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Is vegan leather sustainable?

Is there such a thing as sustainable leather alternatives? Are you still supporting unethical production practises by condoning the 'look' with faux leather and fur? Is it still problematic if it's vintage? A healthy debate and questions I often get asked, so let's explore how to navigate through.

Through my research in fabric trade shows, from Paris to Hong Kong, I've learnt that easily accessible leather solutions are available, they are just not yet mainstream. Wonderful technologies and alternatives such as seaweed, apple, mushroom, cactus and pineapple leathers are out there but can be difficult to attain and often only available in quantities unsuitable for smaller brands. For example, the supplier I have for apple leather requires a minimum purchase of 5000 yards. To put that in perspective, that would be around 3500 handbags.

Traditional vegan 'leather' options are made from petroleum-based plastic. The effect of oil extraction and plastic production has a huge impact on the environment, ecosystems and animal habitats. Whereas, animal leather production is problematic in a more obvious way.

Plastic 'leather' feels as it sounds, terribly hot and sticky to wear. When researching luxury brands in London, I tried on a vegan leather dress, priced at over £1000, that made me feel like I was wearing a plastic bag. Vegan, yes, luxurious, no.

Another option gaining momentum is recycled leather. 'While there appears to be an overall increase in acceptance, and sometimes desire, for more circular products, there is also a concern that recycled material can be seen as inferior.' (Leather Sustainability, UK). Products that aren't new, can feel as though they should be cheaper and don't hold as much value. Recycled options though, are not just old items made new again, recycled can also mean the process of repurposing unused leather from tanneries, creating a zero-waste system that is something worth celebrating.

Is there such a thing as responsibly sourced animal leather? There is. Some brands are using leather that is a natural by-product of the food industry. Using a product that would otherwise go to waste. If a company makes this claim, it is important to understand if they have full transparency of their supply chain.

So what should we do?

The answer here lies within your own moral compass. This is the best way to choose what’s right for you, and what you believe in supporting. When we think of a fabric, it's helpful to go beyond the immediate composition when we weigh up it's sustainability credentials. We must think of the whole process of its lifespan - the resources needed and impact of its creation, its journey to becoming a purchasable item, how it arrives to us, how it is used, and finally what happens to it when discarded. If we consider this we realise that the fabric choice is only a piece of the puzzle, and in some cases not the most important piece when it comes to a sustainable item.


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