As far as non-vegan-friendly fabrics go, leather is probably at the top. If you live a vegan lifestyle, you would never consider wearing a garment or carrying a bag made from animal skins. But say you like the look of a leather biker jacket or leather loafers?
There have never been more alternatives to real leather on the market than there are today. From fruits to vegetables to rocks, manufacturers are getting creative with materials, and there are tons of options available, with more in production.
Below is a comprehensive guide that will explain why vegan leather is better than traditional leather. We will also discuss how traditional leather is made, the effects on the environment of both cow and vegan leather, and the various alternatives available. So grab a cup of fair-trade coffee, and let's get started!
Vegans just don't do leather from animals. Aside from the issue of killing an animal to make a handbag, real leather is not an environmentally friendly product, and we shouldn't include it in our fashion. The processes used to make genuine leather products put the health of traditional leatherworkers at risk. The lax regulations in factories leave the potential to deposit toxic waste into the environment in the form of wastewater and airborne solvents that make it into our water and food supply. All so that we can wear products made from animal hides?
Animal hides undergo a tanning process to prevent the skin from rotting. More often than not, the process incorporates chemicals, including chromium, salts, formaldehyde, and dyes. Chromium, like all heavy metals, is toxic. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, formaldehyde is just as poisonous.
ALS risk, nervous system consequences, chest pain, shortness of breath, coughing, nose and throat irritation, asthma, allergies, and last but not least, cancer are the horrific side effects of this nasty colorless gas.
When chrome tanning, workers soak the hides in acid at the beginning of the process. When they remove the leathers, they leave behind wastewater that is toxic if not properly treated.
What's more, the water needs disposing of, and whatever is in it will enter the environment. Chrome tanning is the quickest way to prepare leather - the tanning process completes within a day, and 80 to 90 percent of the world's leather comes from chrome tanning. Chrome tanned leather takes on durability like plastic and does not biodegrade. It is also not recyclable.
There is a chemical-free alternative to chrome tanning, but it takes months and is considerably more expensive to implement. You will probably not be surprised to read that vegetable tanning is the original tanning method for leather, dating back to 6000 BC. The cheaper, faster, chrome tanning process came about in the mid-19th century, and it quickly eclipsed vegetable tanning in leather production.
Vegetable tanning uses tannins found in trees and other plants to give leather its resistance to rotting, flexibility, and durability. An heirloom process, vegetable tanning requires highly skilled workers to implement. Hides soak in vats of concentrated tannins for months.
Vegetable-tanned leather has the advantage of being thick, durable, and biodegradable. Because of the process involved, however, the end product is going to be a lot more expensive than if made with chrome-tanned leather. This is the price we pay for an ethical solution.
Faux leather is any substrate that is made to look like genuine leather but is a synthetic product. Commonly known as faux leather, the synthetic substrate is also called vegan leather. Like real leather, vegan leather is easy to clean, water-resistant and soft and pliable. Vegan leather does not breathe, however, and is not as durable as animal skin leather. Traditionally, it has not been environmentally friendly (though, as we have seen above, it's still more ecologically friendly than animal leather). Vegan leather also doesn't age or acquire a patina the way some traditional leather does. These vegan leather shoes are a great example of how ethical alternatives look just as stylish as the original.
So what materials are in faux leather? Keep reading.
Faux leather was invented at the U.S. rubber plant in Naugatuck, Connecticut in 1920, and given the name Naugahyde. A leather-look vinyl-coated fabric, Naugahyde, was first used to make handbags. The brand took off in the 1960s with a marketing campaign featuring a fictional faux leather monster named the Nauga, who molted once a year to bring Naugahyde to living room upholstery and handbags. The Nauga featured in advertisements touting the benefits of the product and even appeared on Johnny Carson.
A 2017 report, Pulse of the Fashion Industry, conducted by Global Fashion Agenda & The Boston Consulting Group, reported findings in support of the use of leather alternatives. The report found that synthetic leather ranked well below real leather in a list of fabrics by environmental impact per kilogram. The report also found that faux leather had only one-third the ecological implications of cow leather, which has the highest environmental impact.
The report gave an opinion on questions about the environmental health impacts of faux leather vs. leather.
"Different leathers can have an over tenfold difference in environmental impact based on their type and origin, how the animal was raised, and how the tanning process took place. Switching to alternative materials can directly improve a product's footprint."
Faux leather was sixth on the list, below silk, cotton, bast fiber, and wool, but above other vegan fabrics like nylon, modal, viscose, lyocell, polyester, and polypropylene, which had the lowest impact. The study did note that organic cotton has one-quarter of the environmental implications of traditionally farmed cotton.
The study based its findings on the following categories
chemistry(ecotoxicity and human toxicity)
abiotic resource depletion
global warming (emission of greenhouse gases)
eutrophication (defined as "excessive richness of nutrients in a lake or other body of water, frequently due to runoff from the land, causing dense growth of plant life and death of animal life form lack of oxygen. Prevalent in the raw materials phase.")
