Over the last few years, we have watched the world change before our eyes as veganism grew from a passing trend into a global movement. With the increased awareness towards plant-based diets and their environmental and ethical implications, people are becoming ever more conscious of the victims of their fashion choices.
This shift in consumption has not gone unnoticed by the fashion industry. Canada Goose, a winter coat producer known for using fur in their products, has announced it will cease the use of fur by the end of 2022, and earlier this year fashion giant H&M launched a new collection of vegan leather products made from cactus leaves. It is clear that the animal-free fashion industry is growing by the day, but what are the advantages of these vegan alternatives, and how do they measure up to the real deal?
The ethics of leather
The use of animal skins for clothing and shelter dates back to prehistoric times, and has no doubt played a significant role in the development of civilisation. That being said, ‘we’ve always done it that way’ is not a valid argument for morality, and now that we have suitable alternatives in the western world, many proponents of animal rights regard leather production as harmful and unnecessary.
Leather is often seen as a by-product of meat production, an environmentally destructive industry and one of the largest sources of pollution on the planet. However, leather is in itself a thriving industry, and waste reduction is not the real motivation behind it. To quote Leah Thomas, environmental activist: "Leather is a co-product of an already unsustainable industry".
To add insult to injury, preparation, tanning, and finishing of leather is also associated with a number of social and environmental issues, particularly concerning the chemicals that are typically used, including ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, chromium and cyanide-based dyes, oils and resins. Some of these chemicals have been linked to skin and respiratory diseases, developmental problems in children and increased risk of cancer. In countries such as India and Bangladesh that supply the developed world with leather products, toxic wastewater from tanneries is dumped into nearby water supplies, polluting drinking water and croplands. Whilst animal skins are naturally biodegradable, a commonly cited advantage of animal leather compared to its vegan counterpart, the tanning process can also affect this.
Is vegan leather more ethical?
Before my vegan bias begins to show, it's important to point out that animal-free leather is far from perfect. The most common types of synthetic leather use a coating made from plastic, which as we know poses its own environmental issues and does not fully biodegrade. PVC releases gases called dioxins and contains phthalates to make the leather flexible; these are both toxic chemicals and can affect the environment when the product is thrown away or burned. The slightly more contemporary material PU is somewhat less damaging than PVC, but still releases toxins during manufacturing and is made using fossil fuels. While these are crucial factors to consider, the 2017 Pulse of the Fashion Industry analysis still found that the cradle-to-gate environmental footprint of cow leather was double that of PU, and the highest of the 14 fabrics studied.
If you're not a fan of plastic leather, or 'pleather', some relatively new products have recently entered the market, including leather made from cereal crops, cactus leaves, pineapple, flowers, corn and apple peels. Unfortunately these products are generally still made in combination with PU or plastic-based resin at this point, so they are not fully biodegradable. Nonetheless, an easily accessible 100% biodegradable plant-based leather isn't too far away.
Is vegan leather a worthy equivalent?
Animal-based leather is attractive to consumers for its durability and aesthetic. It also tends to age well. Although both products vary in quality, vegan leather is typically cheaper to make and buy, thinner, less sturdy and less breathable. Because vegan leather is lightweight and versatile, it is well-suited for use in the fashion industry, but it may not last as long as traditional leather.
A true fashionista might find the aesthetic and patina of aged traditional leather to be irreplaceable, but for many of us we might even struggle to tell the difference. Still, in order to appeal to the average consumers as a worthy alternative, vegan leather must step up to meet the expectations of the market, especially in terms of durability, which will render it a more sustainable option.
What about second hand leather?
It's hard to find issue with someone continuing to wear an item passed down as a family heirloom, that they bought a long time ago, or even a second-hand piece that will serve them for many years. At this point the damage has been done, and there is an environmental benefit from investing in used products as opposed to buying something new. However, if your personal ethics still feel incompatible with using animal skin in any context, weighing up the plant-based options might still be the best option for you.
The future is bright
Luckily, the fashion world is full of innovations! Following the emergence of lab grown meat, different ways of producing lab grown leather are beginning to appear. These involve taking advantage of natural processes of microorganisms such as fungi to produce leather-imitating materials. Whilst these products vary in their biodegradability and environmental impact, they appear to be a more ethical option overall than their inspirations. Newlight's product, Air Carbon, is even carbon neutral as it absorbs more carbon than it emits!
Whilst it doesn't look like traditional leather is going anywhere any time soon, and there is never a clear cut solution, the vegan alternatives are worthy of our support, and will only get better from here.