For those of us looking to make more ethical choices when it comes to our wardrobes, vegan leather stands out as a simple way to make a change. For a garment to be considered truly cruelty-free, there should be no animal by-products used at any stage of its construction - something that many vegan leather products advertise as being true for their brand. However, on top of the treatment of animals, there are many other aspects of vegan leather to consider as well. What are the environmental impacts that go into its creation? What are the overall effects of this garment on my health and wellbeing? How are the workers treated throughout its production? Vegan leather definitely ticks the box of being animal-friendly and cruelty-free, but how does it stack up when we start to look into the other factors as well?
The most common types of materials used in vegan leather are polyurethane (PU) and polyvinylchloride (PVC). Both PU and PVC are petrochemicals, which are essentially plastics created from compounds extracted from oil and gas (watch the video here for a more detailed explanation if you’re interested!). Since oil and gas are fossil fuel derivatives made from a limited resource, these are not ideal materials to be used when producing a leather alternative. The environmental impact of drilling, processing, and converting oil to plastic is intensive, as well as being documented as disruptive to human health. We want something that is cruelty-free, yes, but in the best scenario, we also want one that’s made from a sustainable resource.
Many vegan leather goods are also manufactured overseas, where workers’ laws may not always be fully enforced. In cases like this, it’s best to avoid manufacturers that are known violators of human and workers’ rights. To combat these issues, large companies like the Gap, Patagonia, and Nike have joined forces as a part of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and declared ethical manufacturing to be at the forefront of their sustainability initiatives. The coalition is still working on improving the state of the manufacturing industry, so researching companies that are a part of this initiative is one way of using your purchasing power to support ethical production. Aside from the impact on the environment, there are potential health risks associated with PVC as well. As it breaks down, PVC releases several gases, some of which are dioxins, phthalates, vinyl chloride, and lead. Many of these gases are classified as known carcinogens by the US National Library of Medicine. Although the material doesn’t harm any animals during its production, it’s worth taking into consideration the potential health hazards we may be exposing ourselves to instead.
So if vegan leather is not all it’s cracked up to be, what are our options if we’re looking to avoid purchasing leather goods? In a recent blog post, we talked about sustainable fabric alternatives, one of which was a fabric alternative called Piñatex. Created by Ananas Anam, a company based out of London, this fabric is made using pineapple leaf fibers to create a leather-like fabric. With enough demand, this cruelty-free leather alternative would be a great closed-loop production option to have on the market, rather than the more commonly used PVC vegan leather.
If you’re not opposed to wearing real leather, then there are two other great options to look for that are more sustainable than plastic-based vegan leather. The first is to look for companies that are creating garments using recycled leather. One of my personal favourites is a Swedish label called Deadwood, who uses leather scraps to create stylish and timeless leather jackets. According to their website, Deadwood’s production method “skips the bloody middle step and takes [leather] directly from ugly garments, crafting them into stunning new products without a single animal coming to harm in between”.
The second option would, of course, be to shop vintage or second-hand! There are loads of fashionable options when searching for vintage clothing either online or in your neighbourhood. On top of being a great way to save clothing from being dumped into landfills, shopping vintage is often much less expensive than purchasing the same items new from a retailer.
Whichever option you decide to go for, just be sure to make an informed decision when it comes to purchasing your next leather (or leather alternative!) garment.