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You read that right! Today we decided to talk about a somewhat controversial subject that does not seem (at first glance) to be at the center of our brand: vegan leather. Indeed, as you may know, we work today with real leather (full grain leather) and we like to offer our customers quality products that last over time.
However, we are aware of the impact of leather, on the one hand on the planet and on the other hand on the animal's well being, that's why we think it's important to debate on the subject, in order to draw the contours of our future, but especially the future of fashion in general.
Generally speaking, leather has always had a controversial history. The more time passes and the more this divisive aspect tends to strengthen. In this article, we will put in perspective the real leather, with the different alternatives of "vegan leather" available, in order to try to give you a panorama, of course not exhaustive but as accurate as possible, of the real impact of these materials and the alternatives available to you.
Here we go, welcome to the world of ethical fashion and one of its most fierce debates!
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The Advent of Vegan Leather: a Consideration in the Era of Time
For about ten years, more and more luxury brands have been turning away from animal materials, especially fur, such as Versace, Prada, Gucci or Burberry for example.
However, these same brands continue to use, sometimes abundantly, real leather in their creations, even though it is more or less the same type of product as fur, the only difference being that the raw material may (not always) be a by-product of the meat industry. Indeed, fur often comes from animals that have been raised solely for this purpose.
Leather still enjoys a wide recognition on the international scene, due to its quality, and the values it conveys (vintage, wild west, bad boy ect). However, the explosion of veganism and ethical fashion could quickly disrupt this paradigm, as the expansion is rapid and linked to broader and global concerns such as climate change.
To illustrate this "boom", in the United Kingdom in 2019, the number of products marked "vegan" has increased by 75%. This figure even rises to 320% in Denmark over the same year. A growth to turn many heads, while the market for synthetic leather (now estimated at 25 billion dollars) could reach 45 billion dollars within 3 years.
Brands are therefore thinking more and more about entering this market, for the sake of profit or real ethical/ecological considerations (we'll let you sort it out).
But why is leather, once the most sought-after material, now decried by a growing number of consumers?
The Leather Industry: an Ethical and Environmental Aberration?
Leather is intimately linked to the meat industry, and this is one of the major factors, though not the only one, to the growing dislike of this material. While some criticize the killing of animals to produce leather, others put forward the ecological argument, claiming that leather is now too polluting, both in terms of CO2 emissions and consumption of resources (including water to grow the fields used to feed the cows).
Numerous studies have shown that eliminating or greatly reducing the consumption of animal products is one of the most beneficial acts for the planet and the environment. We are not only talking about greenhouse gas emissions, but also about soil acidification, land and water resource use, eutrophication of lakes, rivers and delta, etc. The most convincing example of the impact of this industry can be found in Brazil, where the expansion of cattle farming has caused unprecedented deforestation and a disruption of the entire ecosystem. Quite a story.
Some brands argue that they use waste from the meat industry to make their product, thus reducing waste and participating in a kind of circular economy. This fact is true for some brands, especially those working with quality leather from controlled and certified networks. However, this is not the case for all brands and it is hard to imagine them continuing to use the waste from an industry that has been in constant decline for a few years. How to prepare the future in this case, when the global leather market is expected to reach 128 billion dollars in 2022.
Moreover, the by-product argument can be easily undermined by people with strong ethical convictions. Even if the product is a waste product that we reuse, it remains a dead animal that we wear every day. It is therefore a carrier of value and meaning. If you don't have this kind of consideration, the argument remains valid but if you are sensitive to it, it doesn't last long.
Leather aficionados (we are part of it, let's not hide from it) bet on the fact that leather, provided it is of good quality, allows to create extremely durable and resistant products, avoiding the use of plastics, micro-fibers or other poor quality products, leading to frequent renewal of objects and therefore to fast-fashion. We believe that it is better to buy a durable and sturdy leather bag that will last several decades than several bags made of poor quality polymers, ending up in landfills or in our oceans (we are exaggerating but the idea is there). What we denounce is the mass-produced, cheap leather industry, which takes absolutely no ethical, moral or environmental factors into account.
