People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) loudly proclaims that vegan leather is pretty much the new black. It’s cool, it’s ethical, and it goes with everything.
Vegan leather, which is not real leather at all, has been around since the 19th century when enterprising Germans made a version of artificial leather out of paper pulp.
Typical names for the various types of artificial leather are:
- Vegan leather
- Faux leather
- PU leather
WHAT IS VEGAN LEATHER?
Vegan leather is created from non-animal sources. Nowadays, vegan leathers are mostly sourced from textile-polymer composite microfibers, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyurethane, although a few are made from kelp or cork. Some varieties are also produced from glazed cotton.
While on the surface it seems like vegan leather is a good alternative to using animal hide leathers, the truth is much more complicated.
Proponents of vegan leathers claim using non-animal sources to create leather-like products is the perfect answer to an ethical question posed by animal slaughter.
However, how ethical are vegan leathers and how durable is vegan leather, really? You decide.
WHAT IS VEGAN LEATHER USED FOR?
Before we delve into how vegan leathers are produced, let’s take a look at the many ways they are used in place of authentic leather. Vegan leather can be substituted for just about anything traditional leather is used for, excepting hard-use items like saddles.
Fashion designers like Stella McCartney and Hugo Boss are creating lines of clothing and accessories that use vegan leathers exclusively. There are lines of footwear, handbags, backpacks, and many other items that utilize this man-made material, and the trend toward increased use of vegan leathers is continuing.
Because it is man-made, vegan leather can be created in any color — or shade — of the rainbow and in a variety of textures, from faux crocodile or ostrich to shiny patent or even glitter-infused styles.
This level of versatility makes vegan leathers very useful in the fashion industry, where trends are constantly on the move. Designers are limited only by their imaginations, as nearly any color or texture of vegan leather can be manufactured according to customer preference.
However, it’s important to note that vegan leather is not as timeless as traditional leather, having more of a trendy vibe. It also does not wear as well, deteriorating in shape and substance at a much quicker rate than traditional leather.
Because it is mass-produced, vegan leathers don’t have the timeless, artisanal quality that attracts buyers to traditional leather. While some vegan leathers work hard to maintain a conventional leather look or feel, others don’t try to hide their origins, looking much like the colored plastic they are.
HOW VEGAN LEATHER IS MADE
Most vegan leather is made from plastic or petroleum-based synthetics, although very rarely they are manufactured from natural sources such as cotton, cork, or tree bark.
To make a polyurethane leather, a polyurethane coating is applied to a base fabric. A color coat is added once this process is completed, and then a texture is pressed into the top surface to finish it off.
The manufacture and disposal of at least one of these components, PVC-based synthetics, produces the toxic and volatile compound dioxin. Dioxin, which can be found in the anatomy of most humans and animals nowadays, has been found to increase cancer risk.
Because vegan leathers don’t fully biodegrade like natural products, they can produce microparticles that enter the food and water chain by being ingested by sea creatures and animals.
As it begins to break down, vegan leather pours phthalates into the environment, which are known carcinogens, hormone disruptors, and can cause breathing problems and birth defects.
CHOOSING VEGAN LEATHER WISELY
If you decide to take a chance on a vegan leather product, try to select items that have been created from natural resources, such as bark, cork, or even pineapples.
You read that right - pineapples can be made into leather.
A company called Pinatex has discovered a way to take the waste products from pineapple farming and create a sustainable, durable alternative to traditional leather.
The owner of the company, Carmen Hijosa, estimates that 50 percent of the world’s leather demand could be met using pineapple farming waste from the top 10 pineapple-producing countries.
The only current problem with this forward-thinking product is its considerable cost. A jacket made from the revolutionary fabric was priced at a whopping $860 in 2018. Hopefully, as more people become aware of this source, that cost will decrease, making the product available to a wider audience.
While traditional leather is infinitely more durable, beautiful, and long-lived than its vegan counterparts, there may be a place for ethically-sourced vegan leather in the manufacture of limited-use or trendy items in the coming years.