Is Vegan Leather Actually Sustainable?

The use of vegan leather is a growing trend among brands trying to be more eco-friendly. While vegan alternatives are better for animals, are they better for the planet?

Plant Leather, a new material Pioneered by Allbirds

The appetite for ethical fashion is rising, especially as textile waste accumulates in landfills and harmful production processes become transparent. The leather goods market, valued at $128 billion, is one of the biggest offenders. The animal-based material depends on livestock—a major source of pollution that accounts for 14.5 percent of annual man-made greenhouse gas emissions—and tanning processes consume excessive amounts of water and release toxic waste that causes respiratory issues and soil depletion. In recent years, vegan leather has emerged as an “eco-friendly” alternative that mimics the look and feel of leather. But not all vegan leathers are created equal. 

A 2018 sustainability report developed by Kering notes the impact of vegan leather production can be one-third lower than that of animal-based leather. Drawbacks arise, however, when the alternatives are made from plastic polymers such as polyurethane and polyvinyl chloride, which leach microplastics and can spend centuries in landfills. While fashion labels such as Nanushka, Melie Bianco, and Wolford claim their vegan leather products offer a sustainable alternative to leather, many are made using petroleum-based plastics.

Tanja Hester, an environmental activist and author of Wallet Activism, says the idea of plastic-based leather is an example of greenwashing: “[Pleather] is truly just plastic, which is rarely recycled and in vegan leather form it’s impossible to recycle—there’s essentially no sustainable vegan leather. It’s understandable that many people are drawn to vegan leather because they care about animal welfare, but they’d certainly make a different choice if they understood that it’s really just plastic made from petroleum.”

Image courtesy Stella McCartney

Major fashion brands, however, are embracing plant-based leathers that are cruelty-free, low-impact, and don’t compromise on durability. These leather varieties draw from natural sources such as pineapple leaves (Piñatex), mushrooms (Mylo), kombucha cultures, and even agricultural waste—all of which are biodegradable and easily recycled. Stella McCartney is leading the pack, having debuted an entire ready-to-wear collection using vegetable-tanned Mylo this past spring. At the same time, Allbirds pioneered what may be the first plant-based leather that has a carbon impact 40 times lower than animal leather and produces 17 times fewer carbon emissions than synthetic leathers. Other brands such as Hermès, Adidas, and Lululemon have also started experimenting with plant-based leather. 

Like the term “organic,” sustainability is now a marketing buzzword. The onus is on us, the consumers, to check the fine print and educate ourselves on the nuances in order to prevent greenwashing. The devil, as always, is in the details.

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