So while this report is good news for vegans who want the look of leather without the guilt, it's important to note that vegan leather isn't blame-free when it comes to environmental impact. Vegan leather ranked third in abiotic resource depletion, behind only silk and bast fiber.
The 2015 Sustainable Apparel Materials Report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also examined the environmental impacts of different apparel materials. The report is no longer available online, but according to this site, the report found that the annual emissions produced by cow leather manufacturing are equal to the yearly impact on the environment of 30 million cars.
So what is vegan leather made of anyway? If you're trying to find out what the difference is between faux leather and vegan leather, don't worry about it - they are the same thing. Vegan leather is an ethical alternative to animal-based products,
using all sorts of sustainable materials.
Pleather is a term for plastic leather, generally made by layering polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) on fabric. PU and PVC are both plastics, synthetic materials commonly used in the making of pleather. For example, this trendy pleather clutch is very popular.
While they do not require the use of dead animals like real leather, these materials share the blame for environmental degradation. Neither one is considered a completely environmentally friendly material. Still, experts believe PVC to be worse than PU in general, releasing potentially toxic dioxins when burnt. PVC incorporates the use of chemicals called phthalates.
These phthalates make the plastic more flexible and pliable so that the finished pleather will look and feel more like real leather. Is PU leather vegan? Yes, but it contains fossil fuel polymers, and its manufacturing process can release toxins into the air.
While pleather products are looking more and more like traditional leather these days, it doesn't have the durability or longevity that cowhide does. Neither material breaks down completely, nor are they recyclable into new pleather pieces. The portion of PVC that does break down releases phthalates into the environment while doing so. And like all plastics, once you discard PU and PVC, they ultimately disintegrate into tiny plastic particles, known as microplastics. These microplastics become ingested by unwitting animals, including us. A stomach full of plastic doesn't sound great, does it?
PVC was more commonly used in the past, while PU is its new, trendy sibling.
If you think pleather doesn't sound so great, you're not the only one. There is a host of new plant-based vegan leathers coming onto the scene as an alternative to pleather. Keep reading to learn about some of these exciting new products that share the use of organic materials, and that is changing the answer to the question: "What is vegan leather?"
Yes, banana leather. Bananas do not grow on trees but the world's largest perennial herb, known as the banana plant. Unlike fruit trees, which continue fruiting every season, the banana plant provides only one crop of bananas. More plants can send out suckers from the underground stem, but the actual stem that produced bananas will never fruit again.
So what to do with these past-their-prime plants? Why, make banana leather, of course! Banana leather manages to be biodegradable, water-resistant, and durable all at once.
Say what? Yes. You can now wear shoes made from coffee. A German company, nat-2, has developed a vegan leather made from recycled coffee, beans, and coffee plants. The coffee product makes up about 50 percent of the materials in the finished shoe, which also uses recycled plastic, natural rubber, and cork.
The finished product does smell like coffee, but we think that's a good thing. The first run of this sneaker sold out, according to content on the product page, but it looks like nat-2 plans to make more coffee shoes.
Apple leather is not the kind of fruit leather you may have grown up snacking on, though the finished product does look a little like the fruit strips you'll find at the health food store. If you can make synthetic leather from bananas, why not apples?
Yes, there are still more varieties of vegan leather made of fruit. Also known as wine leather, Vegea, an Italian company, produces grape leather. Vegea sources winemaking leftovers, specifically grape skins, stalks, and seeds to make its products. The company does not allow the use of toxic chemicals or heavy metals in its production. Bentley used Vegea's vegan leather in the interior of its 2019 electric concept car.
Another alternative to traditional leather comes from discarded pineapple tops. A company called Ananas Amam uses this byproduct to create its sustainable vegan leather, called Piñatex. This byproduct gives the farmers an additional income stream that requires no extra resources.
Ananas Amam extracts the fibers from the leaves using an automated machine created for this purpose. The biomass that remains once the device removes the threads converts into fertilizer or biofuel, so no waste remains. The extracted fibers process into a sort of mesh, which is then exported to Spain to be finished into the final vegan leather. Ananas Amam distributes Piñatex directly to designers.
Piñatex is used in interior design and car interiors as well as for clothing, shoes, and accessories. Hugo Boss makes sneakers out of this vegan leather. Check out the #madefrompinatex hashtag on Instagram to see the other products made from pineapple leaves, and if you have a Piñatex accessory, share it!
Moving away from fruits into vegetables, we arrive at vegan leather made from mushrooms.
Amadou Leather is a brand of mushroom leather. The company grows its mushrooms on sawdust blocks. The company claims that the leather absorbs moisture and is breathable. The end product is fully biodegradable and, the company claims, antimicrobial.
Slightly less appealing, MuSkin vegan leather comes from the Phellinus ellipsoideus, a giant alien-life-form-looking parasitic fungus that attaches to and feeds on subtropical trees.
