Sometimes trying to decipher what’s good for us is confusing and inconclusive. Take, for example, any diet with conflicting messaging about the benefits. The same goes for vegan leather. What may seem like an obvious win on the surface may not be good for the environment or your health.
A vegan lifestyle goes beyond avoiding animal products in the diet. Strictly vegan practices also avoid any beauty, clothing and household items that include animal ingredients. The reasoning makes sense. Not only is it thoughtful to consider what animals may be harmed for our convenience, but the livestock industry is one of the highest-ranking pollutants and causes of carbon emissions on the planet.
For these reasons, shoppers with the animals and planet in mind find vegan labels appealing. But it’s important to understand that while all leather alternatives benefit the animals, few actually benefit the planet. So the question becomes whether vegan leather is actually a sustainable option at all.
Why is leather bad?
Traditional leather comes from the hides of certain animals. The tanning process that converts the hide into usable leather for products require tons of water. Additionally, the manufacturing waste is toxic.
What is vegan leather?
It’s often not what you think it is. Vegan leather is void of animal products. That’s good for the furry creatures and for the land they are raised on.
However, just because it’s vegan, doesn’t mean it’s environmentally friendly. In truth, the vast majority of vegan leather actually comes from petroleum-based plastic in the form of either a thermoplastic polymer, polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) leather. Both are bad during production, can be harmful during use. It leaches toxins, polluting the water and soil at the end of their useful life. However, one glimmer of good news is that even plastic-based leather comes at an impact one-third the amount of traditional leather production.
Not only is plastic leather a nasty alternative, but it is actually a lower-quality material than real leather. That means it ends up in the landfill much faster than real leather, contributing to what basically equates to fast fashion waste.
What is plant-based leather?
There is a viable and sustainable option when it comes to vegan leather. It’s plant-based leather. Rather than sourcing petroleum-based products, plant-based leather is made from natural materials, including apple, mushroom, corn, mango, pineapple and cactus. Plant-based leather rely on waste materials, making use of plant parts that would otherwise be discarded.
For example, Piñatex creates fibers from the long strands in pineapple leaves. This provides another use for pineapple trees that are typically only grown for their fruit. Luxury bags like these from Miomojo and shoes from Sylven New York apply the principles of true sustainability in their products made from apple leather.
Educate yourself on what you’re buying
The most important thing consumers can do is to educate themselves about their purchases. Greenwashing is common, so it’s not surprising it’s sometimes difficult to make an educated decision. If you’re already accustomed to seeking out vegan products, looking for a sustainable leather alternative becomes much easier. However, it requires one more step.
You’ll have to figure out the source of the alternative material to protect the environment too. Look for a sustainability statement on the manufacturer’s website. Transparency is key here. Even the phrase “plant-based” can mean it contains some materials sourced from plants, but it could also include PU or PVC and be less forthcoming about it.
Products that promote biodegradability are likely a good option. While the process of converting plants into a leather alternative makes the material durable enough for long-term use, it still allows it to break down naturally once it hits the landfill. Make sure to read the material list for plant-based dyes and non-toxic glues.
Buy for longevity, not for the trends
A longer product life is a solid investment for the planet. Owning one purse for 40 years is much more cost effective than buying 20 cheaper options that fall apart or end up in the trash within a year or two. So if you’re able to, invest in quality products. When you’re done, be sure to donate instead of ditching.
If the high cost of quality isn’t within your budget, look to second-hand markets. Bargains are abound in thrift stores where you just might find exactly what you’re looking for at a fraction of the cost.
Plant-based bags, shoes, clothing and home décor items are still making their way to the market. If you can’t find a truly sustainable brand to support, a second-best option is to continue the life of products already in circulation.
So is vegan leather actually sustainable? The answer is: It depends. But now you know your options when selecting the most eco-friendly products in your life.
Images via Sylven New York and Pexels