However, we do not question that the meat industry, and consequently the leather industry, is a polluting industry. It also raises essential questions. It is estimated that the meat industry represents about 15% of the global greenhouse gas emissions. It is difficult not to be offended by such figures. What bothers us is the end rather than the means. For example, the average American consumes nearly 25 kg (57 pounds) of meat per year. How can we think of building a more sustainable industry under these conditions? Reducing consumption drastically, while offering a range of alternatives to leather, would allow everyone to find their own way while ensuring the sustainability of the industry.
It is difficult to imagine a world without meat consumption, and we are sorry for the vegan readers. Whether we like it or not, this practice deeply and culturally anchored in our societies will last, at least for a few (decades).
How Real Leather Industry can Reduce its Impact?
This means rethinking production and processing systems and alternatives to create a more sustainable ecosystem, both in terms of the production, use and recycling of raw materials and the increasing share of vegan leather used.
The dyeing and tanning processes for example can be improved. Today, there are for example vegetable tanning and mineral tanning. The latter is polluting because it uses chemicals such as chromium, which can then be poured into nature if it is poorly treated (this is not the case everywhere, beware), posing a serious health and ecological risk. Generalizing vegetable tanning, which uses mainly natural materials, and putting a brake on fast fashion would greatly contribute to this change of mentality.
However, vegetable tanning is more expensive and longer, so it is difficult for low-cost brands to opt for this choice, while chrome tanning or the plastic alternative are available. Beware, mineral tanning is a tanning process that also produces a quality leather. However, it has a greater impact. Leather, when properly treated and of good quality, resists time and wear, allowing objects to be passed on from generation to generation. It remains a material to consider.
Some major brands have already started a complete overhaul of their leather production/consumption system by using only vegetable dyes, vegetable tanning processes, working only with certified farms, and gradually banning plastic and especially PVC from their creations.
So yes, the industry is not perfect, far from it, and the road is long to find a balance between environmental issues, aspirations and ethical considerations and commercial and economical reality.
Let's dive into the world of "vegan leathers" in order to dig a little deeper and see if all these alternatives are really more ecological than natural leather.
What is Vegan Leather?
This is a very good question! And it is difficult, at first, to find an answer that seems to please all the "experts" in the field. On our side, we believe that vegan leather is any type of fake leather created without the use of animal material (be it skin or other), with the aim of imitating the characteristics and appearance of real leather.
The definition is broad, I agree. It allows many materials to apply for the beautiful and marketable name of vegan leather. Historically, and before the advent of vegan marketing and ethical fashion, this type of material was called "pleather".
With time and under the growing influence of this movement, manufacturers and major brands have adopted the name "vegan leather", more sexy and rewarding, to attract a new audience.
There are currently two main types of vegan leather:
- artificial and synthetic vegan leather, made with the use of chemicals,
- natural vegan leather, made with materials directly from Mother Nature.
Artificial Vegan Leather
Thank you chemistry and technological progress! Thanks to you we are able to chemically create a material with the same characteristics as leather.... well no, not quite. That would be too good, wouldn't it.
The materials mainly used to make artificial vegan leather (which does not occur in nature) are polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane, synthetic polymers derived from plastic and therefore from petroleum, hence their old name "pleather" for "plastic leather". We will examine later its impact on the ecosystem but, given its more than dominant position on the market of "vegan leather" or simply "fake leather", we can easily wonder if this alternative (without comparing it to leather) is really sustainable, if not indeed ethical (we will also discuss this point.
Why is synthetic vegan leather still massively used? Mainly for its cost and ease of production. This allows fast-fashion and low-cost brands to offer finished products that are always less expensive, while pretending to be of equivalent quality to natural leather. Mass consumption in all its glory.
