Fashion & Beauty

Is Vegan Leather Better for the Environment?

It's complicated. Here's everything you need to know about the alternatives to real leather

If you’re looking to shop for vegan leather, there are more options than ever before. In addition to trailblazers like Canadian brand Matt & Nat who have been selling vegan bags since 1995, this year, Toronto-based leather accessories brand Ela Handbags launched a new collection made entirely with vegan leather in partnership with eBay and Call It Spring (also Canadian!) debuted its first sustainable vegan shoe and handbag collection. Meanwhile, Stella McCartney, whose high-fashion accessories have been vegan since she launched her eponymous label in 2001 teamed up with Adidas to create a 100% vegan version of the classic Stan Smith sneaker and Parisian sneaker brand Veja released a vegan collection of its cult-fave kicks.

Google searches for “vegan leather” have also increased in the last year. According to a study by Grand View Research, the global synthetic leather market is expected to reach 45 billion USD by 2025. So what exactly is vegan leather? Generally speaking, vegan leather is anything that’s made without the use of animals. Real leather, on the other hand, is made from animal skin, most commonly cow hide, but can also be made from goats, sheep, pigs, crocodiles and horses. Leather has long been prized for its durability and timelessness, and has also served as a status symbol for the wealthy. For luxury fashion houses, leather goods is big business (in 2014, it accounted for almost 30% of the overall personal luxury goods market). But like fur, leather has become increasingly problematic for consumers, not only for ethical reasons, but also for the environmental unfriendliness of the tanning process (which requires huge quantities of water and releases harmful chemicals).

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In its place, vegan leather has emerged as a saviour. Since there’s no universally accepted definition for vegan leather, it’s become a catch-all term for anything that isn’t made from an animal. So, is vegan leather just a bougie way of describing pleather? In some ways, yes. The term’s ambiguity is not unlike “green beauty,” which similarly has no set definition. Vegan leather can made from fruits, plant materials or food waste. Piñatex, for example, uses cellulose fibres extracted from pineapple leaves. According to Reuters, the leather alternative has been sold to over 500 manufacturers, including Hugo Boss and H&M. Vegan leather can also be made from orange silk, mushrooms, apple juice waste and even wine waste. Most recently, two entrepreneurs from Mexico created a leather alternative using nopal or prickly-pear cactus, which can be found in abundance in the country and doesn’t require any water to grow.

While these seem like eco-friendly options, when people say vegan leather, they usually mean polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), says Anika Kozlowski, an assistant professor of Fashion Design, Ethics & Sustainability in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University. They’re synthetic and petro-chemical based, which means that they’re manufactured using fossil fuels. Most vegan leather you come across while shopping will be synthetic leather derived from these ingredients.

PU and PVC—the most commonly used leather substitutes—may be PETA-approved, but they aren’t without its own fair share of problems, especially when it comes to sustainability. “While it’s great that there’s no immediate use of animal products to make these, you have to think of the wider scope and impact the oil industry have on the ecology and environment,” says Kozlowski. For one, synthetic leather doesn’t have the durability of regular leather, giving it a much shorter life span (translation: it will eventually end up in a landfill). It also doesn’t have the capacity to biodegrade. “Eventually, [items made from PU and PVC] just get smaller and smaller until you get microplastics. And we know all the problems you have with microplastics.” The tiny plastic particles don’t break down and end up in our environment in everything from our oceans where it is ingested by marine life to the water we drink.

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The reason companies use PU and PVC-based leather is because they’re the closest they can get to mimicking the look and feel of the real deal (although PVC is the worst offender from the two and being used less). Those materials are also more readily available in large quantities, and are cheaper. That is not to say, however, that brands are oblivious to the issues with synthetic leather. Some companies have disclosed how they’re working to find solutions to reduce the environmental impact of the material. Stella McCartney, for example, uses a material called “alter-nappa” which is a water-based and solvent-free polyurethane leather with a recycled polyester backing. “Our decision to not use leather has enabled us to reduce our environmental impact. However, we do acknowledge that the synthetic alternatives we use are not without environmental concerns,” reads the brand statement on the website. Veja has also acknowledged the struggles of finding a good, earth-friendly leather alternative. Its co-founder Sébastien Kopp told Fast Company, “Replacing leather with plastic does not sound like a good solution to us.” As a result, its Campo sneaker was made from corn waste.

Ela handbags also uses PU, having made the switch after years of using Italian leather. Co-founder Ela Aldorsson spent two years sourcing and testing materials until she found the right one that wore well and was comparable to real leather. “It’s scary going from one business practice to completely going vegan and sustainable,” she says, adding that it’s the first step towards making long-term changes towards an ethos of sustainability.

The brand’s goal is to try and become better with every season, says Aldorsson, who admits PU isn’t a perfect solution. “I’m looking at water-based PU options since there are less chemicals in it, it’s less harmful for the environment and [uses] less energy. There are so many options that are better every time we out and do our search. Even for spring 2020, we were able to use 100% recycled bottles for our lining.”

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For the well-intentioned shopper, buying vegan leather isn’t as straight-forward as it seems with alternative options being far from perfect. While there are brands that are trying to do better, there are also companies who can easily co-opt the term and cloak the unsavoury facts in a veil of green-washing. The best thing you can do as a consumer looking for vegan leather is to consider the true cost—on animals, the environment and beyond.

Still looking to shop vegan leather? Shop 5 picks below, including plastic- and plant-based materials:

what is vegan leather made of

Ela, a coveted handbag and accessories brand (whose celebrity fans include Lupita Nyong’o and the Duchess of Sussex), launched its first vegan collection with eBay in early fall 2019. The collection stays true to the brand’s humble luxury outlook with items like the black croc-print belt bag, which also doubles as a clutch.

Black Croc Belt Bag, $88, ebay.ca and elahandbags.com

what is vegan leather made of
Montreal-based Matt & Nat have been creating stylish cruelty-free accessories since the company’s inception in 1995. It continues to experiment with different materials such as recycled nylons, cardboard and cork, in addition to using PU and PVC (the website states that the former is “definitely preferred, whenever possible”). This year, it expanded into outerwear with a collection made with PU and lined with recycled polyester.

Draden Vegan Leather Jacket – Black, $195, mattandnat.com

what is vegan leather made of 

Samara, a cruelty-free brand designed for minimalists, has relied on water-based PU with the goal to one day use plant-based materials. Last month, the brand launched an apple leather version of their best-selling Mini purse. Sourced from a small factory in Europe, the vegan alternative is made from apple skins, a waste byproduct of the juicing industry.

Apple Mini Leather, $40, samarabags.com

what is vegan leather made ofCall It Spring’s first sustainable vegan shoe and handbag collection features styles made of sustainable materials, including an “eco vegan leather” which, according to the brand, uses fewer chemicals and emits less CO2 in the production process than standard PU.

Sialla, $79.99, callitspring.com

what is vegan leather made of

This Montreal-based, PETA-approved vegan handbag brand uses PU fabrics and hardware that have been certified at EU standards, which ensure that no hazardous materials are used in their products or during the manufacturing process.

Tia Boho Tote Bag, $110, jeaneandjax.com