The apparel industry faces a reckoning. It’s a minuscule fine line, deciphering ethical and environmental practices in fashion. The pandemic, along with social justice movements, have only heightened the need for change. It’s a real struggle for consumers trying to figure out what practices are best for the environment and ourselves. In recent years, brands have made progress, expanding material options, and diversifying fashion. Vegan leather has quickly become a popular alternative to pricier real leather, right on the heels of faux fur’s rise in popularity.
Shunned as tacky and cheap, “fake” leather had a reputation among the fashion sort. In the early 90s and 2000s, it was easy to distinguish between the two in both looks and feels. The vegan movement hadn’t become mainstream yet, meaning that the sole reason for donning “fake” leather was for price reasons. Based on looks, it was probably best to skip the leather-like look altogether.
The discussion about whether vegan leather or real leather is better for the environment stills remains complicated. Manufacturers made cheaper fake leathers from synthetic plastics such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU), two non-biodegradable polymers coming straight from carbon-heavy fossil fuels. These kinds of materials still remain popular in the fast fashion realm, which is problematic since many fast-fashion retailers end up throwing away excess inventory. However, in recent years, many brands have made strides in using environmentally friendly plant-based ingredients and natural materials to create these faux leather products.
Vegan products also have their obvious ethical benefits. The fur industry has been scrutinized for decades over unethical practices and animal cruelty, leading to the rise in luxury faux furs. Leather faces the same controversies, especially considering that cows make up a large percentage of global methane (a potent greenhouse gas) emissions. Consumers can confidently purchase a vegan leather or faux fur product with the knowledge of no animals being harmed and killed in its creation.
The caveat between real and fake lies with cost. Generally speaking, vegan leather is cheaper than genuine leather. However, quality has to be taken into account in deciding the environmental cost. Fast fashion and extremely affordable faux leather products are ultimately the worst for the environment. Still, if you are admittedly vegan, on a budget and really want a leather look, then, by all means, cheap vegan leather is an okay choice. To be truly environmentally responsible, splurging on higher-end brands for vegan leather pieces is the best option for both ethics and sustainability.
Dr. Martens has a good vegan leather line, and designer Stella McCartney is renowned for her 100% vegan brand that has paved the way for many other designers as they start to move away from animal products. To put cost into perspective, a vegan leather handbag from Stella McCartney is about half the price of comparable designer leather bags. BB Dakota is another good moderately-price brand that makes great vegan leather jackets. And if you’re not bothered by animal products, many small business artisans and craftsmen create sustainably cultivated and produced cheap leather goods, making it a smarter choice than mainstream leather.
Vegan leather and other faux fabrics are undoubtedly becoming more and more mainstream, forcing companies to come up with better practices for consumers and the environment. The coronavirus has forced us to stop and think about our carbon footprints. Does this mean that non-animal products are our future? Quite a possibility.