What is Vegan Leather? + Eco-Friendly Vegan Leather Alternatives

can a brand be sustainable by using virgin plastics

Vegan leather is a material that imitates leather but it is created from artificial or plant products instead of animal skin. Vegan leather is often made from polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), however, it can also be made from innovative and sustainable materials such as pineapple leaves, mushroom, cork, apple peels, other fruit waste, and recycled plastic.

This article is not intended to give moral lessons to anyone, but to give an overview of how brands are using the term veganism to boost their sales, the impact of leather and vegan leather alternatives that are on the rise, as well as the impact of plastic and its recycled version.

I would like to raise my voice here to shed some light on the materials and fabrics used in the fashion industry. I encourage any brand to be more transparent with their businesses and make public the composition of their products on their website. And please, we are tired of hearing ‘vegan leather’ when in some cases it is simply a synthetic product and should be called as it is. Veganism is more than just a ‘plant-based diet.’

The impact of leather

Buying leather directly contributes to factory farms and slaughterhouses because skin is the most economically important coproduct in the meat industry. It’s a fact that factory farming has a huge impact on the planet and leather shares responsibility for all the environmental destruction caused by the meat industry as well as the pollution caused by the toxins used in tanning.

When the milk production of cows in the dairy industry declines, their skin is made into leather. Leather production is linked to serious sustainability issues and has severe environmental impact such as land overuse, gas emissions, deforestation and water. 

The process of turning skin into leather is very cruel to animals. Most leather produced and sold is made from the skins of cattle and calves. The skins of unborn calves and lambs – some purposely aborted, others from slaughtered pregnant cows and ewes – are considered a ‘luxury.’ Leather is also made from sheep, pigs, goats and other species hunted and killed specifically for their skins such as kangaroos, elephants, crocodiles or snakes, among others. 

Above all, studies have shown that the toxic groundwater near tanneries has caused health problems for residents in surrounding areas. According to the World Bank, the process of fur dressing is so problematic that it’s ranked as one of the world’s worst industries for toxic metal pollution. And many die of cancer possibly caused by exposure to toxic chemicals used to process and dye leather.

Is leather or vegan leather better for the environment?

First of all, I personally think it’s ok to wear leather, suede, silk, etc., as long as you’re comfortable with it, even though I follow a vegan diet, especially when we are talking about using things we already own. If you only have one jacket in your wardrobe and it’s made of leather, I don’t see the point of donating or selling it just to buy another one when you don’t mind wearing it. The most sustainable item you have is the one that is already in your wardrobe. However, just avoid buying new leather clothes.

itslauracano Laagam vegan boots 1
Boots from Laagam (I wear them almost every day). I didn’t know that vegan leather could be made of plastic at the time.

As we’ve stated, some vegan leather is made from plant-based materials, while others are created from artificial products. Itslava or Laagam, for example, use vegan leather that’s polyurethane-based, which is basically a plastic material. Brands such as the ones mentioned below, in addition to using eco-friendly vegan leather, also offer great transparency in terms of composition on their website.

Personally, the inclusion of these artificial products to justify that a brand is sustainable, and therefore its high price, does not seem sufficient to me. Sustainable fashion includes garment workers and being environmentally friendly.

The environmental impact of producing vegan leather is lower than real leather but… can a brand be sustainable by using virgin plastics? It doesn’t sound good to me. Especially when plastic is still an issue, no matter how we look at it.

What is the difference between ‘virgin’ and ‘recycled’ plastics?

Whatever I say next will not meet the expectations of many because it is a complex subject and I want to make this blog accessible to everyone, but I promise to do a future post about it.

Virgin Plastic: is the direct resin produced from a petrochemical feedstock, such as natural gas or crude oil, which has never been used or processed before.

Recycled or also called Post-Consumer Recycled Resin (PCR): as the name suggests is made from used plastic. Since this plastic is made from used trash, new fossil fuels are not required, which prevents further pollution and pilling up garbage landfills.

There has been a lot of debate over the benefits of using recycled plastic over new or ‘virgin’ plastic. Products made of recycled plastic are not as good as they want us to believe. There is no doubt about how beneficial recycled plastic is for the environment, however, here are some cons of recycled plastic that we all should keep in mind before buying anything:

  • Plastic can only be recycled 2-3 times.
  • Once the plastic has been through the recycling process 2-3 times, the material is so weak that it’s not useful anymore, at least until they add new virgin plastic to the material.
  • Not all plastic types can be recycled together.
  • Some plastics can’t even be recycled at all.

Recycled Plastic VS ‘Virgin’ Plastic: Which is really better for our environment?

Plastics never go away. Plastic is based on a fossil material that won’t ever biodegrade, it will simply break down into smaller and smaller pieces – aka microplastic.

