Real or Vegan, Which Is the Future of Fashion?

The fashion industry picks up trends every single year. While fashionistas get bored with them after a couple of months, veganism, the latest trend in Fashion Weeks worldwide, has found its audience in millions of people with vegan tote bags and other accessories, and it’s here to stay. 

Whether you’re talking about those cute vegan leather handbags you saw last Saturday at the market or Veganuary (an annual UK-based event that encourages people to try out veganism for the month), it’s not hard to see the impacts of veganism.

With the appetite for more sustainable materials in fashion rising day by day (Lyst, a search engine, says searches are up by slightly more than 75% from last year), many have turned to Vegan Leather, an imitation of genuine leather made from non-animal sources. 

What is Vegan Leather? 

Vegan Leather is an artificial leather material that mimics the texture of conventional leather. However, instead of being made from animal skins, vegan leather is primarily made from synthetic materials like plastic or plant products like a refined organic waste. Most commonly, vegan leather accessories are made from Polyurethane (PU) or Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) plastic, which have a wrinkled texture that perfectly mimics genuine leather. 

It’s not just synthetic materials, though. Several brands also make vegan leather from more sustainable materials like pineapple leaves, fruit peels, and cork fabric. 

Does Vegan Leather Imitate the Quality of Real Leather?

In an interview with various fashion blogs, Sandra Sandor, the creative director behind fashion label Nanushka, said that she prefers using vegan leather for her products, which now adorn some of the biggest names in modeling. According to her, when properly made, vegan leather is “buttery soft and feels like leather.” Her label gets “lots of compliments on it,” so it’s not compromising in quality. 

And it’s not just her label either. Brands appearing on the Paris Fashion Week, the New York Fashion Week, and several other shows have rapidly adopted vegan leather for their vegan tote bags. With that said, though, vegan leather does come with some disadvantages. Some designers prefer to use faux leather for jackets and trousers and the real thing for accessories.

Part of the reason for this is that vegan leather isn’t as durable and long-lasting as its conventional alternative. Shoes, bags, and other items that see a lot of wear and tear are made from leather because it wears well over a long period. 

Is Vegan Leather Really Sustainable?

Sandor says that vegan leather is not “without environmental concerns.” It’s easy to see a noticeable rise in plastic pollution with the popularity of vegan leather today. Still, Sandor also goes on to say there’s reasonable evidence to say that the impacts of vegan leather production are “lower than real leather.”

We took reference from Sandor herself and the Environmental Profit and Loss, a sustainability report Kering developed in 2018 here. The worst impacts of natural leather are felt through land use and greenhouse gas emissions. The livestock required for the production of genuine animal-hide leather plays a large part in global climate change and water management. 

While faux leather might be thought to play the part of savior here, it has one clear drawback, being that it’s made from plastic a majority of the time. Fashion accessories made from plastic aren’t biodegradable and pose a threat to our environment. Shoddily-made plastic leather also contains plasticizers, harming both the makers and the wearers. 

Greenwashing, and How Vegan Leather Figures In

Greenwashing is the practice of using buzzwords to make products look environmentally friendly. It’s also one of the biggest reasons to do your research before putting your money towards any ‘environmentally friendly’ products or processes. While said to be a better alternative, Vegan leather uses plastic in its production, making evaluating how much of an improvement it actually is complicated. 

On the other hand, it’s also worth considering that genuine leather production has many harmful results and effects. Greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation worldwide (that’s true, by the way. Brazil’s livestock industry is the leading cause of deforestation in the country), and the amount of harmful chemical runoff into rivers and seas from tanneries are just some of the ways tanneries contribute to the deterioration of our environment.  

Is Real Leather Manageable If It’s Only a By-Product?

Many people who support leather production argue that leather is a by-product of the meat industry. This isn’t a nonsensical point, but the fact remains that you’re wearing an animal, and if the demand is high enough, leather stops being a by-product. Instead of hides left over from meat production used for leather, the meat becomes the by-product due to the high demand for animal hide. 

Emma Brewin, a faux-fur designer, raises a good point: she says, either way, it’s unethical to justify the production of natural leather. At the end of the day, animals are being harmed to produce leather. With that said, though, there are downsides and upsides here, too: some leather really is a by-product of the meat industry. In other cases, some European countries use the fat for producing fuel, embodying the zero-waste commitment that’s key to protecting our environment. 

The Bottom Line: What Leather Should You Invest In?

We’re afraid the answer isn’t that black and white at all. Both vegan leather and genuine leather have their advantages and disadvantages: both sides have strong arguments, so the best thing you could do is do your own research first and pick the option that suits your needs the best. 

If you’re looking for a product that you won’t be very careful using, like a handbag or tote bag, something essential every day, a vegan leather product is the better option.

On the other hand, natural leather has its advantages too. It’s more comfortable than vegan leather, is infinitely warmer for those cold nights, and will last for years and decades if you take care of it. We’d say look towards genuine leather for clothing: jackets, trousers, and other things that you won’t be discarding any time soon. 

How do we know you won’t be discarding them any time soon? Real leather is expensive. We mean, very expensive. Unless you’re Bill Gates, you won’t be dumping a genuine leather jacket!

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