Is ‘Vegan’ Leather Worse for the Environment Than Real Leather?

·8 min read

Given the outsized greenhouse gas emissions, the chemical toxins in processing or the ethical concerns with industrial agriculture as it relates to leather production, cruelty-free leather alternatives, today dubbed “vegan leather” are rising in appeal.

What Exactly Is Vegan Leather?

Vegan, as an adjective means “eating, using, or containing no food or other products derived from animals,” per Oxford Dictionary, thus vegan leather is that which bypasses animal origins and mimics the aesthetics and feel of leather — right?

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“Vegan leather has come to define a wide range of materials. It’s more of a category than one specific product or method,” Joshua Katcher, author and Collective Fashion Justice board member, told WWD. Drawing reference to his book, “Fashion Animals” (2019), he said “as early as the 1800s there were ads in London magazines advertising imitation leather as ‘substitutes for humanitarians’ [that were] ‘made entirely of vegetable matter.'”

By his book, Katcher said vegan leather typically refers to something that “has the look, feel and performance of tanned animal skins for use in footwear, belts, bags and other typical leather goods,” including anything from polyurethane microfiber suede, mycelium (mushroom root) sheets, leather grown from skin cells, coffee grounds, cactus, pineapple, embossed cork (to mimic reptile skin) and so on.

“These technologies are gaining momentum, sophistication and scale and I imagine that in the next five to 10 years there will be entirely biodegradable, plant-based and cell-based leathers that will outperform conventional animal skins in every category including sustainability, performance and customization,” he added.

Like other sustainability gray areas, vegan leather doesn’t have a clear-cut definition save for necessary trade disclosure as “imitation leather products,” as is the case within the U.S.

How Vegan Leather Stacks Up

Whatever you choose to call it, vegan leather has been around for a while with many varieties, at that. To evaluate how vegan leather stacks up, it’s important to take stock of the existing variations and those coming to market and the nuances therein.

First, there’s pleather — and then there’s everything else.

“The vast majority of ‘vegan’ materials are plastic-based, even when they say they are plant-based because of the binder in use,” said Steven D. Lange, director of the Leather Research Laboratory at the University of Cincinnati. “Only materials that are sourced from the hide or skin of an animal should be called leather.”

Today, the market is consumed by pleather which often slaps plastic uppers like polyurethane or polyvinyl chloride (which contains dangerous chemical additives like chlorine, phthalates and lead) onto oil-derived nylon, acrylic or polyester textile backings. Plant fibers (from apple, pineapple and cactus but not altogether free of plastic) and cell-cultured leather (increasingly mycelium root which, again, may not be scourged of plastic) are becoming popular as consumer awareness grows.

It’s a case of brand names galore when it comes to the pursuit of next-gen leather alternatives.

On the fruity side, Vegea employs wine grape waste, Desserto boasts cactus fiber origins and Piñatex is made from agricultural pineapple waste. Each is vegan and rejects the toxic chemicals used in conventional leather processing but sustainability indicators differ depending on what tests and certifications have been pursued as well as the present scale.

Early life cycle assessments from Desserto have shown its cactus leather has a 500 percent lower eutrophication impact (or the over-enrichment of nutrients in habitats) compared to animal leather, and 10 percent lower than synthetic leather. With millions of tonnes of agricultural waste from the global pineapple and wine industries each year, companies like Vegea Srl and Piñatex-maker Ananas Anam aim to take a stab at waste with a cost-effective textile.

However, it’s not all rosy yet.

When stacked up to leather, some studies, like that of the Filk Freiberg Institute, found the materials came up short to leather’s universal performance (meaning you could end up replacing vegan leather garments more frequently) and even uncovered a number of trace restricted substances including butanone oxime (used in paints and potentially carcinogenic).

Then there’s mycelium root. In plain speak, “mushroom leather,” or mycelium leather that is grown to shape and mimics animal hide in hand without the cruelty, is a cause for hope among conscious consumers.

Mylo is one buzzy entrant on the mycelium front being tapped by brands like Adidas and Lululemon to bring Mylo-based products to market in 2022. The material is grown and harvested in under two weeks by California-based biotech company Bolt Threads.

