Vegan Leather: not always innocent
Posted by : Ashley Southard /
It may all be animal-friendly, but very little of it is eco-friendly.
Vegan leather is often (not always – we’ll get to that after) just a greenwashing term for “synthetically produced and full of chemicals” leather, as most pleather on the market is made from polyurethane and/or PVC.
Certainly, it’s the lesser of two evils… but why do we have to choose any evil at all?
How traditional vegan leather is made:Polyurethane pleather process:
A liquid form of polyurethane is poured on top of a paper that’s texturized to look like leather, and then heat treated (which releases fumes into the air). Multiple coats of the polyurethane are layered, heat treated each time, until the desired thickness is reached, and then the paper is pulled away and another layer of fabric is attached to the back to give it stability (usually a woven or knit fabric). In many cases, the surface will be embossed to resemble a grain or texture of leather. PVC pleather process:
A petroleum-based plasticizer is mixed with a stabilizer, vinyl, and lubricants that make it flexible. Just like in the polyurethane process, a textured paper is coated with the liquid vinyl, heat treated, then coated again, heated to harden, and a fabric backing is added. The paper is peeled away to reveal the texture.
Why the traditional pleather is bad:
Polyurethane is formed by reacting a polyol with isocyanates or polymeric isocyanate, which creates the byproduct of ozone-depleting gases. Isocyanates and their fumes are particularly harmful to mucous membranes (the eyes and respiratory system), but can also cause dermal rashes. Polyurethane is not biodegradable.
PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is a hard substance; it’s softened by caustic chemicals that make it thin and pliable – namely phthalates and BPA, both major endocrine disruptors that increase cancer risk, interfere with sex organ development and function, disturb the immune system, and are related to respiratory issues, heart disease, and infertility. PVC is not biodegradable.
The production of PVC also releases dioxins, which are one of the most persistent pollutants around the world – mainly because they are easily stored in fat tissue for 7-11 years once they enter the body. You can imagine how, if you’re exposed to it regularly, the toxicity levels in the body soar. This is incredibly important to keep in mind if you consume meat products as well, since dioxins are stored in the animals’ fat tissue just as they’re stored in ours. Long term exposure to dioxins is related to immune system damage, altered liver function, nervous system damage, and endocrine disruption.
Additionally, synthetic products (whether PVC or polyurethane) require significantly more aggressive dyes in order to take on color – which entails even more caustic chemicals.
Both of these synthetic leathers are not biodegradable and they have a much shorter lifespan than traditional leather. And, just like those recycled plastic yoga leggings that seem harmless, these synthetic plastic leathers break down into harmful microplastics in our oceans and even the air we breathe.
Hands down, cow leather is the most harmful to both the animals and the earth (just take a look at the recent HIGG index depiction below) when you compare its production process to others:
But (when is there not a but, right?) you also have to keep in mind the fact that sustainable leather can last 20-50 years – whereas synthetic plastics can only last 2-5! If you were to add up all the environmental damage of the synthetic production, it would meet or exceed cow leather’s harm.
But why cause any harm at all?
Plant Leather: the new pleather
No, this isn’t the fruit leather you try to feed your kids when they *refuse* to eat their real fruits and veggies. This is leather-like material made from plant sources like mushrooms, pineapples, and bananas:
Lab-Grown: Le Qara
Le Qara’s “lab leather” is derived from Peruvian plants and fruits - not only is the leather biodegradable, the residues from the process can be used as a liquid compost, so it’s truly a zero-waste product (it won H&M’s 2019 Global Change Award!)
Le Qara is still in its funding stages and is projected to be available to market by late 2020.
Sugandh G. Agrawal created MulbTex as part of Gunas’s mission to go plastic-free and cruelty-free (for both animals and factory workers). Mulberry leaves are the staple food for silk worms – instead of extracting the silk protein from the worms by killing them, the proteins are extracted directly from the mulberry leaf pulp.
Their accessories and shoes are available online.
MuSkin is a 100% vegetable alternative to animal leather that comes from the caps Phellinus ellipsoideus, a fungus that grows in the wild and attacks the trees in the subtropical forests and uses no toxic substances whatsoever in its production.
You can buy the raw material online.
Mylo is made by growing mycelium cells, the underground “threads” from mushrooms, in beds of agricultural waste and byproduct in a lab. The lab conditions encourage the mycelium to grow upward and assemble into an organized mat of interconnected cells. The mat is then compressed to the desired thickness, and imprinted with a leather-like pattern.
Mylo has partnered with Stella McCartney to create some prototypes, but you can shop their first purchasable design on Kickstarter.
MycoWorks started by using mushrooms to create more durable materials such as wood and cement replacements, but it has expanded into more pliable materials for textiles. Their leather-like material is grown through a closed-loop process that uses minimal water.
Pinatex is created from the pineapple leaves that are the byproduct of existing agriculture, and their use creates an additional income stream for farming communities. According to the Pinatex producer Ananas-Anam, the long fibers are extracted through a process called decortication, which is done at the plantation by the farming community (in fact, Ananas Anam has developed the first automated decorticating machine to assist with this process, allowing farmers to utilize greater quantities of their waste leaves).
Once the leaves have been stripped of fiber, the leftover biomass can be used as a nutrient-rich natural fertilizer or a biofuel, so nothing is wasted. Then, the fibers are degummed and processed to become a non-woven mesh, which is finished to obtain its leather-like appearance.
Unfortunately, the finishing is not 100% biodegradable (it’s petroleum based), but Ananas-Anam is working on it.
Pinatex is used by over 500 companies worldwide – Ethical Elephant showcases just a few of these brands.
Apples: The Apple Girl
Sustainable fashion student Hannah Michaud discovered a new use for the apple industry’s waste: apple leather. The apple skin is a byproduct of the apple juice and apple cider industry, and is processed with minimal water and zero harmful waste.
The material is currently available for sample or purchase online.
Teak Leaf: Nuvi Nomad
Teak leaves are collected when fallen (not picked right off the trees), after which they are soaked in water and dyed. The leaves are dried flat, and arranged in such a way that they stick together and form a unique pattern. The inside is lined with cotton, and the outside is protected with a non-toxic film called BOPP.
Note: like Pinatex, the coating on this teak leather isn’t perfected; according to Tree Tribe, the thin outer layer, when incinerated, only gives off water vapor and carbon dioxide (the same thing we do when we breathe).
Shop their looks and models online.
Technically, this is from bacterial cellulose sourced from coconuts. According to the brand, the word ‘Malai’ refers directly to the creamy flesh of the coconut and it is the coconut water (a by-product from the harvesting of this flesh) that sustains the bacteria while they are producing the cellulose. After 12 to 14 days of fermentation, this mix results in a cellulose jelly. The jelly undergoes refinement, with the addition of natural fibers, gums and resins and is finally formed into sheets, before being air-dried and made water-resistant.
Shop their textiles online, or follow their Instagram to see their collaboration projects and where they can be purchased.
With all of these plant leather options – many of which make use of agricultural waste – there is no need to be purchasing cruelly-made animal leather or caustically-made synthetic leather!
We vote with our wallets: what we're buying signals to manufacturers what is and isn't in demand for production.
The less synthetic and animal products we collectively buy, the less they will make!