I know it’s not all that easy to find vegan accessories that are not plastic but believe me, it’s a lot easier than just a few years ago! Plus, you have me to help you find them! 🙂
The Vegan fashion industry has brought out a wide range of more sustainable leather substitutes in the last few years. Here are some of my favorite materials and accessories!
But first, let’s start at the beginning:
What is vegan leather and why is it better than real animal skin?
You’ve clicked on this vegan blog post, so I assume you are either already vegan or open about making the change.
Therefore I won’t linger too long on the ethical reasons to avoid leather, but if you want to learn more about why leather is morally wrong, please read this carefully written blog post by Kerstin Brueller on the subject.
Leather is cruel and unnecessary and even though it’s marketed as more sustainable than vegan alternatives, it really isn’t.
A lot of people also think that leather is merely a by-product of the meat industry, basically making it a sort of upcycling product when in reality, that’s rarely the case.
Sustainable fashion content creators, as well as leather goods manufacturers, like to claim that animal leather is the more sustainable choice, since it’s a “natural material” and would, in theory, be compostable.
In reality, animal hides are highly processed and treated with harmful chemicals in order to make them supple and durable, not even taking into account that patent leather is coated in plastic!
The use of heavy metals in the tanning and dyeing process has been a major concern in leather manufacturing, putting at risk the environment through chemicals leaking into water streams, the workers, and also the wearer themselves.
If the chemicals find their way into the water, it causes an excessive richness of nutrients that sparks the growth of algae and animal death due to the lack of oxygen in the waters. In extreme cases, workers in the tanneries are exposed to serious health risks such as lung cancer and leukemia.
As well as dangerous chemicals, producing real leather also damages environments through deforestation.
Essentially, the issue with leather is an intersectional one and the true cost not only falls on animals’ backs, literally but also the tanning workers. Veganism ideally seeks to liberate non-human animals as well as humans.
The leather industry has been responsible for deforestation in South America which is also a major cause of climate change and biodiversity loss. Deforestation is driven by land use, greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture, grazing, and the use of feed crops.
The impact of real leather is highly driven by land use and GHG emissions associated with animal agriculture. The Livestock sector is the world’s largest user of agricultural land through grazing and the use of feed crops.
In short, in order to feed cows, the real producers of leather, huge patches of land are needed to a. grow cattle feed and b. house all the animals.
As a result, this plays a major role in climate change, the management of water, and biodiversity. For example, the cattle industry in Brazil has been a great driver of deforestation causing biodiversity loss and contributing to climate change.
“Synthetic leather has only a third of the environmental impact of cow leather. As Kering says in its 2015 EP&L statement, different leathers can have an over tenfold difference in environmental impact based on their type and origin, how the animal was raised, and how the tanning process took place. Switching to alternative materials can directly improve a product’s footprint.”–2017 PULSE OF THE FASHION INDUSTRY REPORT
But Synthetics Aren’t That Great Either
Now to be realistic, vegan leather of course isn’t perfect either. Conventional vegan leather or pleather is made from Polyurethane (PU) or Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC).
Although PVC is in much less use than it was in the 1960s and ’70s, it can still be found in the composition of some vegan leather. PVC releases dioxins, which are potentially dangerous in confined spaces and especially dangerous if burnt. It also uses plasticizers such as phthalates to make it flexible. Depending on the type of phthalate used, they’re extremely toxic. Greenpeace described it as the “single most environmentally damaging type of plastic.”
Today you’ll find PVC mostly used in cheap fast fashion retail products rather than higher-end vegan brands.
The more modern and slightly less damaging plastic is PU, which is constantly being technically developed to reduce its flaws such as the hazardous toxins it releases during manufacturing and the oil-based polymers it’s made with which make use of fossil fuels.
Also, PU in the EU is made in a strictly controlled and regulated chemical process, during which only a few grams per ton of chemical is ever released into the environment. The final polyurethane polymer is chemically inert, and therefore harmless. PU is also biodegradable by way of fungus found in landfills and soil.
