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Should we really be buying vegan leather?

Vegan fashion is on the rise, with the UK’s accessories sector seeing a 56 percent increase in ‘vegan’ items stocked year-on-year. But are these products really a sustainable alternative?

Ever found yourself purchasing a ‘green’ clothing item from your local retailer?

Veganism across the board has seen a huge surge in popularity in recent years, with Gen Z leading the charge. According to a report from Produce Blue Book, 65% of Gen Z say they want a more ‘plant-forward’ diet.

Whether it be a desire to go cruelty-free, lowering green house gas emissions, or just to respect the rights of animals, brands must change their practices to keep up with this changing demand and remain relevant.

The fashion industry is no exception. We’ve seen many ‘green’ clothing products and brands pop up in the last five years or so, promising consumers a smarter choice that offers style without the moral guilt.

Leather made from synthetic materials is one such example of this new-age ‘vegan’ fashion, though it may be less environmentally friendly than you think.

Vegan leather – also known as synthetic leather or ‘pleather’ – is typically made from one of two types of plastic polymers: polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC). These polymers are derived from fossil fuels and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, which isn’t exactly ideal when you’re trying to save the planet and be eco-conscious.

These clothes can also pose a threat after they’ve been worn and discarded as they usually end up in landfill, degrade, and release toxic chemicals. Failing that, they could wind up in the ocean, where they’ll eventually become micro-plastics.

The production of vegan leather does more than just damage the environment, too. It also largely contributes to fast fashion, a problem that remains rampant across the industry.

Being synthetic, these materials are far cheaper to produce and have a lower price tag for consumers, appealing to the typically cost-sensitive Gen Z budget.

Currently, a pair of faux leather boots on Boohoo that were originally only £35 are being retailed at £7. But this ‘bargain’ comes at a social cost. Just last year, The Sunday Times revealed that workers in Boohoo’s Leicester factory were being paid £3.50 an hour, despite minimum wage for anyone over the age of 25 being £8.72.

Is vegan leather just a greenwashing strategy?

Although PU’s use in fashion dates back to the 1950s when it was used in soles of trainers, the term ‘vegan leather’ is a relatively recent innovation.

Marketing has been used to mislead customers into believing that synthetic leather is an eco-friendly breakthrough, with a particular focus on Gen Z shoppers. It’s no coincidence that the most socially aware and vegan friendly generation is being pandered too specifically, though it’s still disappointing nonetheless.

This clever subliminal linking of vegan fashion with sustainability has worked, with a report by Infinium Global Research stating that the global vegan leather market is set to hit $89.6 billion by 2025.

However, despite its significant environmental threats, a sustainability report developed in 2018 titled ‘The Environment Profit & Loss’ states that the impact of vegan leather production is up to a third lower than real leather, with real leather being the least sustainable of all fabrics.

Real leather production has greater GHG emissions, due to the deforestation required for cattle farming and methane released from livestock.

Over the last decade, 13% of total anthropogenic GHG emissions came from deforestation, with cattle production being responsible for over two thirds of this.

In addition, real leather production involves strong chemicals needed to break down protein in the animal skin. Other harmful chemicals, such as chromium, are also used in the tanning process.

These chemicals can pose serious health risks, too. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention previously found that the area surrounding one tannery in Kentucky was experiencing five times the average rate of new leukaemia cases compared to the rest of the US.

These tanneries also have negative environmental consequences, as chemicals run off into water systems and cause pollution and eutrophication.

For example, Hazaribagh – which is home to 95% of Bangladesh’s leather tanneries – dumps 22,000 cubic litres of toxic waste into the Buriganga River every single day.

So, where does this leave us?

Due to the severe issues associated with both real and synthetic leather, many brands are now exploring plant-based leather alternatives.

MycoTech is an Indonesian start-up that’s developed a process of turning mycelium (the network of threads from the root structure of mushrooms) into a material that imitates the properties of leather.

Although the current debate is focused on real leather vs vegan leather, this narrative must shift to highlight plant-based alternatives if the industry wants to survive and enjoy a sustainable future.

And it must do so fast.


This article was originally written by Natalie Bright. ‘Hi, I’m Natalie (she/her), an undergraduate studying biology at The University of Oxford and an intern at Thred. My main passion is the link between humans and the environment and how these effects can be mitigated. In my free time, I enjoy videography, creating content for social media and always keeping up with popular culture!’