Leather is still undoubtedly the most widely used form of animal material for fashion goods. However, it is not without ethical and environmental issues. We’ve seen the industry move away from fur in recent years due to animal welfare. So the natural progression is to phase out leather too and replace it with vegan alternatives, right? Well, It may not be as simple as you might think.
As a vegan and keen environmentalist, I always find myself circling back to the leather debate. On the one hand, there are a lot of ethical issues with using animals for our aesthetic benefit. On the other hand, many vegan alternatives are synthetic and made from plastic, contributing to the ever-growing plastic problem our planet faces.
Are there any benefits to using real leather?
Using leather for fashion dates back to as early as 1300 BC. Back then, the product was utilised as a form of protection. However, today we associate leather with luxury in the fashion industry. Sentence to link. Many people argue that animal leather is indeed sustainable. When obtained more organically, leather is a material that will last long. This makes it a long term sustainable product as you’re not contributing to overconsumption as much as you would if you bought a cheaper alternative that needs replacing once every two years.
When it really comes down to it, though, leather cannot be classified as a sustainable material. Not only is it clearly ethically wrong in terms of animal welfare, but the treating process is very harmful to the environment and its workers. During manufacturing, the workers are exposed to harmful chemicals which have been known to make workers ill. These chemicals also often leak into rivers, polluting local water sources, which have further negative effects on people's health.
I have a confession to make. I own a pair of vintage leather trousers and a jacket. Does that make me a bad vegan? I’m not sure. It really does come down to personal preference. If you're not okay with wearing real leather, though, there are plenty of alternatives. But if you’re also concerned with environmental friendliness, make sure you choose your vegan alternatives wisely.
Is ‘pleather’ really better?
Many arguments generally side with vegan leather to the real thing, largely due to animal welfare concerns. Vegan leather is better for the animals, of course, but production also creates less carbon dioxide and less waste of natural energies. Even though these alternatives are ethically sound, there are still some important issues involved in the production, especially those that have to use non-organic oils and resources.
A common alternative is ‘pleather’ (or plastic leather). This material can be made from polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Both are non-biodegradable and derived from fossil fuels or highly toxic chemicals. These aren’t exactly environmentally friendly resources. The synthetic nature of pleather means that it isn’t a renewable resource, with its relatively short lifespan being its main detriment. Plastic truly lasts forever, and from an environmental standpoint, this isn't a good thing. There needs to be a sustainable alternative to truly balance ethical and environmental concern when it comes to leather.
So, how can we sustainably enjoy leather?
It's not all bad news. There are brands out there creating beautiful leather pieces from sustainably sourced material. A sustainable powerhouse in the fashion industry is Stella McCartney. It may come as no surprise for many of you that the brand has never used real leather (or any animal by-product, for that matter) to create pieces. Since 2013, the eco alternative Alter Nappa has been used to create stylish shoes and bags. While this leather alternative isn’t totally plastic-free, it’s still a better alternative to pure PU or PVC. Plus, 50% of the coating comes from vegetable oil, which is a sustainable resource in itself.
Another brand making use of sustainable leather is Veja. The French shoe company has been trying to make shoe production more ethical and environmentally friendly since its debut. In 2019 it launched its first ever biodegradable vegan version of its V-10 trainers. The shoe is made from canvas that has been waxed with corn starch waste. All materials used in the production are clean and bio-based, making it a truly eco-friendly alternative to leather.
"Replacing leather with plastic does not sound like a good solution to us." Veja co-founder Sébastien Kopp, 2019
The future of leather
There really needs to be a careful balance of ethics and sustainability when it comes to leather. Currently, the best thing we can do as consumers is to buy and wear it more sustainably. This means purchasing from brands using eco-friendly resources or even shopping second hand. With the future of vegan and eco-friendly alternative leather only just beginning, I, for one, am very excited to see what it offers.