Vegan leather goes by many monikers; faux leather, pleather, leatherette, alternative leather and synthetic leather. It’s easy to assume that ‘vegan leather’ is the most commonly used on the labels of our clothes due to its moralistic connotations. The growing adoption of vegan leather in the accessories, ready-to-wear, and luxury fashion market has been a watershed moment for those living with the dichotomy of loving leather while equally concerned with the welfare of animals.
The global vegan leather market is predicted to be worth a staggering $85 billion within the next decade. As a relatively new material, vegan leather sits towards the top of an industry riddled by inconsistency, irregularity and ambiguity. It is made under a range of methods from even more sources, both natural and synthetic. Not all vegan leathers are created equal.
This is Part II of our Leather Diptych. It’s impossible to talk about vegan leather without covering what it is an alternative for, animal leather, most commonly made from the skin of cows. Part I covered the challenges and our advice for shopping real leather sustainably and ethically. Now, for Part II, we discuss its vegan alternative.
As we covered in our leather learning, the reasons for brands and consumers opting out of real leather are multifaceted; the material poses issues concerning animal welfare, human rights and the wellbeing of our planet. Real fur has been all but cancelled; meanwhile, leather has been a slower fade. Leather is less explicit, meaning consumers are able to divorce the material from its animal source. However, in recent years, stringent laws regarding the production and usage of real leather are propelling the demand for its synthetic counterpart. Animal rights lobbying from groups like PETA and WWF has also increased consumer and industry discomfort with real leather.
From Stella McCartney, cult-favourite Telfar, to Bianca Spender, many luxury brands have taken an unwavering stance against the use of real leather in their designs. Australian designer Bianca Spender explains that animal rights and environmental concerns were key factors in the label’s decision to use vegan leather.
“Our focus as a business has always been on ethical practices, and I’m always seeking change to make sure people and our planet come first. Our core focus is on reducing the impact of climate change through the reduction of our carbon footprint. Our decision to use leatherette has been influenced by the environmental impacts the meat industry has on the Earth, and animal welfare is also a part of it.”
Those working within the fashion industry are starting to see the advantages of utilising vegan alternatives. Its application is getting nearer to genuine leather, replacing its use in crafting handbags, briefcases, car furnishings and clothing at a pacing rate. Synthetic leather materials offer some superior properties, such as a high gloss finish, durability, strength, UV resistance, and easy maintenance. Paired with the lower cost of producing animal-free goods, with an estimated one-third of the cost of leather, it’s also more accessible to everyday consumers.
However, when assessing the credentials of synthetic leather, we need to look at its raw properties and how it’s made. Simply swapping out leather for any vegan alternative does not solve all the problems of the leather industry. Yes, animal welfare issues no longer stand, but the material a designer chooses can significantly alter the vegan leather garment's carbon footprint and environmental impact.
A vast majority of vegan leather on the market is made from the plastic polymers most commonly used due to their wrinkled texture, which helps to give the effect of real leather. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) is a widely used plastic polymer because of its affordability. It is a material you’ll commonly find in cheap leather products. The plastic is softened with chemicals called plasticisers, and PVC is made with approximately 57% chloride and 43% carbons, which comes from oil, gas or petrol. Being predominantly made with fossil fuels and heavy chemical treatments, PVC poses severe environmental issues.
Increasingly preferred by the fashion industry is Polyurethane (PU), which is less sticky and can retain body heat. PU is made with a more regulated chemical process and biodegrades faster than PVC, which can take upwards of 500 years to decompose. Even then, PVC breaks down into micro-beads which get washed into our oceans.
For this reason, It’s been argued that vegan leather is worse than using real leather, which is a natural textile that biodegrades. But this does fail to consider the ways leather contributes to climate change, land devastation, pollution and water contamination (all of which we covered in Part I of our Leather Diptych). Marked skin and the irregular shape of animal hides can also mean 20 to 30 per cent of animal skins go to waste, something vegan leather prevents. The 2018 Environmental Profit & Loss report by Kering states that the impact of vegan leather production can be up to a third lower than real leather.
