Vegan Leather: green or greenwashing?
“Sustainable” can mean a number of different things, the fact that there are 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals alone highlights distinctly different areas for progression. At Public Fibre we want you help you make an informed decision about what you’re buying, to (hopefully) help everyone shop more consciously. One thing we’ve been asked about a few times is leather; what vegan leather options are available (such as our Oliver Co. accessories) and how dare we sell animal leather (like our Igwe sneakers, that are made from chrome-free bio-processed leather). Sustainability and animal-product are often questioned alongside each other, so we wanted to cut through the bullshit and give you some facts, for you to make your own decision.
The two biggest arguments against animal leather are the treatment of animals farmed in the industrial process (where more than 1 billion1 animals are killed worldwide for the leather trade, from cows to horses, lambs, goats and pigs, even dogs and cats) and the greenhouse gas emissions associated with raising livestock. In fact, globally the meat-industry accounts for 14.5-18%2 of all human-created greenhouse gas emissions.
Having said that, whilst there is still a meat industry there will always be a strong argument to be made that it is simply wasteful not to also have a leather industry. Without it, we’d see our landfills flooded with animal hide. But not all leather is created equal. The process of turning that rough, stiff animal hide into soft, supple leather is known as “tanning” and it’s where the main point of differentiation comes. At its heart, tanning is the process of locking collagen fibril structures in place to prevent collapsing as water is gradually removed from the hide3, and there are a number of different ways that you can do this.
A more modern and far easier method is called Chrome Tanning and it’s where the hides are doused in water, chromium salts and tanning liquor for around two days. There are some clear benefits of this type of tanning – chrome-tanned leather is not packed with dark polyphenols (like vegetable tanning) and can be dyed brilliant colours. It also cuts down the time it takes to create workable leather from months to days. Developed in the mid 19th Century it’s become the primary tanning method used for approximately 80-90%4 of leather around the world, but it has some serious side effects if not managed correctly.
If the waste toxic water isn’t properly disposed, it can cause harm for the environment as harsh chemicals – chrome as well as lead, arsenic and other acids - make their way into the local water supply. Not only can this cause devastating soil erosion, but it can (and commonly does) cause severe health problems and eventually kill the people working with it. Unfortunately, it’s the most popular choice for both Chinese and Indian leather industries dominated by cheap labour rates and virtually non-existent workplace or environmental safety regulations.
In light of this, brands are increasingly opting to work with chrome-free leather – a term that has become a badge of honour amongst luxury fashion houses. Chrome-free leather is a broad term used for leathers processed without the use of chromium, (including vegetable tanning.) A popular example is Aldehyde Tanning, which uses aldehyde combined with emulsified oils to produce exceptionally soft leathers, wet-white colour, easily dyed and are notable in their ability to be washed5. But as always, high demand is fuelling rapid innovation in this space.
A chrome-free leather that we’re excited about at Public Fibre is a revolutionary bioprocess that combines natural and synthetic ingredients to create a biodegradable leather product, which can be found in our very own Igwe sneakers. We spoke to Igwe founder Sam to get his opinion on the debate, “I guess it depends… what is your fight? It’s admirable to fight for animals, but I’m fighting for the planet, and for me the best thing for the planet is to produce less new things. The benefit of using durable, hard-wearing animal leather for footwear” Sam tells me, “is that people need replace them less often and to buy less overall.”
So, when it comes to investing in animal leather, the key thing to look out for is how it’s processed and whether it’s using harmful chrome-tanning. However, for those who want to avoid the use of animal products in their clothes, there are plenty of exciting new alternatives to animal leather that are increasing in popularity.
“Vegan Leather” can refer to anything that mimics leather but is made from artificial or plant products instead of animal skin and is an increasingly popular choice. Searches for vegan leather have seen an increase of 69% year-on-year and average 33,100 online monthly searches6.
As consumer preferences have moved away from animal leather in the past few years, investment into new, viable forms of synthetic leather has increased. Fruitleather, Mylo mushroom leather, grape leather and lab grown leather from Modern Meadoware all being developed as viable alternatives to animal leather, and when they’re ready for mass-usage are set to have a huge impact on the industry.
A popular Vegan Leather that is already readily available is Apple Leather, a bio-based material made using the leftover pomace and peel from the fruit juice and compote industry, which is reduced to a fine powder before being mixed with small amounts of polyurethane (PU) and coated onto a cotton and polyester canvas. The result is a durable but soft fabric that is perfect for hardwearing, small accessories.
We caught up with Matt Oliver, founder of Oliver Co. to find out how he made the choice to use Apple leather.
“The process of finding the right vegan leather took us several months. We looked into vegan leather made from wine, cactus, mangoes, pineapples...honestly there is a lot on the market. For us apple leather stood out for a number of reasons...”
“From an environmental perspective it used a high percentage of bio-material, which was sourced from a natural waste stream. Combined with the fact the fabric is manufactured very close to where the apple waste is sourced, this means that the CO2 impact is greatly reduced compared to other faux leathers in the market.
In terms of its look and feel, we also considered it as the best option. It was soft to the touch and had a beautiful subtle grain. Many of the others we tried felt too spongy and unlike PVC the apple leather had a slight flexibility which softens over time making it perfect for small accessories. You can also emboss onto the material which for us was an important design element and functionally it's durability and wear resistance is excellent.
We've been excited to see the team in Italy expand the range of textures and colours available in the apple leather and look forward to adding some new variations to our product line next year.”
So is vegan leather a more sustainable option?
Although these innovations are proving to be viable from a sustainable and aesthetic perspective (you can’t deny the Oliver Co. wallets look every bit as slick as an animal leather alternative), unfortunately the term “vegan leather” is being used flamboyantly. If you’re choosing the vegan option for sustainability, you should be asking yourself if it truly is, more sustainable.
There is a misconception that Vegan Leather, which bypasses animal welfare concerns, might be shorthand for a more sustainable alternative, but unfortunately it isn’t as black and white as that. Whilst some of the innovations happening in Silicon Valley may aspire to that, the term “vegan leather” can also still be applied to some of the early forms of synthetic leather. An example of this is “pleather” (to give it it’s old colloquial name), which is most commonly made from polyurethane or polyvinyl chloride (PVC7). Both are plastics derived from fossil fuels that have undergone chemical processing to make them flexible enough to mimic leather. They also both take hundreds of years to biodegrade in landfill, where they inevitably end up when they fall apart after a few years. Unlike animal leather, some of these cheap, faux alternatives are not built to stand the test of time.
So, there you have it…
…We did warn you that it wasn’t straightforward. So, once you’ve brushed up on your GCSE chemistry and got your head around the various tanning processes, the best place to start is through examination of your own personal values. If you’re looking for something that will stand the test of time, then you shouldn’t feel bad about choosing the right kind of leather. At its heart it’s a waste product after all. But if the idea of using an animal-derived product isn’t for you, rest assured that there are alternatives available and even more on the way.
As frustrating as it is that there’s no “right” answer, at Public Fibre we can’t help but feel positive and excited about the advances in the industry. As always, the goal should be to buy fewer new items, but when you do want to indulge yourself then continue to be smart with your research and curious with the brands you shop from. The first step is to demand transparency, only then can we make the conscious decisions needed to push the industry in the right direction. It’s all about the baby steps.
By Emily Ellis of Public Fibre
- Greenpeace calls PVC “the single most environmentally damaging of all plastics.”https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/toxics/pvc-free/