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O My Bag gifted me the above laptop purse made with faux-crocodile eco-leather (Indian cowhide).
There are ostensibly many fantastic vegan leather alternatives out there today: cork, upcycled rubber, mushroom leather, grape leather, apple leather, and pineapple leather, and even all the fruits together in something called Fruitleather, plus lab-grown leather. With such an embarrassment of plant-based leathers, many of my readers ask: why do ethical and sustainable fashion brands still use real leather?
After all, leather tanning is notoriously toxic –– especially when it comes to the most common and key ingredient to the tanning process: chromium. When poured untreated into waterways, tannery effluent leads to serious skin and breathing ailments and eventually birth defects.
Leather is also an animal product (in case you didn’t know). With so many people going vegetarian and vegan with their food, many people are looking for a way to cut cows out of their wardrobe as well.
“We think it’s a lack of knowledge and research into the many great leather alternatives available today,” the cofounders of the new vegan shoe line TAYLOR + THOMAS, Jessica Taylor Mead and Elizabeth Thomas James, told me by email. “But we think it’s also the consumer’s perception of luxury. They tend to see leather alternatives as being cheap substitutes for luxury materials, which is why perhaps many companies are not making the change.”
But every conscious leather product brand I talked to said they are actively researching and open to the idea of vegan leathers. “First and foremost, we have a nice sustainable luxury brand that looks beautiful, and that is why people buy it,” says O My Bag founder Paulien Wesselink. “If there’s an interesting recycled material that is beautiful, and that you can make nice products out of, we would be interested to look into it.”
“As soon as natural leather alternatives are available that don’t require us to compromise on sustainability and longevity, we will use it,” QWSTION co-founder and Creative Director Christian Paul Kaegi agrees.
Is this really just a perception issue? Are conscious brands that use leather just not trying hard enough?
Last week I dove into whether leather is truly a byproduct of the meat industry, or if buying leather fashion leads to more cows being raised and slaughtered. You can read about that here.
This week, I’m looking into all the plant-based and synthetic vegan leather options, and asking the question: why aren’t more designers and brands using them? Here’s what I found…
1. Most fancy new leather alternatives aren’t yet available.
Despite being crowed about often in roundups and social media, Fruitleather, Mylo mushroom leather, grape leather, and lab-grown leather from Modern Meadow are not available yet for brands to buy and use. They’re all still being developed, tested, and piloted. Many sustainable brands I talked to were closely following mushroom leather and lab-grown leather developments. But they’re not ready yet for the big time, and some may never be.
2. Many leather alternatives don’t look as nice.
I might be that until lab-grown leather comes to market, you’re just never going to get the hand-feel and depth of real leather with alternatives.
Cork has a very specific look that doesn’t appeal to a lot of people. “Even Portuguese don’t like cork accessories,” a Portuguese stylist told me this summer in Lisbon. This a country where cork is a native tree, and cork accessories are pushed on all the tourists.
Personally, I have only found two brands that have beautiful cork accessories: Ulsto does cork and felt, and Sydney Brown does cork on recycled synthetic vegan leather. (Cork often also has to be reinforced with another material.) I have not tested the former out, though I’ve seen it in person and the bags are indeed cute. I have tried shoes made with synthetic vegan leather from Sydney Brown (though not cork ones) and I’ve been disappointed with the fact that they do not break in the way leather shoes do. I ultimately donated them because of the consistent blisters they gave me.
I do have a couple upcycled rubber accessories, but I only wear them to festivals, because they, well… look like upcycled rubber accessories. See above.
Piñatex is a plant-based “leather” made from waste pineapple fibers. It’s pretty sustainable, and increasingly popular for vegan fashion lines. UPDATE: A helpful reader in the comments pointed me to the fact that the coating on Piñatex is actually petroleum-based and not biodegradable. Womp, womp.
It seems I can’t walk into an eco store these days without a sales associate pouncing to tell me about the amazing properties of pineapple fiber leather. Yes, it’s very exciting. But you cannot deny that it has a fibrous texture that isn’t appealing to all consumers, or useful in all types of accessories. “It doesn’t last long,” says O M Bag’s Wesselink, who ordered some swatches to test in a wallet. “It is not as strong. But mainly, it doesn’t look as nice. That is more for a different brand, but it’s not for us.”
Fair enough! But maybe this texture thing is actually good for Piñatex, because I actually can see it becoming a vegan status symbol, a way for someone to tell you they’re vegan without ever opening their mouth. (That would actually be an amazing turn of events.) Still, it’s not the silver bullet for leather, due to questions about its longevity and the fact that it is finished with a synthetic coating.
Even the main type of vegan leather (more in the next section) doesn’t appeal to me visually. Perhaps I am guilty of the luxury bias against vegan leathers, but I have found myself donating several vegan products I bought or was gifted because, well, it looks like I bought it from Payless, even though I paid a high, ethical-fashion price for it.
