WTF Is Vegan Leather, Anyway?
Since I started writing for Make Change, I’ve become more conscious of how I shop and the impact my purchases have on the world around me. Somedays, I almost feel like a pro. And then other days, I proudly send a photo of my new vegan leather bag to my mom, only for her to reply with: “WTF is vegan leather?” So, OK, maybe I’m not quite at the pro level yet. I didn’t actually know what the bag was made of. My response to her was generic at best, “It’s leather not made out of animals.” And then she got me again: “So, it’s just plastic?”
Given the trend in vegan leather products, I had assumed—like many others (LINK)—that it was a new, ethical alternative to real leather. There are known environmental risks of raising animals for slaughter. According to the U.N., animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and 70 percent of the deforestation in the Amazon is due to clearing space for livestock. So, it made sense to me that a vegan version of a material made from animal skin would be the ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ choice. But on the other hand, the country rejoiced when Starbucks pledged to ban plastic straws, so if my mom was right, where’s the ethics of mass producing more plastic materials?
Vegan leather (formally known as ‘pleather’ for all you xennials) has been gaining interest among millennials over the last 10 years, particularly since fashion icon Stella McCartney began her cruelty-free line. Since then, brands like American Apparel, Top Shop, and fast-fashion like Forever21 and H&M have adopted the trend, producing everything from vegan leather bags and wallets to shoes and jackets. Though it’s easy to know what it’s not—an animal product—the harder question to answer is what vegan leather really is.
Vegan leather can be produced from sustainable materials like cork, glazed cotton, and barkcloth. But the most common method used for making synthetic leather, particularly when its mass produced, is binding a plastic—like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane—to a fabric backing. So, in other words: yes, most vegan leather is just plastic.
PVC is made in a process called polymerization, wherein molecules of vinyl chloride monomers combine. The process releases dioxins—a toxic chemical both for the environment and the human body when heated up. But the bigger problem is getting PVC—a rigid plastic—to bend and take shape. Making this hard material pliable requires treating the plastic with phthalates.
Phthalates are a set of chemicals known to damage the liver, kidneys, lungs, and reproductive system when “leached” out of material and into the human body, and it doesn’t take much to do. Heat—even a small amount, like your own body heat or the hot sun on a summer day—can cause leaching. All PVC-based materials use phthalates, so that vegan leather bag might be cruelty free to animals, but unsafe for the human body. What’s doubly confusing is that Greenpeace—a major advocate of vegan leather—has deemed PVC the “single most environmentally damaging type of plastic” since it negatively impacts humans and the environment through its production, during use, and after it’s thrown away.
If manufacturers aren’t using PVC, the alternative generally involves painting liquid polyurethane onto a fabric backing to give it a leather look and feel. Though significantly less toxic than PVC, polyurethane also comes with its fair share of environmental concerns.
Turning polyurethane into a liquid requires chemical solvents that, depending on their quality and cost of production, can be dangerous to humans and the environment. While using higher quality, safer solvents can lower environmental risk, manufacturers produce materials behind closed doors—often in large factories where the chemical process is kept secret. It’s difficult for consumers to know which companies are doing it right—especially when you consider that the manufacturing is often outsourced.
These products also, like most plastics, have a short lifespan. Unlike real leather, which should last a lifetime with proper care, vegan leather tends to discolor and deteriorate within a few years, meaning you’ll be replacing and throwing away old products more than you should. Because it’s essentially plastic, throwing vegan leather in the trash means it winds up in a landfill for up to 1,000 years. When it does start to break down, it will dissolve into microplastics—the harmful particles that are small enough to slip past filters and end up in water and food.
There are some genuinely sustainable vegan leather options, but they come at a price. Paguro, for example, makes their bags out of recycled rubber—giving it the feel and density of leather without the environmental impact. 7 for all Mankind uses waxed cotton to make their vegan leather have less environmental impact, and Modern Meadow uses a process called biofabrication to grow their own vegan leather out of spider silk, mushrooms, microbial cellulose, and bacterial bricks. They’ve currently partnered with Zoa, but products aren’t for sale yet.
We’ve read article after article on how our purchases make a difference, but marketing departments don’t always tell the full story when it comes to selling products. Until they do, it’s up to us to educate ourselves on how to make buying choices that are good for our wallet and the world. Even if it means spending our lunch hours researching what exactly those unpronounceable chemical materials on labels actually are.