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With a global shift towards conscious consumption, a critical look at the leather industry is required too. Vegan leather has turned the tide of leather production and the vegan leather market is predicted to grow by 49% from 2019 to 2025.
So what is vegan leather? It’s exactly what it claims to be; a leather alternative that is not manufactured from animal products. It comes in various forms, synthetic and natural, and it is often associated with the term ‘eco-friendly’ because of its non-vegan counterpart being a major source of pollution. The leather industry has been recognised by the Environmental Protection Agency to be one of the top polluting industries in existence. The tanning process, which makes the raw animal hide shapeable for product creation, utilizes a variety of toxic chemicals that find their way into the surrounding water bodies. These chemicals also turn leather into a material that is not biodegradable, thus the disposal of leather goods is as problematic as its process. Given that India is one of the biggest leather producers in the world, the problem is quite close to home too.
Vegan leather does not require the tanning process, nor does it utilize animal products. While it undoubtedly has cut out animals from its production process, does animal-free necessarily mean cruelty-free? And is eco-friendly a term that is being used because it is relatively better?
The term vegan has become synonymous with all the tags conscious consumers look for but conscious choices require an understanding deeper than packaging labels. If two years in the conscious consumption space has taught us anything it is this; while a perfect alternative does not exist, analysing the ones we have allows us to keep bettering our choices!
Before we dive into vegan leather, let’s take a look at what cruelty-free means. You may have seen symbols of a rabbit on cruelty-free products.
The definition followed by industries is, “A product manufactured or developed by methods which do not involve cruelty to animals.” While vegan leather undoubtedly falls under this definition, the beauty of conscious consumption is that it aims to constantly push the boundary of the choices that we can make. With the aim of constantly doing better, the definition that animal rights movements use, “Cruelty-free is a label for products that do not harm or kill animals anywhere in the world.”
Why is this definition different? Because it looks beyond the manufacturing process of the product! So, vegan leather production may be cruelty-free but is vegan leather inherently cruelty-free too?
An important takeaway from the last image is that vegan and cruelty-free are not synonymous with each other; they’re completely different solutions. A product that is vegan does not contain any animal ingredients or animal-derived ingredients, which vegan leather undoubtedly is (hence the term vegan leather). In order to understand the questions that vegan leather is truly solving, we need to not only understand how vegan leather is made but also what the rest of its life cycle looks like.
Like most products, vegan leather can be made from either synthetic or natural ingredients. Synthetic leather is also called faux leather and is made from either Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or Polyurethane (PU). Both are plastic-based materials that adds the name pleather or plastic leather to the synonyms for synthetic leather. A very small percentage of vegan leather is made from natural ingredients like cork, and PU leather is the most common.
The use of synthetic ingredients is where the question of being cruelty-free arises from. Plastic has a bad rapport in the sustainability sector and we don’t often see the terms ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘synthetic’ on the same product. But not being biodegradable seems like a worthy trade-off to make when compared to its leather alternative (which doesn’t degrade either because of chemicals added in).
Let’s take a step back and look at the manufacturing process of synthetic leather and why it may not lend itself to the cruelty-free narrative it tries to sell.
PVC and PU are both byproducts of petroleum and are thus cheaper than animal hide. This is important to note because creating vegan alternatives is not always for conscious consumerism. Often, it’s because of the fast fashion market.
The PCV making process releases harmful chemicals called phthalates into the surrounding environment. Phthalates have been linked to a variety of diseases in disorders in humans and the animal kingdom alike. Don’t live near a PVC plant? Well, PVC materials release phthalates throughout their lifetime too, so owning PCV products exposes you to its harmful effects.
The good news is that thanks to public health research, the use of PVC has drastically decreased over the last decade. PU use has since increased and although it is less toxic than PVC, no form of plastic lacks shortcomings. While solid PU itself does not release chemicals, the manufacturing process of PU does because of its dangerous fumes. Unfortunately, this means that the factory workers face the brunt of its effects, as does the water bodies and environment around the factories.
Knowing these details begs the question - aren’t toxic chemicals negatively affecting parts of the animal kingdom? Can we really use the term cruelty-free?
Let’s look at the end of the life cycle before our final answer.
We all understand the ill effects of plastic in landfills. Leather made from PVC and PU is no different. They both leach toxic chemicals into the ground and pollute the water bodies that the groundwater leads into. PVC additionally releases phthalates into the air, adding another mode of pollution. It’s essential to realise that lifecycles are linked - a synthetic leather product’s lifecycle affects an animal’s lifecycle in more ways than just material choice.
Have you heard of microplastics? A staple of conversations about sustainability, microplastics are plastic fragments less than 5mm in size. Water purification systems miss them because of their small size, and they are thus ingested by humans and aquatic life alike. Yes, plastics are not biodegradable i.e. they do not break down into natural components that can re-enter the soil cycle, but that doesn’t mean that plastics aren’t degradable. Natural forces like sunlight and water degrade plastic products into microplastics. PVC and PU leathers are not exempt from this process.
A large body of research has been dedicated to studying the effects of microplastics and the results are in - ‘harmful’ does not begin to cut it. From carcinogenic properties to damaging major organ systems, microplastics are bad news. Aquatic organisms, especially, bear the brunt of microplastics’ effects on the animal kingdom. But like with everything else, microplastic too has a life cycle, and as it travels up the food chain, it reaches us, humans, too.
After looking at the entire picture, from the synthetic ingredients used to make vegan leather to the disposal process of vegan leather, we say no.
Is vegan leather better than the leather industry? Absolutely. Is the pollution caused by vegan leather significantly lower? Yes! Do we believe that there is a sure-shot answer that solves all the pain points? No. As much as we’d like to preach perfect solutions, the truth is that there aren’t perfect alternatives (yet).
In the age of information where consumers want information (you did read this whole piece!) so that they can make informed decisions, we thought it necessary to share the whole truth of vegan leather. But we won’t leave you with only bad news.
Remember when we touched upon vegan leather that isn’t synthetically derived? You may want to look into plant-based vegan leather alternatives like pineapple leather (Pinãtex), cork and even coconut leather! While these aren’t perfect, they still have a bit of plastic, they are all promising alternatives to petroleum-based leather.
Mirum is another natural fibre that is turning heads. It is 100% plastic-free and conscious brands are working towards making Mirum mainstream. We at Beej work with Pinãtex and cork instead of leather or synthetic leather and there are more and more brands taking this step in the right direction.
The bottom line is that a conscious choice is often not the easy one especially when the terms we look for, like eco-friendly or cruelty-free, are used on a relative scale. For example Vegan leather is comparatively more eco-friendly than real leather, vegan leather is comparatively less cruel than real leather.
We need to consider all parts of a product’s life cycle - raw ingredients, manufacturing process, longevity and disposal - in order to understand its costs on the environment and the life cycles that are affected. Because, at the end of the day, the more information that we have the better choices we’ll make; leather, pleather or plant-based leather.