Lately, I’ve been digging deep into the world of sustainable and eco-friendly fabrics, and to be fully honest; I can't stop thinking about it.
As someone who cares deeply about sustainable fashion, I am constantly looking for good alternatives to fabrics that currently harm or may harm our environment. During my hunt, I’ve come across faux vegan leather more than once.
Leather is one of the most traditional materials in the history of clothing. Still, it has also been one of the most controversial due to its obvious link to the very unethical and not at all eco-friendly meat industry. This is when vegan faux leather makes its appearance, but… Is it really more eco-friendly or sustainable than its infamous counterpart? Let's find out!
Vegan leather. What is it, exactly?
Vegan leather is mainly defined by what it doesn’t include: animal skin.
Vegan leather is an alternative to traditional leather that is manufactured from synthetic materials or natural resources. Since 1920 it seeks to mimic the appearance and texture of conventional leather, but without involving any animals during its production.
The first company to make a type of vegan leather was the U.S. Rubber Company, which called their innovation "Naugahyde.” Made out of vinyl, at the time, faux leather was mainly used in handbags. However, today different types of vegan leather can be used in jackets, handbags, shoes, book covers, and more.
Is Faux Vegan Leather Eco-Friendy? Or Is vegan leather worse for the environment than real leather?
It's not fair saying that vegan faux leather is wholly eco-friendly nor that it's not eco-friendly at all, as it depends on what it's made from. There are types of vegan leather that can be just as bad for the environment as its traditional counterpart, more on that later, but others are genuinely eco-friendly.
Is vegan leather more sustainable than real leather?
The meat industry, where most leather comes from, has been one of the largest polluters ever. It's responsible for approximately 14.5% of all global greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s worth noting that it not only pollutes the air but also contaminates waterways with chromium and other highly toxic chemicals when processing and curing leather. It can even generate health problems in both workers (underpaid, as well) and nearby communities.
While it's clear that traditional leather wreaks havoc on our environment, there are vegan leathers that have a questionable sustainability record, to say the least. Most alternatives to conventional leather are made from petroleum-based plastics, and we already know how unsustainable the petroleum industry and everything that comes out of it is. However, nowadays, vegan leather alternatives are more sustainable than the "real" thing, don't involve nasty plastics, and don't pollute our precious natural resources.
Is vegan leather ethical?
It's no secret that most of the meat industry doesn't have a shred of ethics, especially when it comes to leather production. This is where the worst cruelty of the human being rises to the surface. Particularly taking into account that leather is not only made from cowhides, where leather is usually (not always) a by-product of the meat industry, but also from exotic animals such as snakes, ostriches, and crocodiles.
Vegan leather, however, is quite the opposite. It mimics the feel and look of leather but is cruelty-free and therefore absolutely ethical. This alternative offers us good quality without spilling a single drop of animal blood.
What is vegan leather made from?
Now that we know what vegan leather isn't made from, what is vegan leather made of? Well, this question has different answers.
For several years, synthetic leather was basically PVC or PU, i.e., plastic. The good news is that today there are innovative, both ethical and sustainable alternatives that have nothing to envy to those marked as "real leather.”
Would you believe me if I told you that one of those alternatives has something to do with wine? I swear it's true! But before getting to that peculiar alternative, let's take a look at others that are just as interesting.
5 Sustainable Vegan Leather Alternatives
Faux Vegan Leather Made by Frutmat (Apple Skin Leather)
Born in Italy, this innovative bio-based alternative created in 2008 by Frutmat sends waste from the apple juice and apple compote industry (peels and cores) to a new destination: notebooks, handbags, and even running shoes.
By recovering these wastes, Frutmat manages to prevent them from decomposing, thus avoiding the emission of methane gas, one of the many causes of environmental pollution.
Brands like Veerah use this faux vegan leather in their shoes.
Vegan leather made from Piñatex
Where Frutmat is apple leather, Piñatex is pineapple leather, and both can be described with just one word: revolutionary.
