Widely accepted myths or misconceptions are hard to dispel, particularly in the world of mainstream fashion where the quality and ethics of a product aren’t always clear. I find this is often the case in discussions about vegan leather and the misunderstood notion that vegan leather is, by nature, bad for the environment or of lesser quality than leather made from animal skins. This is frustrating to hear, particularly when you’re in the business of trying to promote fashion that is not only cruelty-free, but also of high quality.
I’ve written about it before, but I can’t say it enough: all vegan leathers are not created equal. Just as there are varying degrees of quality and craftsmanship in just about any commodity, there are varying degrees of quality and sustainability in fabrics and textiles that would fall under the very broad umbrella that is “vegan leather”. There are certainly fast-fashion stores marketing their accessories as “vegan leather”, but they’re probably cheaply made in a factory somewhere in Asia, where labour regulations and safety measures in factory are often no to implemented of enforced, and made from materials, like PVC, that are obviously not considered eco-friendly.
The market has been responding to the growing movement of consumers who wish to live more sustainably and be more mindful of their purchases, so we’re seeing an ever-increasing availability in the number of products that are ethically made and better for the environment.
So, if you want something vegan, but that is also made from materials that are more sustainable, consider these five vegan leathers that are eco- friendly and the brands who use them.
This truly natural and sustainable material made from the bark of the Cork Oak tree is having a moment in vegan fashion. This versatile material is well regarded for its ability to retain strength and durability, even when worked to the thinness of fabric. Jentil, an accessories brand based in London, produces their entire collection from cork harvested in Portugal. Jentil’s founder Pantxika Ospital remarks:
“Sustainable, recyclable and biodegradable, cork is simply an amazing material. It is soft, light, flexible, resilient, and waterproof. It can be dyed and finished in many styles. It is versatile, hard wearing and natural as natural can be! Cork is the ultimate ‘green’ material for the production of bags and accessories commonly made from leather, indeed it is widely known as ‘vegan leather’ or ‘cork skin’. It’s hard to believe that this beautiful material grows on trees.
Made from the bark of the cork oak tree, which grows in the Mediterranean region, cork is harvested every ten years, without harming the tree. The trees can live up to 250 years, contributing to wildlife diversity, helping in the fight against forest fires, providing a sustainable income for the local people.”
All of Jentil’s accessories are made from cork harvested from FSC certified forests. To further reduce their environmental footprint, Jentil utilizes water-based glues in their accessories and produces their collections at a manufacturer who is making efforts to be more sustainable, including recycling the dust created from cork production to heat the factory.
Eco Suede made from Recycled Polyester
Several brands have introduced the use of eco-suede, which has the look and feel of suede made from animal skins but is less resource intensive and without cruelty to animals. Some of these brands create their eco-suede designs with ultra-microfiber made with 100% recycled polyester reconstituted from post-industrial materials like scrap film.
Bhava founder Francisca Pineda utilizes a specific type of eco-suede, which she imports from the only supplier in Japan. About this fabric Pineda says, “What most don’t know is that it is actually more expensive than cow suede, because there is no transparency in the import of hides into China. Most skins come from the poorest parts of the world like Dhaka, which pay workers $2/day. In a transparent system where workers are among the highest paid in the world, like in Japan, this will make a huge difference in the price of raw goods, but it is a difference we are proud of.”
Aside from the fact that this material is upcycled from plastics that would otherwise be discarded, one must also consider its other sustainability benefits when compared to leather made from animal skins.
The tanning industry is among the worlds most toxic industries, responsible for polluting entire communities nearest to their factories with toxic chemicals and waste. Of the 270 leather tanneries located in Bangladesh, about 90 percent of them are located in Hazaribagh in Dhaka, which, in 2013, was listed by the Blacksmith Institute as one of the world’s top 10 toxic threats. The report states that, on a daily basis, the tanneries dump 22,000 cubic liters of toxic waste into the Buriganga river, which is Dhaka’s main river. Human Rights watch detailed the health repercussions of the tanneries in Hazaribagh in a 102-page report published in 2012.
With respect to the devastating effect these tanneries have on the environment and the people who live in the surrounding communities, Pineda says, “ Can you think of anything worse than turning an environment into a permanent dead zone for all forms of life forever? The ultimate irony is that these skins are sold to wholesalers in Hong Kong, Korea, and Italy to produce “luxury” goods, without any transparency to the customers. Sometimes I reach out to stores who think our shoes are too expensive because they are not “real” leather. We need a lot of education, because the leather that is being marketed as ‘luxury” is to me a symbol of the darkest of humanity.
Initially created as a performance fabric to be used in the sailing industry, waxed cotton is a durable textile extolled for its pliability, longevity, and water resistance. After its inception, waxed canvas quickly replaced oil cloth as the go-to fabric for water-resistant outwear.
Waxed canvas is an appealing alternative to leather because it wears very nicely, even developing scars and patinas. In fact, if cared for properly, a waxed canvas handbag or jacket can last a lifetime. Of all the eco-friendly fabrics that would fall under the “vegan leather” umbrella, waxed canvas is the most easy to find among mainstream brands; waxed canvas made from organic cotton is obviously the most eco-friendly option.
The footwear brand Nicora, makes a beautiful waxed canvas version of their Sinclair boot. NYC-based vegan clothing brand, Vaute Couture, has some great waxed canvas jackets in their collections for both women and men.
You’re probably familiar with Tyvek if you’ve ever used an envelope made from this fabric, or have seen it used as house wrap. Tyvek is a brand of flashspun high-density polyethylene fibers and is uber durable, water resistant, and lightweight.
An eco-friendly vegan-leather alternative is likely the last thing you’d ever think of if you’ve ever considered Tyvek’s many uses, but it’s breathability and durability actually makes it a smart choice.
New Jersey-based footwear brand Unstitched Utilities make footwear using recycled Tyvek and utilize vegan dyes and glues to ensure their shoes are as sustainable as possible. The Tyvek lends itself to an interesting crinkled look, so they have a casual, worn-in feel.
Another brand taking advantage of Tyveks’ versatility is Paperwallet, a wallet brand who collaborates with artists. The wallets are super thin and available in solid colors, or in various prints created through their artists collaborations.
One of the newer innovations in textiles to come along is a non-woven textile called Piñatex, which is made from pineapple leaves fibers by a company called Ananas Anam. The pineapple leaves used to create this textile are by-products of the pineapple harvest, so there is no additional input necessary (i.e. water,fertilizer,etc) in obtaining the leaves, which would otherwise be left on the ground as waste. While still a new company with a lot of work ahead of them, Piñatex already has seven years of research and design under its belt and the company is making strong efforts to build a fair and transparent supply chain.
From their website, Piñatex aims to, “Bring onto the market a new sustainable textile which can fill the gap between leather and petroleum-based textiles that is good value for money.” Various brands began creating Piñatex protoypes about a year or so ago, and product is rumored to launch within the next few months.
London-Limoux based design studio Smith Matthias created the prototypes pictured below, which were displayed at The Pineapple Show at The Royal College of Art.
With all of these emerging options offering endless possibilities, is there really any reason to wear animal skins?
Photos from Nicora Johns, Bhava, VAUTE, Jentil, Matt and Nat and Piñatex.