The lowdown on leather alternatives and whether they’re friendlier to the planet.
The term “vegan leather” snuck into the fashion world sometime in the past couple of decades. Before that, fake leather was exclusively referred to as “pleather” and generally had a connotation linked with cheapness or even vulgarity. As PETA’s ads became more insistent and more people made the dietary switch to vegan and vegetarian, leather alternatives became desirable, and someone along the way coined the term “vegan leather.”
It definitely sounds better than “pleather” and carries with it a whiff of finery—after all, anything vegan is usually classed as more exclusive and expensive. But it hasn’t always been this way. Six years ago, Parsons fashion sustainability professor Timo Rissonen told The Cut, “The name ‘vegan leather’ is presented by some people like there’s this superiority now.” He added that the term “leather” immediately categorizes it with luxury: “Why are we even calling it leather? Because it’s something that people can easily understand.”
Perhaps we can all understand what vegan leather is, but does anyone really know where it comes from? For that matter, is it really any better for the environment than, say, suede? For starters, most leather alternatives are made of plastic-based polyurethane chloride (PVC) and polyurethane, as Business Insider reports. If you aren’t shopping in the mass market, you can find faux leather created from greener products, including mushrooms, apples, mulberry tree leaves, coconut, pineapple, and even kombucha. Clearly there’s a market for it.
Stella McCartney’s beloved leather-like bags are made of polyester and polyurethane, with a recycled polyester backing. As they put it on their website, “Our decision to not use leather has enabled us to reduce our environmental impact.” But just because Stella McCartney and other major and minor fashion brands eschew leather doesn’t necessarily mean they’re saving the planet. “We do acknowledge that the synthetic alternatives we use are not without environmental concerns,” they say themselves.
The PVC used for most synthetic leather releases toxic dioxins, as per Business Insider. This doesn’t apply to the leather made from, say, pineapples, but that’s a pretty niche market at this point. Then again, there are tons of harmful chemicals used in the tanning process for real leather, and cows are huge environmental offenders, thanks to the high levels of greenhouse gases they emit and all of the land, water, and food they require. Complicating matters further, most faux leather uses petroleum in its manufacturing process, which is toxic, terrible for the Earth, and fuels climate change (no pun intended).
So—what’s better, leather or faux leather? Should your next handbag be from Stella McCartney or some other fashion brand shilling vegan leather, or should you stick to the real stuff? At this point, the answer really boils down to a case-by-case basis. If you’re investing in synthetic leather made as ethically and eco-friendly as possible, it makes more sense to do that than purchase leather.
If you’re hell-bent on buying leather, but you still want to be kind to the earth, you can always consider The Real Real, Vestiaire Collective, or another secondhand source for leather goods. The vegan leather market is still in early days, and we’ll see innovations in the coming years. Until then, a little mindfulness when throwing down your credit card goes a long way.
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