If we look at the trends, the brands, especially luxury brands, tend more and more to seek innovation in this sector, especially in natural alternatives, in order to move away from synthetic vegan leather, which the public is beginning more and more to decry for its environmental impact.
PU leather is a type of artificial leather that is only leather in name. Indeed, it is composed of 100% synthetic products and is therefore not produced according to the usual processes of the leather industry. It has nothing to do with leather. However, being a man-made and malleable product, its purpose is to imitate leather, whether in terms of texture or flexibility. Obviously, the result is not up to the mark and causes many problems as we will see later
PVC leather (polyvinyl chloride)
PVC leather follows similar manufacturing procedures to PU leather with the only difference that polyurethane is replaced by another petroleum polymer: polyvinyl chloride. It is also a 100% artificial leather, but more dangerous for the environment, especially because of the harmful molecules it releases once the material is in the environment.
The Macro Problem of Microfibers
This is where we touch on the problem most often raised when talking about vegan leather. Already the name "leather" is confusing, and one wonders if materials made from plastic are really more ecological than real leather.
Many brands do not hesitate to use ecology as a commercial argument when selling this type of leather. However, there is nothing ecological about polyurethane or PVC, far from it.
It is important to know that the production of these materials requires the consequent use of fossil energy and highly toxic products such as dimethylformamide, a recognized carcinogen, or acetic acid, which can damage the skin and mucous membranes. Of course, PVC is not biodegradable.
The result of this production is the creation of microfibers, at the origin of these materials. In 2011 (10 years ago), these microfibers represented 60 to 85% of the materials of human origin found on the coastline and are now the largest source of microplastic pollution in the ocean. It is estimated that 13 million tons of plastic microfibers are dumped into the oceans each year. The pollution generated is systemic because these microplastics are often ingested by animals and then by humans, posing a real public health problem.
Fabrics and textile materials are the result of technological progress and have been designed to be more resistant than natural fibers. More resistant in time on our shoulders, but also in nature! If we add to the fact that these materials are considerably cheaper than natural materials such as real leather, you can easily imagine the mass of consumers rushing to these affordable products in recent years.
As innovation pushes research further and further, new synthetic fibers, which are closer and closer to the natural characteristics of leather, are being developed every day. These materials are even often promoted by organizations like PETA, which emphasizes the "cruelty-free" aspect of these materials, thus pushing a whole part of the veganism supporters towards these products. The term "vegan leather" finds its source here, in the fact that it is a clear change with the traditional industry and that these new products are particularly aimed at the vegan target.
It is therefore time to call these new materials by their names in order to stop assimilating them to leather, which they only replace (a bit like vegan burgers). By dint of always trying to replace the old, we often find ourselves disappointed with the alternative. It seems relevant to us to develop these new linguistic determinations in order to affirm once and for all the uniqueness of the material and its differentiation from leather. So yes, for the lambda consumer, "vegan leather" is easy to understand and to apprehend, but to imagine a sustainable future, it will also be necessary to go through education.
As you can imagine, these two alternatives, PU leather and PVC leather are far from being our favorites. If we take into account the impact of fossil fuel extraction, the use of unnatural dyes, chemicals and a non-trivial amount of water, it seems a bit big to let brands continue to market these fake "leathers" as ecological.
Moreover, the use of the term "vegan" bothers us. So yes, technically everything that does not contain animal matter is by definition vegan, but do you often see "vegan tableware" for example? The technical use of the term does not bother us, it is the meaning it instills in the minds of consumers that is more worrying. Today, to indicate that a material or product is vegan implies in the mind of the consumer that it is better than the original product. However, in the case of these artificial leathers, this is not the case at all. This poses a real problem, bordering on greenwashing.
But let us introduce you to other alternatives, natural this time and full of promise (even for us and our products).
