I used to think that vegan leather was a sustainable alternative that would lessen my environmental footprint. When I saw the word “vegan”, I immediately associated it with “environmentally friendly”. However, as I’ve started asking more questions about how my clothing and accessories are made, I’ve added most vegan leathers to my list of fabrics to stay away from.
While there are some innovative, plant-based leathers, like kelp-, cork-, or more recently pineapple-based leather, the majority of vegan leather found in fast-fashion retail shops are made of harmful synthetic fibers made of petrochemicals, like polyvinyl chloride, polyurethane and textile-polymers. The truth is, most vegan leather is just greenwashed faux leather.
While it’s one thing for synthetic vegan leather to be marketed as a cheaper alternative to genuine leather, it’s increasingly common to see luxury brands selling synthetic leather for exorbitant prices and justifying it by calling it vegan.
One example, is a Canadian brand, MATT & NAT, that makes vegan leather bags. Price points for their products fall between $75-200. Their website reads,
“Various vegan leathers are used in production, the scientific terms are PU (polyurethane) and PVC (polyvinylchloride). PU is less harmful for the environment than PVC and we make it a point to use it whenever possible. The linings inside all… bags are made out of 100% recycled plastic bottles.”
I see a few issues with this statement. It says that they make it a point of using PU, which is still a petrochemical that has been said to lead to skin irritation and lung problems, whenever possible – so even though they believe that the fact that it’s less harmful makes it safe to use, they cannot commit to using it 100% of the time. Also, the fabric that is processed from plastics gives off synthetic microfibers that make their way into the ocean, and our water supplies, as well as the animals that live in these bodies of water. A study conducted at the University College of Dublin found that out of all human-made materials found in their water samples, 85 percent of those were microfibers from polyester, nylon, acrylic, and other synthetic fibers. So while, MATT & NAT bags are technically vegan, they are by no means sustainable or environmentally friendly.
While MATT & NAT does seem to make a point to prioritize “quality working conditions” for their factory employees, many companies that offer “vegan leather” products do not, and since many people associate veganism with ethicality, their production practices are often not questioned.
These types of greenwashing happen all too often. So while I’m in support of opting for vegan leather over genuine leather, if the vegan leather is not plant-based, we may be doing more harm than good. I personally believe that it’s better to upcycle or thrift genuine leather staples (like a black bag) that will last for years, than buying a synthetic leather product that may wear out and contributes to our toxic relationship with fossil fuels.
What do you think? Do you prefer genuine leather or do you opt out of all consumption of any kind of leather or alternative leather textiles?