This is one of the things that saddens me the most now that I am trying harder to learn more about sustainable living: every piece of plastic I’ve ever used still exists in some shape or form. And yes… that’s terrifying.

The difficulties of recycling plastic is a big reason why the world is littered with so much plastic waste. And while recycled plastic may still be the better choice compared to virgin plastic, only the United States landfilled 27 million tons of plastic and recycled a mere 3 million, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. And of the 6.3 billion tons of plastic that have been discarded around the world, only about 9 per cent WAS recycled. 

As you can see, not because it is recycled plastic, it’s actually ok and we can keep on consuming like crazy. Recycling is just a short-term answer to the problem of plastic waste. There are a lot of challenges when it comes to recycling plastic. So, any alternative to our dependence on plastic is a welcome step in the right direction.

Eco-Friendly Vegan Leather Alternatives

With so many great alternatives to fur, leather, and wool available, there’s no reason to wear the fleece, fur or skin of any animal. If you want to stop using leather but would like to know more about environmentally and ethically conscious options, and brands that are shifting away from traditional leather alternatives like PVC, read on – do you know any others?:

Piñatex

Piñatex is made of fibre from the leaves of the pineapple plant which can be used as an alternative to leather and other synthetic materials. These leaves are discarded from the pineapple harvest, so it doesn’t require additional environmental resources to produce.

I discovered Piñatex quite recently, and I have to admit that it made me feel especially proud to find out that Piñatex was created by Dr. Carmen Hijosa, a brilliant ethical entrepreneur originally from Spain. If you would like to know more about her and where the journey of Piñatex began, don’t hesitate to visit Ananas Anam’s website.

Styling Brands Using Piñatex in their Designs

*If you use the following code LAURACANO15, you get a 15% discount and I get a small commission. The watches are super beautiful and I’m sure you will love them. It would be great if you use it to support my work! It will only be available for a few weeks.

Cork

Cork is a natural product that doesn’t harm trees. Cork is known for being waterproof and super durable. You will only find cork oak trees in the Mediterranean area, North Africa and Portugal. As cork is so waterproof and sturdy, cork bags are super versatile, especially for storing your laptop or other electronics.

Vegan Accessories Brands that use Cork

Cactus Leather

Cactus leather is made from the sun-dried fibres of cactus plants in Mexico. Only the mature leaves of the cactus are removed to produce the fibre. Cactus Leather is flexible, hard-wearing, water-resistant and beautiful. The cactus leather can be used to make anything traditional cow leather would be used for.

Vegan Brands Using Cactus Leather

Apple Leather

A sustainable, ethical leather alternative made from apples? Yes, you have read that right. I heard about this vegan leather alternative when Marta Canga first introduced me to the brand Minuit Sur Terre and their amazingly stylish bags made from apple leather. 

I know what you are thinking right now…  It seemed crazy to me too at the time… Apple leather is produced from the waste of the apple juice industry (apple peels and cores) that is developed into a new raw material.

Vegan Apple Leather Bags and Shoes

Grape Leather

Wine leather, also called grape leather, is made from the vinicultural waste from grapes. Grape leather is soft, smooth, stable, impermeable, 100% sustainable and can be recycled. In addition, wine leather has a low production cost and does not waste water.

Eco-Friendly Accessories Made From Wine Leather

Mushroom Leather

A type of mushroom leather called Mylo is now a sustainable and environmentally friendly alternative to animal leather made from mycelium, the vegetative part of a fungus. Mylo doesn’t involve raising and sacrificing livestock, or generating material wastes. As Mylo is made from organic matter, mushroom leather is completely biodegradable and non-toxic.

Brands like Stella McCartney, Hermès or Adidas are betting hard on this renewable, sustainable alternative to leather. Mushroom leather is at a very early stage being Stella McCartney the first designer to launch leather clothing grown from mushrooms.

So, is there any such thing as sustainable vegan leather?

Looking at all the eco-friendly vegan leather alternatives here, I find myself learning towards independent vegan leather brands as better options when it comes to top-down sustainability. It’s great to see that big brands such as Adidas are moving towards a more sustainable future, using less plastic and fewer animal materials. We cannot ignore that Adidas is the second-largest activewear brand in the world and is something to celebrate. 

However, one area where Adidas has a long way to go is ensuring workers in its supply chain are paid a living wage. Knowing Adidas had a 6% sales growth to $23.6 billion last year, I prefer to support other smaller brands that care about the environment at the same time as the people who work for them.

I’m aware that these brands are slightly pricer than the average kick, but when you consider the alternative – paying with your future rather than your cash – it’s tempting.

And you? What’s your position on this topic? I’m looking forward to reading your comments!

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