Natural Vegan Leather
We stop you right away, even natural vegan leathers contain chemicals. However, these are usually only glues or protective films, allowing the product to keep its original qualities as long as possible, so the impact seems trivial. These plant-based or vegetable waste leathers are mainly from conventional agriculture, recycling leftovers and waste. However, with the growth of this market, more and more specialized farms are developing, and are entirely dedicated to the production of vegetable leather.
These natural vegan leathers have the advantage of consuming fewer resources (especially water) and chemicals but also emit less greenhouse gases than natural and synthetic leathers.
Pineapple Leather | Pinatex
How can we not start this presentation of alternatives with the best known today: pineapple leather, mainly developed under the name Piñatex (Piña meaning "pineapple" in Spanish).
This leather is made from pineapple leaves, mainly from Southeast Asia, and is developed by the British company Ananas Anam. It is now used by hundreds of brands in the world (including Hugo Boss, Votch or Nae) and has proven its effectiveness more than once, gradually establishing itself as a real alternative to natural leather.
However, it remains far from the look and texture of natural leather, offering a crumpled and not very smooth touch. Regarding the durability of the product, Pinatex is currently composed of a protective layer of synthetic material, but the company says it is working on a biodegradable alternative.
Apple Leather | Frumat
The apple leather or "apple skin" is an alternative developed mainly today by Frumat, an Italian company that uses the waste of the apple industry (compotes, juice, cider). The waste is first crushed, dried and then transformed into powder before being mixed with polyurethane, which serves as a binder.
It offers a more luxurious and better quality than PU leather but is more expensive than the latter, offering a resistant, flexible and long-lasting fabric.
Cactus Leather | Desserto
The cactus leather is the alternative that is rising in recent years. Developed by two Mexican brothers, this material is natural, flexible, durable and suitable for both the textile and interior design industries.
The cactus leather, or desserto, is a particularly interesting production, because it is a natural carbon well, only the external part of the cactus is taken, not killing the tree, it takes only 3 leaves of cactus to produce 1 meter of cactus leather and it is not an industry that competes with the food production, both using different parts of the cactus.
Mushroom leather | MuSkin - Mylo
Mushroom leather is another natural alternative to real leather. It is made from the mycelium, the root and submerged part of the mushroom, known as a powerful transformer of organic matter in soils.
It is developed mainly under two names, Mylo and Muskin and is soft, smooth and completely biodegradable.
Cork leather is no longer a novelty and its presence on the fashion scene has only grown in recent years. Its vintage look, sturdiness and waterproofness make it a credible alternative to real leather.
It is often seen as the number one natural alternative at the moment, even if its lead over other products such as cactus leather or pineapple leather, tends to decrease. It is used by many brands especially for what attaches to accessories and leather goods.
Cork offers the advantage of recovering only the bark of the tree without damaging the plant, which is an advantage over some natural alternatives, requiring a more intensive culture.
Leaf leather is a material still in its experimental phase, not very developed internationally, despite some good successes, notably in the manufacture of plates or picnic kits.
The leaf leather is produced with teak leaves collected in a sustainable way on the tree or on the ground. The leaves are then soaked in water, dyed, and arranged together before being air dried. The drying process binds the leaves together to make a usable square of leaf leather.
The interior is often lined with a thin layer of cotton canvas and a thin non-toxic layer of BOPP is applied to protect the organic material, maintain its texture and feel, and waterproof the final material.
Coconut Leather | Malai
Coconut leather is a biocomposite material developed by Malai in 2018, spearheaded by Zuzana Gombosova and CS Susmith and composed of cellulose extracted from the coconut industry's waste. The company recovers waste coconut water, and succeeds with 4000 L of coconut water, adding hemp fibers, sisal and banana stems, to make 320 square meters of Malai.
This vegetable leather is flexible and durable, its texture is very close to that of real leather and easily dyed. According to the brand, this material develops a soft sheen and a unique patina over time.
The advantage with this product is that it is compostable and therefore decomposes naturally if it is found in nature. Another advantage is that the main material used is used coconut water that was previously discarded. This vegetable leather does not involve any competition on the resource.