Sources: The Minimalist Vegan
While conventional vegan leather is not perfect, it is by far better for the environment than animal leather.
The industry is always working on better alternatives.
A New Generation of Vegan Leather Substitutes
So what are some options apart from conventional PVC and PU- based vegan leather?
Pinatex – Pineapple Leather
After pineapple harvest, the suitable plant leaves which are left behind are collected in bundles and the long fibers are extracted using semi-automatic machines.
The fibers are washed then dried naturally by the sun, or during the rainy season in drying ovens. The dry fibers go through a purification process to remove any impurities which results in a fluff-like material.
This fluff-like pineapple leaf fiber (PALF) gets mixed with a corn-based polylactic acid (PLA) and undergoes a mechanical process to create Piñafelt, a non-woven mesh that forms the base of all Piñatex collections.
The rolls of Piñafelt are then shipped by boat from the Philippines to Spain or Italy for specialized finishing.
To make the Original, Pluma, and Mineral collections, the Piñafelt is colored using GOTS certified pigments and a resin top coating is applied to give additional strength, durability, and water resistance. A foil is heat-pressed on to create the Metallic collection and a high solid PU transfer coating is used to create Piñatex Performance.
Cork leather comes from the bark of the Cork Oak tree, and is considered one of the most sustainable forestry practices on the planet. Harvesting cork does not harm the Cork Oak in any way, but instead, helps it to enter a regeneration process, which extends its lifespan in the long-term. Cork leather is not only the most natural and durable “vegan leather” currently on the market, but it has all of the benefits of animal leather, and none of the cruelty and pollution.
Cork grows in the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, which are Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, and enriches the soil and livelihood of all of these countries. Cork forests absorb thousands of tons of CO2 on a daily basis, provide a watershed and roots that provide nutrients for the soil, produce oxygen, and are home to untold plant and animal species that are often endangered or exist nowhere else in the world. Cork forests contribute to the natural beauty and purity of the Mediterranean.
Unlike with leather production, the communities that grow and manufacture cork benefit greatly from cork forests and from making and using cork products.
Source: How Cork
Apple leather is a bio-based material made using the leftover pomace and peel from the fruit juice and compote industry.
Originating from the region of Bolzano in northern Italy, the fabric is created by first taking the recovered apple waste and reducing it to a powder. Once processed, it is sent to a factory located in Florence, where it is combined with polyurethane and coated onto a cotton and polyester canvas.
The apple leather used in our products is made using 50% apple waste mixed with 50% PU. The result is a durable but soft fabric that is perfect for hardwearing small accessories.
Source: Oliver Co. London
Also called Desserto or Nopal Leather
The production process of cactus leather is very sustainable. It starts at a certified organic cactus farm in the state of Zacatecas in Mexico. To make cactus leather, just the mature leaves are harvested, keeping the core of cacti intact. Thanks to this, in 6-8 months the leaves will grow back in order to be re-harvested again.
It takes 200 liters of water to grow one kilogram of cactus biomass, which is absorbed by the plant itself from humidity present in the atmosphere, and just 3 leaves of the plant are used to make 1 linear meter of material.
The cactus leather is made up of 30% cactus biomass together with PU in a process which uses non-toxic chemicals.
Similar to Apple Skin, Corn leather is made from corn 30-80% corn pulp and PU. The sneaker brand Veja claims their corn leather is biodegradable.
Some animal-free leather alternatives that are new to the game and we should be on the lookout for in the future:
- Mylo Unleather
- Mango Leather
- Kombucha Leather
(I made some myself for my fashion school thesis. Let me know if you’d like a more in-depth post about that!)
- Grape Leather
- Coffee Leather
- Mushroom Leather (Muskin)
Handbags and Purses
Available in 3 colors
Small Vegan Leather Goods
Olive Co. London
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