Vegan. Zero animal products. The vegan lifestyle has been a key driver in helping people eat healthier and find alternative sources of nutrition. Those with various allergies have often found food substitutes from a vegan recipe. Although one may puzzle over some of the food identification labels such as ‘vegan steak’, or ‘non-dairy milk’, it is undeniable that the vegan lifestyle has a lot of merit where sustainability and carbon footprint reduction are concerned.
So, when one hears the term vegan leather, chances are that the immediate response is positive. I mean, it’s the vegans, saving the earth once again, right? Well… This is where things get a bit dicey. You see, with concerns of climate change on the rise, and with consumers demanding more environmentally friendly products, the terms sustainable, eco-friendly, and conscious, are being thrown around carelessly on clothing labels, even when the production process is anything but sustainable or eco-friendly. This is called greenwashing, and it is false marketing at its core.
Any environmentally conscious consumers seeking alternatives to fast fashion would likely be interested in alternatives to traditional leather. Their reasons may be, to reduce their carbon footprint, or to detach themselves from the animal torture associated with the meat industry (of which leather is directly connected). So the words ‘vegan leather’ would likely catch their attention.
A huge majority of products that have been labeled as vegan leather products are actually faux-leather (or pleather). Faux-leather has been in the market for decades, however, in a more eco-conscious consumer world, knowing what a product is made of, and its manufacturing process is fundamental to buying decisions.
So, let us do a little digging and see what we discover.
Faux leather products are made out of PVC (polyvinyl chloride). To be honest, just writing that made me think of my grandfather’s LPs (vinyls) soaked in some bleaching agent to soften them. Another component of these products is PU (polyurethane… or as my brain pronounces it, pee-eew!), or textile-polymer composite microfibers (say that three times fast!), and you have a cauldron boiling and bubbling with plastic, plastic, and a mouthful of more plastic. Say what now? Yup! Unfortunately, much of the faux-leather out there, which is being marketed as vegan leather, is plastic.
The production of PVC is one of the most toxic processes in manufacturing, producing the most carcinogenic chemical byproduct ever tested, called dioxins. Phthalates are initially used in the manufacturing process as a softening agent, and eventually leech into the environment. Exposure to these has been associated with infertility, hormonal and developmental disorders, liver and heart disease, cancer, various respiratory disorders and even Type II diabetes.
PU, which is often marketed as the ‘eco-friendly’ faux-leather is anything but. The process of creating microfiber synthetic fabrics involves layering and compressing the textiles and polymers together, then soaking them in a solution to solidify the material. This requires the use of chemicals such as dimethylformamide and aceitic acid, which are extremely toxic, and even more so because of the enormous quantities used in production. Just like its PVC cousin, PU has been connected to health problems such as birth defects and cancer, damaged skin and eyes.
Although the product by vegan standards is not an animal product, and no animals consequently are harmed directly in the production of the material, the production process is extremely harmful to factory workers. Further, the environment eventually feels the impact of the pollution released through this manufacturing process, and ultimately, animals do get harmed through the food and water they consume from the earth.
Micro-plastic pollution is a great threat to our soils and seas. The production of fibers from micro-plastics consumes excessive quantities of energy, chemicals and water. We are all too aware that plastics are not biodegradable, so you can imagine what happens when these products are discarded… yes, back to the landfills that we are so desperately in need of managing!
To be fair, there are other truly vegan, truly sustainable leather alternatives in the market made from cork, apple, mushroom, corn, mango and pineapple. However, when all is said and done, conventional faux-leather uses fossil fuels, chemicals, artificial dyes and excessive natural resources to create a product that will not decompose! Sadly, greenwashing may blindside consumers who are genuinely seeking truly, sustainable, eco-friendly and consciously produced merchandise.
And so we see that the slapping the term vegan on a leather, does not necessarily mean that its manufacture is eco-friendly, sustainable or conscious. The commitment to vegan ideals in and of itself is a noble lifestyle choice. The misappropriation of terminology however is misleading and unethical. It is imperative that consumers arm themselves with the truth, beginning with the clear definition of the terms used in this new wave of product marketing, and a commitment to read product labels with care.