Is vegan leather all it's made out to be?

June 16, 2018

Is vegan leather all it's made out to be?

When we decided to do some research, to try to understand the whole 'vegan' leather thing a little better, we had NO idea of the size of minefield we were stepping into.  

At its most basic, it boils down to this...

Imagine you’re looking to buy a pair of shoes and you have 2 pairs in front of you, 1 made from real leather and 1 made from vegan leather (also known as faux leather, synthetic leather, and formerly, pleather – plastic leather). Yes, somewhere along the line the name has been changed to ‘vegan’ to capitalise on the growing population of people trying to do the right thing – plastic leather just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Anyway, the real leather version is made from the hide of a dead animal and here is where many people draw the line.  Their ethical concerns favour animal life (and animal kindness) as the top priority. And fair enough.

For the sake of the blog, let's imagine you keep going with your consideration of the shoes.

The faux leather version is (most likely) made from polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) which involve bonding together a plastic coating (the types of plastic vary) to a fabric backing.  Plastic? Bad for the environment but safe for animals, (other than all the ones currently living on the earth). Are we really marketing plastic and chemicals as ‘vegan’? I know vegan is synonymous with no animal products or by-products but doesn’t it have some sustainability and environmental connotations as well? Or is it just me that thinks that?

The production/manufacture of both leather and faux leather emits environmentally harmful chemicals with really long names which have long lists of harmful effects on animals and humans alike. (Although, many people think that the production process of the faux leather is much worse)

So, killing animals and using their hide or killing the environment with plastics and chemicals? – Is there any other differentiator?  Sustainability perhaps?

Good quality leather shoes can last decades when cared for, and can actually look better the older they get.  (Think of a well-worn pair of boots rather than a pair of work pumps with ruined heels)

In comparison, you might only get a year or so out of a pair of shoes made from faux leather. This is because faux leather is often a lot thinner than real leather and much more light weight, which makes it less durable.

So, the environmental impact of replacing a pair of fake leather shoes multiple times is arguably more damaging than the purchase of one real leather pair over the same time frame. 

In addition, faux leather won’t biodegrade or decay and can’t be made into another item of faux leather. Instead, if faux leather is recycled at all, it is usually repurposed as something like a vinyl awning.

Is there any upside here? Is anyone doing anything about this?

Well, Stella McCartney has apparently developed her own material Eco Faux Leather (TM) which she claims is made with a recycled polyester backing, solvent-free polyurethanes and a coating made from at least 50 per cent vegetable oil.

You can also find manufacturers of faux leather products that use more ‘sustainable’ materials such as;

Vegetan, a microfiber material that is specifically designed as an animal-friendly leather substitute and which can be 70-80 per cent biodegradable;

Lorica, (or EcoLorica), another type of hi-tech material created from combining microfibres soaked in resins.  It is patented and manufactured by the Italian company Lorica Sud. Other companies use similar, but less legally binding, alternatives such as Birko-Flor, Birkibuc and Kydek.

And then there's products made from cork, pineapple leaves, and mushroom mycelium (the fungus equivalent of a root system).  That’s right, new leather-like materials are being made from biodegradable products that would otherwise have gone to landfill (which we especially love for obvious reasons).

Another alternative material is kombucha leather, which is grown from the same sludgy symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast used to make the trendy fermented tea drink.  The slimy culture can be dried, then softened with coconut oil to create a fabric that looks and feels a lot like leather, but with a tiny environmental footprint.  According to Dr Peter Musk, who leads work into kombucha leather at The Edge at State Library of Queensland, when you're finished with it, it can be composted.

But, back to the shoes. (yes, they have made kombucha leather shoes)

Let’s just for a minute think about why we’re looking at shoes in the first place…..

Are we simply caught up in the seasonal fashion frenzy which, almost by definition, is unsustainable? (built-in obsolescence, constant introduction of new more 'fashionable' looks, short product life). Are we allowing this fickle industry to trade on our integrity while it feeds our vanity (‘Look at me I'm helping to save the world and don't I look great in process?’)and our guilt (‘I know I can't really afford it, but can I afford not to buy it when animals lives are at stake?’)

I mean, perhaps the real question isn’t whether to buy real leather of faux leather, it’s whether we need to buy the shoes at all. Accepting that we live in the age of disposable goods and rampant consumerism, should we at least think beyond simply how the pair of shoes was made?  Should we consider their entire lifecycle? How often will I wear them, how hard will I punish them, how long will they last, when will I need to replace them, and then, when I do dispose of them, what will happen to them?

Perhaps, if we thought that way, we would just buy a lot less pairs of shoes….and handbags….and clothes…

If you found this interesting, please share on facebook.  Alternately, you can read more here.

If you are interested to found out what porze are making from biodegrable products diverted from landfill, please visit our website.  

Thank you Ivan Zhukevich for the photo.