The problem with ‘vegan leather’ – is it really more sustainable?

Olivia Petter

The fashion industry is not one to jump on trends. It prefers to start them.

But that’s not the case when it comes to vegan leather, a material that owes its zeitgeist stamp to the increasing popularity of plant-based diets and sustainable living.

Because as more people reduce the amount of animal products on their plates, they’re beginning to take a similar approach to their wardrobes, prompting greater demand for “vegan” garments such as leather. And the brands that are taking note have flourished as a result.

Earlier this week, shoe brand Dr Martens announced its profits had surged by 70 per cent in the year to the end of March thanks to the success of its vegan range of boots.

The British label follows in the cruelty-free footsteps of Topshop and Adidas, both of whom have added vegan shoes to its collections in the last year.

Meanwhile, labels that have always championed vegan leather, such as Veja, continue to be prosper among the street style set.

Ethically, it makes sense to choose faux leather over the real thing, with animal rights campaigners pointing to the treatment of cattle that are farmed for beef and milk, of which leather is a byproduct. It's environmentally dubious too, given that no animal is reared purely for its leather and therefore producing it leads to greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation just like beef and milk production. And that's before you’ve considered the consequences of tanning leather. While methods have improved, there are still some tanneries around the world, such as in Bangladesh, that use noxious chemicals such as chromium to tan their leather, which are filled in giant vats and often dumped into rivers once the process is complete.

But vegan leather is also problematic, least of all because the term itself is an oxymoron. “There is no such thing as vegan leather,” says Dr Kerry Senior, director at the UK’s leather trade federation, Leather UK. “The term leather is defined by British, European and International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards and refers only to the skins or hides of animals, tanned to be imputrescible,” Senior tells The Independent, describing the phrase as an “abuse of the term leather” that continues to be a bugbear for those working in the leather trade.

Amy Powney, creative director of sustainable luxury label Mother of Pearl, explains that most leather alternatives are made using synthetic materials, hence why she prefers to use real leather instead. “If you are buying faux leather then you need to consider you are buying plastic,” she tells The Independent, adding how she prefers to use “best practice leather” that is long-lasting and has been made using natural tanning agents.

In October, Patrick Grant, creative director of Saville Row tailors Norton & Sons made a similar remark when he criticised eco-conscious brands such as Stella McCartney for "encouraging us to use plastic instead of leather".

There is no such thing as vegan leather

Dr Kerry Senior, Leather UK

Plastic polymers polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) are the most commonly used to produce faux leather fabrics thanks to their supple, vinyl and sometimes wrinkled texture. But both pose serious environmental threats given that they are usually manufactured from fossil fuels and are not biodegradable. Equally, these garments tend to have a short lifespan, meaning consumers may dispose of their faux leather items faster than a long-lasting hand-me-down, resulting in them being sent to landfill.

Stella McCartney has admitted to using polyurethane and polyester as an alternative to leather in its products, which it says on its website are “not without concern”. But by using recycled polyester and producing garments that are not machine washable (meaning it avoids the issue of microfibre shedding), the brand claims to have a lower environmental impact than labels who choose to use real leather, citing a calculation from its Environmental Profit and Loss account.

That said, like many others, the luxury British label is looking into new ways of producing faux leather fabrics that aren’t quite so environmentally questionable. These include lab-grown leather, which is being spearheaded by biofabrication companies such as Modern Meadow. Elsewhere, there’s Piñatex, a leather alternative made from the cellulose fibre of pineapple leaves that was recently used by H&M in its latest Conscious Collection.

But there is development happening in the real leather trade as well.

Leather ticks all the boxes for a sustainable material

Rachel Garwood, University of Northampton

Rachel Garwood, director at the Institute for Creative Leather Technologies at the University of Northampton, tells The Independent genuine leather is nowadays far more environmentally friendly than faux alternatives.It ticks all the boxes for a sustainable material. The problem leather has is that it retains the stigma of historical production methods, she says, pointing to contemporary methods used by modern tanneries such as vegetable tanning that are far less harmful than previous chemical-based processes involved in leather production.

“Chemical companies and tanners are working closely with brands to offer reassurance of the clean technology and ethics in leather manufacturing,” Garwood adds, noting that various initiatives such as the Leather Working Group (LWG) rate tanneries on their environmental and ethical practices that help retailers and brands to better identify good practice in their supply chain.

Matt Stockamp, impact associate at US-based footwear brand Nisolo, is constantly trying to improve his supply chain to ensure the leather he uses is ethically sourced and durable. “We know that a lot of our leather comes from farms in the US and northern Mexico,” he tells The Independent. The majority of our tanneries are also certified by the LWG for their social and environmental practices, which includes a regular, thorough inspection of their water treatment facilities. Diving further into this is an ongoing priority of ours for 2019. Nisolo’s leather products are designed to last for many years, Stockamp adds. “We’ll need to conduct thorough testing to make sure that any vegan materials also meet our brand’s standards for quality and longevity.”

If you want to invest in a real, long-lasting leather garment but you’re not sure about the company’s supply chain, Leigh Mcalea, head of communications at anti-waste organisation Traid tells The Independent the best way forward it to forget about buying something new altogether. Instead, she advises championing circularity by making the most of the ample secondhand options available at charity and vintage shops: “Choosing secondhand displaces the loss of life to animals, environmental destruction and worker exploitation.”