Piñatex is vegan leather made from the fiber of pineapple leaves. For many, it's the future of eco-friendly fashion.
This innovative product promises to be one of the most sustainable and eco-friendly vegan leather materials because it requires no water, fertilizers, or additional land for its production and also reuses something that would traditionally be discarded or burned. But its eco-benefits don't stop there; after processing Piñatex, biomass remains as a residue, which can be used as fertilizer. Nothing is wasted here!
From clothing to shoes, furniture, and even car upholstery, Piñatex represents a revolutionary project that has already captivated several world-famous brands such as Hugo Boss and international designers such as Ally Capellino and sustainable sneaker brands such as EcoAlf and Po-Zu.
Unfortunately, some brands cover the leather in non-biodegradable resins to increase its durability. Still, we hope this will change in the future.
Vegan leather made from cork
Known for its use in bottle stoppers, cork is, for many, the best material to produce vegan leather thanks to its versatility and resistance, as well as its responsibility to the environment.
Cork comes from the bark of the cork tree, which is periodically stripped in sections. This process avoids the deforestation of cork forests. It even helps to encourage the regeneration process of the bark, increasing the tree's lifespan, thus making cork leather a super sustainable material.
With an infinite variety of products such as wallets, shoes, summer sandals, belts, and bags, cork-based leather is a highly versatile material. It's also waterproof, lightweight, and recyclable. What more could you ask for?
Vegan leather made from wine
This is not a drill. Vegan leather made from wine exists. Yes, you may be surprised right now. I was too when I first read about this, but hear me out: Italy, a leading wine exporter, has managed to turn its waste into high-value raw material for the creation of VEGEA, a completely vegetable vegan leather.
An architect named Gianpiero Tessitore, after realizing the potential of fake leather made from wine began to study and research for years the physical properties of vegetable fibers to see their ability to transform into an eco-friendly and anti-cruelty material. This is how in 2016, he began VEGEA's production.
Made out of grape skins and seeds left over after winemaking, VEGEA is an authentic eco vegan leather. It doesn't involve harmful chemicals, wasted water, or injured animals. This innovative approach shows us that we are yet to discover new alternatives to counteract environmental destruction. These alternatives can come from the most unexpected source.
Surprisingly, H&M announced early last year that they would be launching a collection made from this vegan leather.
Vegan faux leather made from mushroom
If you already thought that wine leather was unique, here is another potential flagship of sustainable fashion. Mylo uses the caps of the Phellinus ellipsoideus mushroom to create a beautiful vegan leather material. Who knew that the fungi kingdom could earn a spot in the world of fabrics?
Made by US biotechnology company Bolt Threads, Mylo is a vegan leather that has the potential to replace animal and plastic leather thanks to its sustainability and biodegradability. It can grow in small spaces, doesn't need to be treated with toxic chemicals, has antibacterial properties, and feels softer than traditional leather.
Nowadays, several products are made from this type of vegan leather, such as clothing, bags, and sofa upholstery, among others. In fact, Stella McCartney was the first designer to create a clothing line made with Mylo.
The not so environmentally-friendly vegan leathers
Vegan leather made from Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC or Vinyl)
PVC is the cheapest way to produce vegan leather, but its negative impact on the environment costs a lot.
Polyvinyl chloride leather is a type of faux leather made by altering vinyl, a flexible plastic resin, to the desired texture, color, and shape to suit different leather products. And it couldn't be more harmful to our mother earth.
Greenpeace has described this plastic as the most harmful to the environment. This is not surprising since its entire lifecycle (production, use, and disposal) results in the release of dangerous, toxic chemicals that can lead to health problems like immune system damage and even cancer. Oh, and to top it off, it pollutes bodies of water and generates tons of waste in landfills since it isn't biodegradable. Yuck!
Yes, vegan leather made from PVC is very durable and versatile, but… Is it really worth it? If your approach is all things sustainable, we don't think so.