You're not very likely to encounter this vegan leather, as the production capacity of MuSkin is quite low at the moment. And while it is biodegradable, this suede-like faux leather is also somewhat fragile, requiring lamination to a fabric layer to increase its durability.
Called the "Berlin Curry" sneaker, nat-2 has used red pepper applied to an eco-flax layer to create the vegan leather used to make up to 50 percent of this shoe. The remaining materials are cork, glass (for the company's local), and recycled plastic.
OK, now I'm just pulling your leg. Am I, though? It turns out that, yes, you can make vegan leather from coconut water! Malai Design and Materials makes a vegan leather out of bacterial cellulose from coconut water. The water they use is a byproduct that they then discard. This vegan leather has a papery appearance, not unlike snakeskin.
Two German brands put their heads together and created a sneaker made from leather derived from rock. And it's not something that Wilma or Betty would wear. The companies Rosslyn and nat-2 (who you may remember from the coffee sneakers above) created a leather-like material out of slate stone.
[The Stone] has been made light, soft and flexible through a very complicated and state of the art technology." nat-2 company spokesperson.
nat-2 also has a sneaker made of recycled Swarovski rhinestones. The company sources the rhinestones which do not make it to sale from Swarovski.
It's not just for your wine bottle anymore. Cork is one of the more popular sustainable vegan leather options on this list.
Cork is naturally water-resistant, which makes it a great candidate for fashioning into bags and shoes. Depending on the finish, cork products sometimes really do resemble a wine bottle stopper, and other times they look more like real leather.
nat-2 is at it again with sneakers made from rose petals. The petals, which retain their fragrance, are layered onto a flax fabric before being applied to the shoe. The company says the roses' source varies depending upon sustainable practices and availability at the time of manufacture. nat-2 uses ash, birch, maple, tulip tree, walnut, cherry, elm, and beech from ethically managed forests.
nat-2 also offers a wooden sneaker made of up to 90 percent sustainable wood.
The wood is applied to organic cotton and vector engraved in a way that the material bends and becomes soft and flexible like a fine nappa leather. The feel is very smooth and fine, while you can smell the wood and see the tree's natural texture." nat-2 company spokesperson.
Did you think that there couldn't possibly be any more sustainable vegan leather products out there? Entrepreneurs see potential in the market and are developing more leathers made from unusual materials. To name just a few more:
One of the most well-known animal-free designers is Stella McCartney. McCartney designs synthetic leather pieces and has tried to develop more environmentally friendly options. Since 2013, the label has used alter-nappa, a material that incorporates polyester and polyurethane on a recycled polyester backing along with a coating made of 50 percent vegetable oil. The recycled support piece reduces the amount of petroleum used in the material's production. However, it does not eliminate it.
On her web site, McCartney says that she uses only water-borne and solvent-free PU, which are more environmentally friendly than traditional PU.
McCartney acknowledges that the synthetic leather she uses still harms the environment, even though it is reduced, and reveals that she is exploring lab-grown leather.
Many car manufacturers are putting vegan leather on board their new vehicles. In addition to the grape-leather Bentley concept car, Mercedez-Benz is planning a recycled-plastic leather for the interior of its EQS concept car.
Many car manufacturers are putting vegan leather onboard their new vehicles. In addition to the grape-leather Bentley concept car, Mercedez-Benz is planning a recycled-plastic leather for the interior of its EQS concept car.
It is our job now to re-define modern luxury by Mercedes. What is for certain is that attractive, contemporary luxury must be sustainable—and sustainably fascinating," company head Ola Källenius told PETA.
Many other companies are already using synthetic leather in the vegan interiors of some of their cars, including:
You can view a comprehensive list of availability by car model on PETA's website. If you're not content with these options, PETA also has a list of companies that could improve and encourages you to contact them to request fully vegan leather car interiors.
You know the outlook is good when big companies like BMW, Tesla, Ferrari, Mercedes Benz, and Lexus offer vegan leather seating in their high-end vehicles.
Vegan leather is changing the world! Is there a vegan future for leather? Absolutely! It's already here with us in the present!
Leather and faux leather are outdated, cruel, and pollutant heavy-industry. Its days are ultimately numbered -and that can only be a good thing.
Like vegan foods, which are more and more in the main-stream, so are vegan accessories and clothing. Your savvy vegan shopper cares just as much about what they wear as much as what they eat.
In addition to the environmentally friendly vegan companies listed above, other great companies are growing by the day. The cruelty-free industry is expanding not only its food choices but product choices too. It's a great time to live as a vegan, on our own terms!
DAHLIA - VEGAN WOMENS CASUAL LOAFERSShop Now
DARBY - VEGAN WOMENS VINTAGE FLAT SHOESShop Now
GABRIELLE - ELEGANT TRENDY VEGAN LEATHER CLUTCHShop Now
A vegan freelance web designer and blog writer based out of Austin, Texas USA.
In this guide you can see the detailed sizing charts to all our products
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