Maybe it looks cheap because…
3. Vegan leather is a type of plastic.
“From what I see happening in fashion, it seems like a lot of people are not aware that vegan leather alternatives are almost all made from plastic,” QWSTION co-founder and Creative Director Christian Paul Kaegi told me via email. This eco-friendly Swiss brand is no stranger to innovation, having launched a plant-based, regenerative canvas-like fiber called Bananatex this past fall. The body of their bags are made with either organic cotton or Banatex, but they use leather on their handles for a comfort grip. “Due to all the marketing going on, it is really difficult (or even impossible) to see what is actually sustainable.”
As a sustainable fashion writer, I am often pitched “vegan, cruelty-free leather” accessories, and find it maddeningly difficult to figure out what exactly this vegan leather is. But having thoroughly researched every vegan leather pitch that comes in my inbox, I can tell you that if a brand is saying that their product is made of vegan leather but doesn’t say anything more about it, it is either polyurethane. (PU), or polyvinyl chloride (PVC). (Apple leather by Frumat, despite the lovely name, still has 50% PU in it.)
No self-respecting eco-friendly brand should be using PVC in their products. It’s incredibly toxic to manufacture –– Greenpeace calls it “the single most environmentally damaging of all plastics.” Unfortunately, sometimes it’s hard to tell if a brand is using PVC or PU. Matt & Nat, for example, uses PVC, but doesn’t label the material in their products online. Which is alarmingly sketchy. (Also, their stuff looks cheap in person. Trust me.)
Polyurethane (PU) is a better choice. But it is still a synthetic, manmade material. Supporters of vegan leather will tell you that PU is not plastic, because it has different physical properties from plastic. But… that distinction is largely semantics. Manufacturing polyurethane involves hazardous chemicals, and should be handled with care.
Some PU manufacturing facilities are better than others. For example, leather tanneries and PU factories in Europe are under the same REACH guidelines, which cover the use and disposal of chemicals. So in terms of the environment, PU or leather made in Italy would actually be about the same in terms of environmental impact.
Taylor + Thomas launched their shoes in October of 2018 with a relatively new PU material from an Italian factory: it’s water-based and made without the use of synthetic chemical resins, solvents or toxic dyes. The purse lining is made from 50% PU and 50% yellow dent, which is an inedible corn. HFS Collective sells purses of PU made with recycled materials crafted in an Oeko-tex-certified facility.
But artisan and environmental brands are still wary of incorporating synthetics into their products, even if they are made in Italy, especially given the rising awareness around plastics, and their effect on the environment.
“We have tried using fake leather (PU-coated polyester) for the zipper pull, as well as making our handle from webbing (nylon, and rayon) instead of our veg-tan leather. All alternatives which had a similar quality of hand-feel contained plastic,” Kaegi of QWSTION says. “Ultimately we decided to prioritize avoiding plastic, and thus choose natural materials and sustainability over the possibility to label it ‘vegan.'”
(If you’re interested in learning more about vegan fashion, I wrote this piece for Craftsmanship Quarterly breaking it down.)
Side Note: Choosing Sustainably-Tanned Leather
The leather industry as it stands is not unassailable. As I stated in the intro, there is no shortage of bad tanneries (especially in Bangladesh and India). But that’s actually what drew Wesselink of O My Bag in: the challenge of making the industry better. “I was thinking to be a pioneer in the industry and show that it can be done differently, and make a case for eco-friendly leather. So that is what we did in Kolkata.”
Wesselink works with the Sheong Shi Tannery in Kolkata to produce eco leather, which is made in a process called wet white tanning, which is free of harmful chemicals like chromium, heavy metals, formaldehyde, short-chain chlorinated paraffin, volatile organic compounds, and alkyl phenol ethoxylates. It’s so clean, that leftover leather can be recycled and used in fertilizer, unlike chromium-tanned leather. The leather is tested regularly by SGS, a Switzerland-based independent inspection agency, to ensure it is toxin-free.
Kering, which owns brands like Gucci, is trying to go chromium-free in all the leather sourced by its sub brands by 2025. I partnered with Timberland last year to talk about their sustainability initiatives, and one of the things they do is only work with tanneries that are rated highly by a third-party organization as properly handling their waste, among other things.
There is also vegetable-tanned leather, the traditional way of tanning leather, in which tannins derived from plants, like bark, are applied over several months to tan the hide. This yields a stiffer but longer-lasting leather that is great for shoes and belts, and is often the choice of small sustainable brands.
Raven + Lily sources their leather locally to their Ethiopian artisans, from one of the best tanneries in Africa that uses a water recycling program, vegetable dyes, byproduct from the meat industry, and supports local female workers.