Vegan leather made from Polyurethane (PU)
Currently, the most commonly used material for making vegan faux leather is PU (Polyurethane), which is not as toxic as its PVC sibling but is still plastic.
Vegan leather made from PU is derived from a petroleum-based polymer. Although it doesn't release as many harmful substances when used or disposed of as PVC, it's still petroleum-based and is still manufactured with solvents. There are solvent-free and water-based alternatives, but most manufacturers don't make that type of PU.
Vegan Leather FAQ
Is Vegan Leather good quality?
Vegan leather can come in different standards of quality. This rule also applies to traditional leather. Different leather manufacturers have different ways of processing it. While some may remain in excellent condition for decades, others don't.
However, we won't lie to you; fake leather tends to be cheaper than the genuine leather and generally has a shorter lifespan due to its thinness and composition. Plastic-based leathers will last about two to five years, and some plant-based leathers also will, but there are others that will last even less time. But with reasonable care, like everything else in life, their durability can be improved.
Is Vegan leather just pleather?
With the rise of various types of faux leather, debates have arisen as to whether pleather or vegan leather is the same thing.
Some people say they are indeed the same thing, just with a more "eco-friendly" name. Other people say the difference is that pleather is made of plastic, whereas vegan leather doesn't necessarily have to be. At the end of the day, it can mean the same thing, but to me, the term “pleather” fits synthetic leather the most.
Is Vegan Leather more expensive?
Not at all. As I stated above, vegan leather will always be cheaper than most traditional leather products, even if it has the best quality. This is because most of the materials used to make vegan leather are more affordable than those used in traditional leather.
Does vegan leather crack?
Depending on the material, if you expose it to sunlight for long periods of time, if you stretch it constantly, or don't take care of it properly, your vegan leather product will crack. Particularly if it is made of plastic, those tend to perform slightly worse than items made out of plant-based leather.
Is there a difference between vegan leather and faux leather?
Vegan leather and faux leather have zero differences between each other as they are the same thing. Faux leather is vegan by itself due to the fact that it’s not made from animal skins.
However, it wasn't until a decade ago that the term "vegan leather" began to gain popularity. Around 2010, the term spread in the fashion world as several well-known vegan fashion designers such as Stella McCartney began creating clothing and accessories with faux leather. As these designers advocated for an ethical and vegan lifestyle, the mainstream scene began to associate the word "vegan" with that type of leather. Prior to this, vegan leather was only known as "faux leather".
Also, it’s worth noting that there are manufacturers who label bonded leather as "faux leather". Bonded leather is a mixture of both real and faux leather, so it doesn't really fit into the fake leather category. Be careful when shopping, don’t let them fool you!
Is Vegan leather just plastic?
Most vegan faux leather is made out of plastic, but all types of vegan leather aren’t just plastic. Each year more and more sustainable materials are emerging, which helps to reduce the leather industry’s dependence on plastic.
Is vegan leather waterproof?
The good side of purchasing plastic-based vegan leather is that, in most cases, it is waterproof. On the other hand, not all leathers made from organic materials are waterproof, but there are vegan, eco-friendly alternatives that are indeed waterproof, such as cork-based leather.
Remember when you’re out shopping, not all vegan leather is created equal in the eco-friendly, sustainability, and ethical departments
If your priority is to avoid animal cruelty at all costs, all faux leather is for you. But if you also want to preserve the environment, remember that not all vegan leather is created equal in the eco-friendly, sustainable, and ethical departments.
While no vegan leather is perfect, alternatives like VEGEA or Piñatex take plastics and fossil fuel out of the equation and present themselves as both eco-friendly and ethical alternatives. But although these alternatives are slowly entering the mainstream scene, most of the companies that manufacture them are small and produce a limited amount of vegan leather.
However, it's an industry that still has a long way to grow and evolve, so we'll surely see improvements in their production and composition sooner rather than later. The future of sustainable vegan leather looks bright, and we're here for it.
What type of vegan leather did you like the most? Do you have other suggestions that we can add in a future post?
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