Realising the deep impact that our food and lifestyle choices have on non-human species and the environment, people are increasingly opting veganism by shunning animal-derived products. However, contrary to popular belief, veganism is not just restricted to food but also encompasses several other facets of our lifestyle, including what we wear. Leather is one such material that vegans are often worried about since it becomes tricky to find out whether the leather in question is animal-derived or not.
Over recent years, vegan leather has become vogue, mainly due to the unsustainable practices in the leather industry. Turning animal hide into leather requires chemicals such as mineral salts, coal-tar, formaldehyde, oils, dyes, cyanide-based finishes, which eventually end up in water bodies. All of this has led to the development of leather alternatives that can replicate the texture and quality of the real deal. But what exactly is vegan leather?
Vegan leather is known by different names, like synthetic leather, artificial leather, plant-derived leather or faux leather. It is made from fabrics that mimic animal leather but comprise no animal parts. Vegan leather is a cruelty-free alternative to animal leather that supports conscious fashion. It can be divided into two broad categories – Synthetic Leather and Natural Leather.
Also known as PU leather, it is an artificial leather made from synthetic materials like PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) and PU (Polyurethane). Although less sustainable since this is made of thermoplastic polymers, these petrochemical materials provide a cheaper and cruelty-free alternative to traditional leather. Being highly versatile, it is very popular amongst designers looking to experiment with designs and styles.
PU leather is created by applying a plastic polyurethane or a polyurethane coating to a fibre base, mostly polyester. This type of leather is 100% vegan. However, in some cases, it is combined with real leather to make double-cast leather, making it non-vegan. The PU leather is lighter than real leather, and can tear easily. It is widely used by car manufacturers since it is more resistant to sunlight as compared to real leather.
Natural leather is eco-friendly leather that is made from natural fibres. The most commonly used products to derive vegan leather include, cork, pineapple leaves, grapes, mushroom, apple peels, cactus, corn, floral waste, amongst others. These materials are pro-environment and extensive research has transformed them into the most sustainable and animal-friendly options. Here is a list of a few popular vegan leather alternatives:
Pineapple Leather – Pineapple leather is a natural leather produced made from pineapple leaf fibres. These leaves are a useless byproduct of the fruit industry, which are often thrown away. Pinatex by Ananas Anam is the patented name for pineapple leather, which was developed by London-based Dr. Carmen Hijosa after years of research and testing. The 100% eco-friendly and ethical leather is devoid of any animal products, waterproof and highly durable. Pinatex has already been adopted by many big-league brands like Hugo Boss, Puma, Nae, and H&M. Back home, the leading fashion brand ‘A Big Indian Story’ had also introduced a range of products made of Pinatex.
Mushroom Leather – This amazing source of vegan leather has been making headlines around the world owing to its adoption by some of the leading names in the global fashion industry. World famous designer Stella McCartney has recently come up with what she claims to be the ‘world’s first-ever garments’ made of vegan mushroom leather. Similarly, Hermes also announced the launch of its first-ever vegan bag made of this sustainable leather alternative. It is an avant-garde leather alternative made from the vegetative part of the fungus known as mycelium. The mushroom leather can easily replicate cow hide, and can therefore be used to make shoes, wallets, purses, handbags, belts and other such products.
Cork Leather – Cork leather is another vegan leather alternative that has its origin in the bark of a cork oak tree. Contrary to popular perception, cork leather is highly durable since it is made of cork fabric, not shavings, making it a perfect alternative to animal leather. The leather is easy to maintain, while being water and stain-resistant.
It offers a distinctive look to products. Several brands create lux-look wallets, footwear, and handbags using cork leather. Recyclable and bio-degradable, the cork leather is revolutionising the leather industry. In India, companies such as Arture and Corkiza specialise in cork leather accessories.
Grape or Wine Leather – Hard to believe that a leather can be crafted from grapes? Well, it is true! An Italian company ‘Vegea’ has created sustainable fabric from the waste generated in the wine industry. Billions of litres of wine are produced around the world each year, which results in a huge amount of leftovers. These stalks, skins and seeds of grapes, called ‘pomace’, is used as organic fertilisers or animal feed. But Vegea decided to turn pomace into sustainable leather, which is not only eco-friendly but also resembles the texture and look of animal leather. The material has grabbed the interest of many luxury brands, who have created products in hues of wine, such as burgundy and blush, using natural grape colours.
Cactus Leather – Developed by two entrepreneurs from Mexico, Desserto is made from cacti grown on their plantation in the country’s Zacatecas state. The cactus is known for its rugged, thick skin, which makes it possible to create a texture similar to animal leather.
Recently, H&M had announced a new initiative ‘Innovation Stories’, under which it has launched its first collection made of Desserto. The Mexican company has bagged awards such as the 2020 Green Product Award and the LVMH Innovation Award 2020.
Why Vegan Leather?
Animal-derived leather is one of the largest contributors to the destruction of the planet. Fashion industry often uses terms such as ethically-sourced or eco-leather but these are misleading claims. Brands use such labelling when their products are made from by-products of the meat industry or through vegetal tanning process. However, the reality is that all farm animals raised for meat or leather not just undergo unspeakable torture, but also create huge environmental impact. So, calling it ethical or eco is nothing but greenwashing.
Sustainable Apparel Materials study by MIT points that the annual global impact of animal leather is about 130 MT Co2e (metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent). Tanneries release these toxic chemicals into water, which wreak havoc on marine life. While natural vegan leather is eco-friendly, even synthetic fibre is a lesser harmful choice as it produces three times less carbon footprint than animal leather. Another often ignored fact is that the chemicals used in tanneries are highly toxic for the workers, with some studies showing that over 90% of leather workers in Bangladesh tanneries dye before the age of 50.
Billions of cows, pigs, sheep, alligators, goats, snakes, and other animals get cruelly slaughtered to produce leather. The skins, tails, and horns of these animals are mercilessly cut off, often without anesthesia. Vegan leather not only saves these innocent animals but the environment as well. Now, with several well-known brands switching to sustainable leather, the road ahead looks promising.