4. Vegan leathers don’t have the longevity of real leather.
Nisolo is another brand that I own and wear a lot. I’ll stop by a shoe cobbler in NYC and get them shined up on the fly if I need to. “Nisolo’s leather products are designed to last for many years, and they become more beautiful with age as the leathers develop unique patinas,” Nisolo’s Impact Associate Matt Stockamp and Product Design Manager Taylor Perkins told me in a joint email interview. “We’ll need to conduct thorough testing to make sure that any vegan materials also meet our brand’s standards for quality and longevity.”
Above is my Raven + Lily camel-colored leather backpack that the brand sent me last summer. I used it a few times a week since then all over Europe and Asia. True to form, it has developed a nice patina as the only sign of its heavy rotation through my traveling wardrobe. Same with my leather Pons Avarcas sandals. (You can read my full review of their performance here.) Note that this aging and patina only applies to fairly unpainted leathers. If you have a purse or pair of shoes with a glossy painted finish, you must take care not to scratch or nick the finish. (As I found out when I contacted a shoe designer about my beautiful gold leather shoes. Nope, not fixable.) But good basic leather products will last for decades of heavy use. Just ask my husband about his vintage leather jacket!
Synthetic leathers can’t achieve the same beautiful aging process. Believe me, I’ve tried a lot of vegan products in good faith and been sorely disappointed. Instead, they tend to crack, peel, and separate at the seams.
“Leather is a very durable product,” says Wesselink. “In terms of time, it will outlast any non-leather alternative by tenfold almost.” Longevity is important to O My Bag, which repairs purses that their customers bring in, takes back their old purses for a discount on new collections, and even has a purse lending library. Wesselink is dissatisfied with vegan leather alternatives. “What is on the market now I think just doesn’t look as nice and doesn’t sustain as long.”
The European sustainable purse brand Natural Nuance buys the deer skin for their indigo-dyed, fish oil-tanned purses from hunters in Austria, where deer have to be hunted in order to keep the forest healthy and biodiverse. They are thinking about a vegan collection, but they haven’t alighted on the right vegan material yet. “When you look at circularity, you have to really know that the material will last,” co-founder Ase Elvebakk told me. “So if you have to take it back again to recycle it, leather is really a top material.” If required, you can send your bag back to Natural Nuance be repaired, or they can actually take your bag back to completely remake it into something different, using the exact same materials.
Opus Mind is another beautiful brand, started by former Dior and Chanel leather specialist, Kathleen Kuo. They use real, upcycled leather that meets sustainable, RCS-100 standards and is sourced from RecycLeather™—a green tech company that recycles natural leather fibers from used traceable leather waste.
Then there is Pirarucu, a type of leather made from fish skin that I recently discovered. A native of the Amazon, the Pirarucu fish is one of the largest freshwater fishes on the planet. These fish benefit the ecosystem and communities in Brazil who live off fishing (a non-predatory activity that is an important income source), but their skin is discarded, creating biological pollution. So, the fashion brand Osklen decided to use the skin byproducts to make some beautiful handbags. You can read more about the project here and shop the collection here.
5. Leather is a traditional, local material for BIPOC artisans.
Wesselink founded O My Bag after studying international relations and interning at a foreign affairs office, thinking she would work in development aid. Instead, she decided to found a fair trade business, and she chose to produce luxurious leather bags.
Leather tanneries in places like India often source from smallholder or family farms, or even backyards –– the goat, cow, or sheep is slaughtered for family consumption or for a Muslim festival like Eid. For BIPOC (black and indigenous) artisan workshops and small factories all over the world, it doesn’t make sense to pay more to import vegan leathers from factories in China or Italy.
“Part of our design model at Raven + Lily is to honor the heritage techniques of our artisan partners who have been perfecting their crafts and working with the materials they specialize in for decades,” Brand Director Katie Chaput told me via email. “We view our role in these partnerships as helping them to pursue the most environmentally friendly techniques possible by investing in their eco-conscious models, not disrupting the system through the introductions of synthetic materials.”
Should You Choose PU Vegan Leather, Piñatex, or Eco-Friendly Real Leather?
After doing all this research and considering all sides (and materials), I would ultimately say that this decision is up to you and your own style, needs, and values. If you gag at the thought of wearing animal skin but want a classic look, go for sustainably-made PU vegan leather. If you are a proud vegan and environmentalist, then pick up something made with Piñatex. If you are a capsule wardrobe, #30wears, and/or vintage fashion gal, then get yourself some vegetable-tanned, artisan-made, or secondhand leather accessories.
Likewise, I will say that thoughtlessly buying any old leather or vegan leather product without looking into how it was made and where is equally bad.
The point is, I will brook no judgmental pronouncements from the vegan or non-vegan side of this debate on shoppers who pause to buy leather or faux-leather goods thoughtfully . These are all suitable choices for a conscious consumer.
Kaegi of QWSTION sums up the whole issue of vegan vs. real leather quite nicely: “The topic of sustainability has an enormous complexity, which can be overwhelming. Veganism has become a huge business. In this jungle, I think it’s important to stay critical, ask questions, think for yourself.”
“And try to buy less, but better things.”