It wasn’t long ago that non-leather handbags and accessories were viewed as nothing more than cheap alternatives to the “real” thing. Commonly referred to as “pleather”, those non-leather accessories lacked in both quality and aesthetic. They were typically made from unsavory materials like polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a veritable house-of-environmental-horrors that releases, among other nasty things, noxious chemicals called dioxins that have been linked to cancer. But as times change, many companies are moving away from the use of PVC in favour of more kind materials. The last few years have seen a renaissance of sorts in the non-leather industry as the demand for better, eco-friendlier alternatives to traditional leather is on the rise. The apparent burst of vegan-friendly designers and accessories brands who not only use products free from animals, but consciously choose to use more sustainable materials and socially responsible labor is proof positive of progress.
Those of us who have eschewed the use of traditional leathers are not relegated to a life-long sentence of carrying around second-rate handbags; alas, one can now find vegan leather accessories made from materials that are indistinguishable in look and feel from traditional leathers, and are made to stand the test of time. These accessories are just as elegant, and thoughtfully designed (in many cases more so) as traditional leather accessories. With names like “future suede” and “future leather”, some of these improved fabrics sound pretty innovative as well.
Okay, but what exactly is it?
Well, vegan leather can be made from various materials. It’s sort of an umbrella term – one that rolls off the tongue more nicely than “pleather” – used in the fashion industry to define materials that are intended as an alternative to traditional leather and are, you guessed it, free from animal products. Bear in mind, however, that not all vegan leathers are created equal (PVC could fall under the guise of “vegan leather”). The best way to ensure your bag was designed conscientiously is to purchase from designers who intentionally source materials that are better for the environment. You’ll find that purposefully vegan brands tend to be environmentally and socially mindful. For example, Brave Gentleman, a NYC based design house bringing you luxury menswear and accessories, is extremely conscientious of the materials they use. Their accessories are made from a PU based microfiber that releases very small quantities of chemicals into the environment during production. They also use Japanese-made “future suede”, which is fabricated from 80%, recycled polyester. Perhaps most intriguing is the “future wool” materials widely used in their FW14/15 collection. This material comes from a fair-labor mill in Brazil who transforms recycled-cotton and recycled-poly blends from landfills into new yarns.
Another brand making its mark on the vegan leather market is Colorado based Viva Creatures! Nora Baldwin, owner of Viva Creatures! says, “We greatly care about our impact on the environment. Our bags are constructed with a conscience. We ensure that our materials are both stunning and sustainable. I’m proud that our handbags are sourced and crafted in the US. All the vegan leathers in our opening V Collection are made from nylon microfiber in a process that does not emit any gases, so it’s entirely eco-friendly. “
Then there are vegan friendly brands who place emphasis on making use of recycled, post-consumer materials in their products. Freedom of Animals, a luxury handbag range manufactured entirely in the United States, uses post-consumer polyurethane and organic cotton in their products and has very stringent guidelines to ensure that their bags are constructed with great care and to the highest ethical and environmental standards possible. They, along with other vegan brands like Matt and Nat, partner with factories that adhere to the highest ethical, fair-labour standards for their workers, in addition to creating handbag linings made from recycled water bottles.
As you shop for your vegan leather accessories, you’ll also find materials made from unexpected sources like cork, bamboo, and even repurposed rubber from old tires making their way into the market.
I’ll admit, when I finally made the transition from vegetarian to vegan, I had a whole lot of traditional leather in my wardrobe: handbags, boots, belts, jackets, the list continues. I realized buying all that leather was generally a poor choice for someone who cares both about her impact on the environment and also on the workers who make the products we use.
Nora Baldwin from Viva Creatures! provides some input on the matter: “While it’s an ongoing process to improve the sustainability of vegan materials, they are in a far better place than the leather industry. The latter shares responsibility for all environmental destruction caused by the meat industry (which is plenty) as well as pollution caused by toxins used in tanning.”
There is a notion that leather is simply the by-product of the meat industry; some would even go so far as to say that it would be wasteful to let the animals’ hide go to waste. The ethics of turning a living being into a commodity aside, this is a complicated subject. But, upon analyzing the factors at play, one can see clearly that “environmentally friendly” it’s anything but. The reasons are double-edged; firstly, buying traditional leather supports animal agriculture, which we now know is the largest contributing factor to massive environmental problems like land degradation and global warming.1. We also know that livestock production accounts for more than 8 percent of global human water use, mainly for the irrigation of feed crops.2 To learn more about this, check out the snapshot or full report of the Food and Agriculture Organization of The United Nations report Livestock’s Long Shadow. Or, for something a tad more digestible, I’d recommend watching “Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret” for an entertaining yet alarming explanation of the environmental impact of animal agriculture. Secondly, the process by which an animal skin is turned into leather is quite labor intensive. Tanning requires the use of dangerous chemicals that are harmful to the environment and to the workers in the tanning factories, and also uses massive quantities of water. Of course, in an effort to be environmentally friendlier, brands are beginning to use vegetable based dyes in their leather products; however, this does not negate the fact the leather still must go through the entire chemical-laden and water-intensive tanning process.
So, if there ever was a time to say adios to your leather accessories, it’s now.
With all these brands doing their due diligence to minimize their environmental footprint, it’s easy to see why it’s such an exciting time for vegan friendly fashion. Hopefully the demand for these products continues to rise as vegans and non-vegans alike realize that traditional leather is no longer the yardstick by which we measure the quality and style of our accessories.
Photos from Viva Creatures!