 3% from 2019 alone. More and more of us are opting for vegetarian or vegan diets, but it’s difficult to imagine a future where this industry is eradicated completely. We know reducing our meat and dairy consumption has a positive impact on our planet, in fact, a permanent vegan diet could reduce our individual carbon footprint by up to 73% each, but can the same changes be applied to our wardrobe? Recently, the production of vegan leather has been branded, by some, as worse than real leather.
Generally, real leather comes as a by-product of the meat industry, so in this respect, land and resources are not used specifically to acquire the raw product. Tanning however, is a necessity in order to strengthen and preserve leather pieces, and the process most often uses harmful chemicals, such as chromium salts, acids, lime sludge, and sulphides, which are not biodegradable. A large amount of water is also used, and the toxic waste is often disposed of into waterways, causing damage to aquatic ecosystems. There are alternative methods to this process, using vegetable derivatives, which are less damaging, but are not widely used as of yet.
Vegan leather is most commonly made from plastics which accurately mimic the texture of the real thing; Polyurethane (PU) and Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC). Faux leather can also be made from more natural materials, such as apple peels, cork, pineapple leaves, and recycled plastics, though these are not yet popular source materials for affordable vegan leather. PVC, the most popular material used in the production of vegan leather, is a petroleum-based plastic, is not biodegradable, produces a large amount of water waste, and uses toxic dyes in the process. Synthetic clothing fibres are the most common form of microplastic pollution in our oceans today.
The truth, as usual, is never black and white when it comes to environmental issues. Real leather has many benefits, such as the high level of quality, durability, comfort, and the final product is biodegradable. Most common types of vegan leather are not biodegradable, and are produced using harmful chemicals. The obvious benefit is that no animals are directly used, or harmed in the manufacturing process, although microplastics are harmful to marine life. Though the popularity of faux leather has led to an increase in quality, it is typically not as long-lasting as real leather, and is more likely to end up in landfill than authentic leather items.
It comes down to personal preference when buying leather, authentic or faux. Some choose to avoid both entirely, whereas some are in favour of buying exclusively second-hand real leather, or sustainably sourced real leather. When cared from properly, true leather products really can last a lifetime, and eventually will decompose naturally. The best way to reduce environmental impact and shop vegan, would be to source sustainably manufactured leather alternatives, rather than PU or PVC pieces. Hopefully, demand for conscious vegan leather will lead to an increase in production of clean, sustainable and durable materials.
By Eleanor Aithwaite.