Grape Leather | Vegea
Vegea is a grape leather obtained by recovering the solid remains of the grape after it comes out of the press. This material is called grape marc and includes all the parts of the grape - pulp, skin, seeds.
These remains are mixed with vegetable oil and water-based polyurethane, creating a composite material composed of 70% renewable, natural and recycled materials.
It is therefore not yet biodegradable and not recyclable, which does not make it our favorite outsider at the moment. However, it is still in its development phase and we are sure that the firm is already working on more sustainable alternatives.
Jacron Paper or Papertex
This vegetable leather comes a bit at the end of the article because it is far from the usual leather manufacturing processes despite its use in similar fields.
Jacron is a composite material composed mainly of wood pulp and was first thought in the 1980s as an alternative to labels, especially on jeans.
It is a vegan, environmentally friendly product that offers good water resistance and has proven over time to be a viable product, despite low market penetration. It can be easily worked, both in terms of dyeing and embossing processes.
Today it is mainly used in the textile industry but also in the shoe industry, luggage and other small leather goods accessories.
Mirum Leather | Natural Fiber Welding
We wanted to finish this presentation (not exhaustive) by the Mirum vegan leather because it is according to us, one of the most promising innovations in the field of vegan leather.
This product is developed by Natural Fiber Welding and is an innovative technological product, mixing cork, hemp, and even coconut to create a biodegradable composite, offering a rather incredible resemblance to real leather.
This material offers all the characteristics of leather and can be customized in color, shape and texture according to the needs of brands. Its dyeing is done with non-toxic mineral pigments and vegetable dyes.
This alternative is interesting because it does not contain chemicals, the binder, usually polyurethane, has been replaced by latex from the forest industry. This material is therefore composed neither of leather nor plastic, which places it at the top of the ranking of ethical and sustainable alternatives. However, we will have to wait for the evolution of this product to see where its price fits in.
Real Leather without Animals
Well, we are at the end of the article and we want to be a little teasing by opening this debate. We still know too little about the complete life cycle analysis of natural alternatives, these products being relatively recent and untested. As such, there is still time to explore other alternatives.
What about cultured or organic leather made in the lab using animal stem cells? Some start-ups are very interested in this, such as Modern Meadow in the United States, which uses yeast and collagen to create real leather, without ever endangering the life of an animal. The advantage of this alternative (apart from its "cruelty-free" aspect), is that it is possible to develop precisely the leather desired by the customer in advance, in terms of thickness, color, grain etc.
According to the first estimates, its price would be similar to the premium leathers used by the luxury houses, and would thus enter a very restricted and exclusive market. Its price could go down over time, if the public adopts it and if the brand achieves economies of scale.
However, some may ask: why rack our brains looking for ever more energy-intensive and unethical solutions when nature already provides the necessary alternatives? We'll let you discuss it in the comments!
There is always something to reproach to a material or a product. If you use leather, you pollute and you kill animals, if you use synthetic leather, you pollute too and if you use natural vegan leather, you take the people down by proposing overpriced finished products, inaccessible to the majority of the population. Great debate.
The leather industry is polluting, to deny it would be to hide from it. However, the excessive consumption of meat and leather products of poor quality, treated with products that are harmful to the environment and health, is the real problem in our eyes (as non-vegans). We feel it is important to encourage the development of these natural alternatives, while detaching them from the leather industry (which they are not), to create a healthier eco-system, whose product prices would also reflect the cost and impact of this product on the environment.
If you've made it this far, congratulations! Much has been written but the subject is vast and complicated to present, as it can be so divisive. So yes, presenting vegan leather on a site selling leather products, it may seem absurd. But it seemed important to us to present this subject to our readers, because we are entirely for a diversification of products, as we are for the free choice of everyone.
In any case, don't hesitate to send us your remarks in the comments. We can wait to read them!
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