Many designers, including our labels Bianca Spender and Strateas Carlucci, are choosing to use remnant or recycled plastic polymers to tackle animal rights and sustainability issues. Bianca explains that,
“One of the biggest environmental impacts of the fashion industry is the production of raw materials. We incorporate remnant fabrics where possible and as the first port of call. 50% of the fabrics we use across the range are remnants, which have been overproduced and would have otherwise been destroyed. A significant portion of our leatherette comes from remnants.”
That being said, some designers do see a drawback in the functionality of vegan leather for certain products. Strateas Carlucci, who uses vegan leather for their main collections, has been opting for the real thing when crafting their luxury accessories.
“The Meta Bag is our very first leather accessory. Being our first item in this category, we wanted to launch with an accessory that would be a functional, quality product. As we had a specific design in mind, we ended up using leather due to the structural integrity of the bag.”
However, Strateas Carlucci is working towards using vegan leather wherever possible.
“Although it’s currently made from calf leather, like our main collection, our plan is to grow this category and introduce vegan alternatives… We are currently in the process of designing a second release, which will include a softer, more un-structured design, whereby a vegan leather alternative will be perfectly suited.”
Many mid-high end fashion houses are hesitant to adopt vegan leather due to customer perception. Leather is renowned for its longevity. New materials, often used in fast fashion, have somewhat hindered the reputation of vegan leather accessories and clothing.
“Being a new category, we did have some concerns around customer perception around the use of vegan and real leather, and we knew there would be an argument for each side.”
Vegan leather seemed to be coasting for a few years, but being cruelty-free yet unsustainable is no longer enough to satisfy educated consumers and designers. There have been fascinating developments for viable, consistent, transparent alternatives to the animal trade entering the market in the last few years.
Vegetable-based leather is becoming a leader in the vegan leather market, being lighter in its environmental impact and maintaining a cruelty-free process. Apple, mushroom, cactus and mango are sources for leather substitutes that are manufactured without the same toxic chemicals used in leather tanning and PVC production. Rapid industrialisation and constant research and development in this area are starting to transform the industry. Several of our own labels are making efforts to remain informed and agile with their collections. Bianca Spender explains that,
“Leather alternatives are an area of innovation that is still being explored globally. We’re looking at some leather alternatives ourselves – pineapple, apple, mushroom and cactus leather can provide a similar look and feel to leather; however, the quality and longevity of the fabrics are still in their exploratory stages.”
Our soon-to-launch label A_C Official has launched a Desserto Cactus Leather collection. They are the first Australian brand to produce a collection from this innovative cactus-based leather, preferring it for its environmental benefits and functionality. A_C Official’s Creative Director Tessa Carrol describes that “[C]acti fields are a huge carbon sink which means the growing process alone is a great help when sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.” The plants themselves are also never removed from the Earth, which aids carbon capture.
Mushroom leather is also in the development stages. It’s a natural resource that can be grown on sawdust or agricultural waste, meaning it is not region-specific for farming and utilises waste to create something productive. Luxury brands seem to be heading the front in R&D for this new material, as they tend to be focused on quality, and differentiation and know the competitive advantage of good PR. MycoWorks, the company Hermès is partnering with, closed a $45 million series B funding round last year.
It’s a complex issue, one rich in nuances and contradictions. But as a general rule, keep in mind transparency, visibility and sustainability. Always try to purchase from brands that are transparent around their sourcing. If the information is not available on their website, they’re likely not following best practices. And when you choose vegan leather, don’t choose brands that use virgin plastic. Opt for recycled plastic polymers or vegetable-based leather. The best option is to do your research as thoroughly as possible on a case-by-case basis to help you make informed choices. Find out who you’re giving your money to and whether it’s something you want to support, regardless of the latest trends or aesthetics, unless it’s a mushroom leather trend. We’re on board for that.