So what do you do if you want to live a cruelty-free lifestyle but like the aesthetics of leather? Luckily, as with most animal derived products, there is a vegan option. Below is everything you need to know about vegan leather!
What is Vegan Leather?
Vegan leather refers to any material that was designed to look like leather without the use of animal products. In most cases, these materials are a form of thermoplastic, meaning they can be shaped/molded as a liquid but keep their shape as a solid. Such characteristics allow them to be molded, dyed and manipulated to feel and look like genuine leather.
Differences in Types of Vegan Leather:
Over the years, many materials have been tested and used as forms of leather substitutes. Today, the most common versions of vegan leather are composed of either polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane (PU). You may not realize it, but you already use these materials in one way or another. For instance:
- polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
- Third most common plastic in the world (aka “vinyl”)
- Commonly used to make plumbing/pipes, window frames, IV tubing, credit cards, inflatable products, flooring, etc…
- polyurethane (PU)
- The #1 most common plastic in the world (you unavoidably come into contact with it daily!)
- Commonly used to make plastic bags, plastic wrap, plastic cartons, straws, bulletproof vests, toys, etc…
- Considered less harmful for the environment than PVC
Other materials not as commonly used are recycled nylon, cork, rubber, paper, kelp, cotton, cardboard, and tree bark!
Mimicking the texture, durability, and quality of genuine leather is not an easy task so there are differences in quality of vegan leather. Depending on the materials and methods used, the process can either be extremely cheap or extremely expensive. These factors are reflected in the final product:
- “Cheap” Vegan Leather = can have a strong plastic smell, feel thin/flimsy, usually made from PVC, tend to be manufactured in sweat shops 🙁
- “High Quality” Vegan Leather = hard to decipher from genuine leather, look and feel like the real thing, usually made from PU or other newer alternatives (i.e. nylon, cork, rubber, paper, kelp, cotton, cardboard, treebark, etc.), tend to be humanely manufactured
Advantages of Quality Vegan Leather:
A major advantage of vegan leather is that the items end up being extremely durable and water resistant. I have owned a few of my Matt & Nat vegan leather bags for several years and they look the same as the day I got them! They are easy to clean (wipe with a damp wet cloth) and you do not have to worry about them getting ruined in the rain! 🙂
Of course, the biggest advantage to vegan leather is that you get the aesthetics of real leather without the cost of an animal’s life.
Criticisms of Vegan Leather:
As functional as the materials PVC and PU may be, they do have their downsides. I’m sure you have heard of the negative environmental impact these and other plastics have since they are not naturally biodegradable and difficult to recycle. If untreated, these materials can remain in landfills for hundreds of years. Even worse, improperly disposed of PVC has been shown to leak toxins into landfills contaminating soil and water supplies.
Just because it’s vegan doesn’t automatically make it cruelty-free or ethical…
In this case, I am not applying the term “cruelty-free” to animals but instead to people. Yes, vegan leather does not harm animals but it can harm the humans who make it. During the manufacturing process, when thermoplastics are heated they release extremely toxic substances. If inhaled, these fumes can have serious health implications.
Because of the dangers of producing these plastics, they are often outsourced to factories overseas (most often China). While some factories are regularly inspected and audited to ensure safe working conditions, many slip under the radar. Without proper regulations, these workers are often overworked, underpaid, and forced to work in a dangerous environment.
We are ethically responsible to make an informed decision when purchasing products. I believe you should always ask yourself, who made this and where does it come from? This type of mindset will change the way you see the world and the products you buy.
How do I know if a vegan leather product was ethically made?
When looking to buy vegan leather, you have to do some research. Companies like Matt & Nat have strict guidelines in place for their factories and are passionate about their environmental footprint. For example, while the majority of Matt & Nat products are made from PU, they also utilize recycled materials in their line of products such as cork, nylon, and rubber. The majority of the linings in their handbags are made from recycled plastic bottles! They also require their factories be certified by the SA8000 standard, an auditable social certification for decent workplaces, and they perform random inspections to ensure these standards are a reality.
Ethically responsible companies will provide information about their manufacturing methods on their websites. If you still have questions, you can always send an email.
If vegan leather is bad for the environment, shouldn’t we just stick to real leather?
To be honest, genuine leather is no better. You may not know, but animal leather has to go through a process known as “tanning”. This is a process in which animal skins are treated with chemicals to prevent them from breaking down and growing mold (after all, it is made of an animal that is supposed to decompose). These chemicals are highly carcinogenic to workers and tend to find their way into water sources.
Some eye-opening videos about the tanning process of animal-grade leather:
- Video: What are your shoes stepping on? | DanWatch
- Video: The Foul, Fascinating World of Tanning Skins| National Geographic
In addition, your leather products didn’t necessarily come from an animal someone ate. The leather and fur industry kill thousands of animals each year solely for the sake of fashion. This increases the livestock industry which is already responsible for over 50% of all greenhouse gas emission (I recommend watching Cowspiracy for more information).
What about the leather products you already own?
When switching to a cruelty-free lifestyle, you have to make some decisions regarding leather. Do you keep the leather items you already own or do you sell them/give them away? The answer to this question depends on what you’re comfortable with. I personally sold many of my leather items that were in good condition. Giving away your leather items means one less leather item will have to be purchased and maybe one more animal spared. I decided to keep one pair of leather boots that were already worn in. I figured I should get the most use out of them possible out of respect for the animal and replace them with a vegan option when the time comes.
My Favorite Ethical Vegan Leather Brands:
I hope you found this article informative and learned something new! Weighing the pros and cons, I am personally a fan of vegan leather and recommend you try it for yourself.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic and/or experiences with vegan leather in the comments section below 🙂
Thanks for reading!