While not free of plastic and not biodegradable, Mylo is certified bio-based and nontoxic.

“On the Mylo side, the demand is clearly there for the consumer and for the brands looking to make good on their ESG mandates,” Dan Widmaier, founder and chief executive officer of Bolt Threads, said in an earlier interview with WWD. “We become very focused on a handful of materials. Everyone would use it today if I could give them enough today.”

The problem is mushroom leathers are still catching up to demand, but perhaps the lag time gives existing industries the opportunity to transition and innovate in line with the times.

Widmaier pointed to how companies like Dupont have evolved over time and stayed relevant, entering ag tech spaces. “I would hope that [existing industries are] part of the solution. There’s a lot of externalities that are driving this,” he said.

These leather externalities include the immense greenhouse gas emissions, water use and deforestation rates associated with cattle ranching.

“Bellroy is a brand that started with leather and we’ve done everything we can to try and make leather better, we’ve worked on animal welfare, we’ve worked on effluent sustainability…but we’re not wedded to leather,” Andy Fallshaw, CEO and head designer at leather goods start-up Bellroy, said in a press release explaining the brand’s departure from animal leather. “The reason we haven’t used synthetic leathers previously is that they come with this whole other bundle of problems,” particularly, related to petrochemical inputs.

On Wednesday, the brand released a leather-free mini sling bag teaming, again, with another promising mycelium alternative: Natural Fiber Welding’s “Mirum,” which is a welded 100 percent natural, plastic-free and certified BioPreferred plant-based leather alternative boasting investments from brands like Allbirds and Ralph Lauren Corp.

Mirum comes from a slurry of raw materials like cork, coconut, vegetable oil and natural rubber. The material is never coated in polyurethane or PVC, and is fully biodegradable with a 40 percent lower carbon impact than traditional leather, per the company’s assessments. In addition to having a low carbon footprint, Mirum requires no water during manufacturing and dyeing.

The move shows how brands — once very attached to leather — are considering alternatives.

Why It Matters

In the world of fashion, Stella McCartney, Adidas, Allbirds, Hermès, Gucci, H&M, Karl Lagerfeld, Reformation, Ralph Lauren and Fossil, among others, have dipped into the vegan leather field by way of investments or capsules.

In all, the global synthetic leather market was valued around $46.7 billion in 2020 and is projected to be worth $89.6 billion in the next five years, or a 48.1 percent increase over time, according to estimates from Bangalore-based tech solutions company Infinitum Global.

Next-gen leather alternatives seek to challenge the ethical concerns of leather and the plastic concerns of pleather. A June report from nonprofit The Material Innovation Initiative found next-gen vegan leather alternatives could command $2.2 billion in value a year by 2026 (although still minor in comparison to plastic’s prevalence).

According to a U.S. consumer study released in April from MII and consulting firm North Mountain Consulting Group, more than half of the 519 individuals surveyed preferred a “leather alternative,” defined as acrylic/polyester, plant fibers or cell-cultured.

The survey was part of a broader report that peered behind those vegan leather motivators. According to the report, the top three traits associated with alternative leather were that the materials are believed to be “good for animals,” “affordable” and “appealing.”

Like it or not, Emma Hakansson, founding director of Collective Fashion Justice, explained that “as people begin to realize the interconnected harms caused by animal-derived material supply chains — they are seeking alternatives” that value the planet, people and animals. With a series of proprietary reports, the advocacy organization is bent on exposing the social, environmental and animal exploitation in industries like leather, wool and fur.

The Transition to Vegan

While vegan leather still has some cleaning up to do, its category represents vast potential, especially for vegan-conscious consumers.

As more vegan-catered products and innovations flood the market, experts support asking questions on comparable material impact and performance, labor, scale and product end of life or biodegradability — and seeing which tradeoffs one can live with.

With millions of people employed around the world in leather goods and footwear, and billions of square feet of leather produced each year, there’s a significant environmental and human impact ripe for responsible retooling.

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