Conscious Consumerism - Leather vs Vegan Leather
Vegan Leather vs Leather: Conscious Consumerism
When people talk about veganism, they largely focus on diet. However, the vegan movement is about more than just food and drink; being vegan means supporting a lifestyle that abstains from the use of animal products. This abstinence spans across all industries, including furniture, vehicles, and fashion.
The use of animal products in the fashion industry is not new. Neither is the opposition to it, which has gained momentum in recent years, correlating with the rise of veganism and more conscious consumerism. In 2018 London Fashion Week became the first main fashion week to go fur-free following an increase in protests around the issue in the previous years. Fur and leather are the two main animal products used in the fashion industry, and animal rights activists have been calling for this to stop for years.
Faux leather and faux fur made from animal-free materials seemed like the answer to all these problems. Using these synthetics meant designers could continue to create looks based around these products, without using animal products. It was a win-win. Or was it?
It is natural to assume that a vegan material is environmentally friendly, and a material containing animal products is not. However, it is never that simple. Ascertaining how environmentally friendly something is depends on the metric you use to measure environmental friendliness. Is it proportion of animal product? Or how much carbon dioxide is emitted during production? Or square footage of land needed to grow the product? Or how many litres of water are used in production?
All these metrics help paint a picture of how environmentally friendly or unfriendly any particular product is. The issue with taking one metric in isolation is you could miss out important data.
Let’s start with some of the criticisms of leather: animal rights issues of industrial farming, greenhouse gas emissions associated with farming, deforestation due to farming and hazardous chemicals used to tan leather.
But what about the pros?
Firstly, not all farming is industrial farming. Therefore not all farming involves harsh treatment of animals or the same level of greenhouse gas emissions. In the same way you can get free-range eggs, you can have leather from sustainable and ethical farmers. Secondly, while farms are being used for meat, it is arguably sustainable to utilise the entire cow.
Leather is also a high quality material which lasts a long time. Part of the slow fashion movement is shopping less. If you buy high quality items, you need to replace them less often and therefore generate less waste (from throwing old products away) and shop less because what you have lasts. Buying a high quality bag as a one off and not replacing it for years, maybe even decades, is a lot more sustainable than buying several bags over the same time period.
Pleather is essentially plastic leather which is made by bonding the plastic to a fabric backing. It is lighter than leather and completely vegan.
However, there are other environmental issues surrounding pleather that are worth considering. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane are the two most commonly used plastics to make pleather, but they are both harmful to the environment. PVC is made with toxic ingredients including chlorine and petroleum which are both unsustainably extracted and refined, and to make them flexible enough to mimic leather involves intense chemical processes. These processes derive from fossil fuels which when burnt, release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere contributing to global warming.
Secondly plastics, as we all know, are not degradable. Even allegedly biodegradable plastic does not fully degrade. Furthermore, pleather tends to have a shorter lifespan than leather and in turn tends to be thrown out quicker. Therefore a big problem with faux leathers is waste. Not only are the product themselves thrown away more often, but they never fully degrade. This plastic is likely to end up on landfill or in the ocean.
There are other faux leathers available, which are not made of plastic and do not have as many issues associated with them. However PVC and polyurethane are the most common vegan leathers.