The term 'vegan leather' encompasses a very wide range of materials, some of which are incredibly unsustainable, and many of which are among the most sustainable materials out there. So what to avoid, and what to choose instead?
By Annick Ireland, Founder of Immaculate Vegan
Many of us are now aware of just how damaging animal leather is – to people, to animals and to the environment. A massive study called Pulse of the Fashion Industry (published by Global Fashion Agenda and The Boston Consulting Group) looked at the environmental damage caused by a large range of materials commonly used in fashion, from cradle to grave, and found animal leather to have the worst environmental impact, much higher than plastic. But what is alternative 'vegan leather' actually made from – is it all plastic, and is it really a more sustainable option?
The vegan leather to really avoid is PVC (polyvinyl chloride, or vinyl) which tends to be used in many cheap vegan leather options found in fast fashion brands. Known as the 'poison plastic', according to Greenpeace it is 'the most environmentally damaging plastic. The PVC lifecycle – its production, use, and disposal – results in the release of toxic, chlorine-based chemicals. These toxins are building up in the water, air and food chain. The result: severe health problems, including cancer, immune system damage, and hormone disruption. No one can escape contamination: Everyone, everywhere has measurable levels of chlorinated toxins in their bodies.'
A more environmentally friendly vegan leather that's also made from plastic is polyurethane, or PU. It is still a plastic, which means it's made from fossil fuels, so it's definitely not the most sustainable option out there. However, unlike PVC, 'it doesn't contain any chemicals that interfere with endocrine and hormone systems, nor does it contribute to PH change in soil or water'. Also, when it comes to ocean waste, polyurethane plastics account for less than 2%.
It works well as an alternative to animal leather as it looks and feels very similar, and is known to wrinkle like leather when gathered, stitched, or tufted. It's also much more breathable, flexible and lighter than PVC, so creates a much high quality vegan leather.
In terms of production, how sustainable polyurethane is can vary hugely depending on the manufacturer. Many polyurethane manufacturers work hard to minimize the impact on the environment by optimizing the manufacturing process and becoming more energy efficient. Many of our brands who use PU – including Blanlac, Ashoka, NAE and Taylor + Thomas – manufacture in Europe, where there are also strict emission controls on PU production, improving its sustainability score.
Many brands are now experimenting with using vegetable-based PU, made from plant oils. This decreases many of the chemical hazards associated with making PU, and makes the PU more biodegradable. Good Guys Don't Wear Leather have introduced a zero CO2 emissions vegan leather in their footwear, made from polymers derived from natural renewable sources such as cereals and vegetable seeds; whilst Watson & Wolfe use a PU vegan leather made from over 50% zero carbon plant oils.
Micronappa and Microsuede
Both these vegan leathers are high quality micro-fibres made from ultra-fine polyester or nylon fibres. Micronappa is similar to nappa leather whilst Microsuede is similar to suede. Both fabrics are breathable, soft to touch, long-lasting, waterproof and easy to clean. Noah and MESA Shoes are examples of brands making great use of both fabrics in their collections.
Most of our brands use recycled PU and other recycled plastics such as PET (made from plastic bottles) in place of virgin PU and polyester – either in part or completely. These include Hemincuff, MESA Shoes, and Hozen (over 90% of their 2020 collection is made from recycled materials). The new collection by Collection & Co is also made of 100% upcycled plastics. Additionally, many brands use recycled plastics for their linings, including Alkeme Atelier, Osier and Lo.
Recycled Clothing Fibres
It's not just recycled plastics that can be used to make vegan leathers and linings, but also recycled clothing fibres. For example, Alkeme Atelier use an innovative vegan leather that's exclusive to their brand. The base of the fabric is made up of 70% recycled materials, such as discarded clothing, and small, very fine fibres. Of the recycled materials, 40% is recycled post-consumer polyester, 18% is pre-consumer recycled polyester that is thrown away before use, and 12% is recycled wood fibre. The fabric is then coated with a high-grade oil.
Developed by advanced research, this signature vegan leather is responsibly engineered to outperform standard animal leather. While it has a similar appearance to animal leather, it is cleanable, longer lasting and almost one-third the weight of its animal counterpart. It's also scratch-resistant, high in strength and water-repellent, making it an immensely durable material. Utilising mainly recycled textiles for their products helps Alkeme Atelier to minimise waste and reduce the amount of toxic gases released from garments that have been disposed of, and would otherwise end up in a landfill.
Recycling clothing fibres to create vegan leathers is becoming increasingly popular, with many other brands incorporating this into their 2020 collections, including Sylven New York.
This amazing vegan leather developed by Ananas Anam is made from pineapple leaf fibres, a waste product of the pineapple industry, and provides pineapple farmers with an additional source of income, as well as creating a super-sustainable new leather-like material. Several of our brands are using it in their collections, including Alkeme Atelier, Svala, Hozen and LUXTRA.
Another amazing fabric made from a waste product, this time from apples grown for the food industry, from the region of Bolzano in northern Italy (one of the world’s largest apple-producing regions). The recovered apple skin and core waste is dried and reduced to a powder, and sent to a factory in Florence, where it's coagulated with PU and coated onto a cotton and polyester base. The resulting vegan leather contains a minimum of 50% apple fibre, and looks and feels a lot like real leather. Several of our brands have been real pioneers of apple skin leather products, including LUXTRA, Ashoka, Good Guys Don't Wear Leather and Sylven New York.
Also known as cork skin, this is made by harvesting the bark of the cork oak tree, which can renew itself every nine years. Harvested raw cork barks are left to dry for about six months. They're then steamed and boiled to give flexibility, after which they're sliced and pressed into a natural leather. It's waterproof, stain resistant, easy to maintain and very light, so it's a great material for bags in particular. Svala use it for several of their bags.
MulbTex is an innovative material made from the paper pulp of mulberry tree leaves, which are the staple food of silk worms. MulbTex bypasses the cruelty of killing the worms, and instead extracts the silk protein directly from the leaves. The mulberry leaf pulp is used to coat cotton canvas, and then glazed with tree sap to make it water resistant and weather-proof. This vegan leather has its own silky shine, and is as strong as silk, making it a great alternative to both animal leather and plastic. Gunas New York are using MulbTex in several of their designs, and their Moby bag is the world's first plant-based men's bag made from MulbTex.
Cactus leather is a sustainable vegan leather developed using leaves from the cactus plant. Created on an organic plantation in Mexico, the cacti are cultivated without the use of herbicides or pesticides. There is no irrigation system for these plants; they are instead grown using only rainwater and earth minerals rich in the region where the ranch is located. Any organic cactus material not used is exported and sold to the food industry.
On the plantation, an agriculture team cuts the mature cactus leaves of each harvest, once every 6-8 months. The leaves are then dried in the sun for three days, avoiding extra energy usage while still achieving the proper level of humidity. Then, the raw material is processed into a vegan leather that is partially biodegradable with up to a 50% organic composition. The final textile is soft and flexible, yet durable, with a lifespan of up to 10 years.
Wine leather is a unique vegan leather comprised of grape skins from winemaking, vegetal oils and natural fibers from agriculture. The plant-based raw materials combine to form a bio-compound that is spread onto an organic cotton backing. No toxic solvents, heavy metals or dangerous substances are included in the process. The composition of wine leather is 78% eco-composite and 22% water-based PU.
Using renewable resources, as opposed to fossil fuels, this produces an eco-sustainable, cruelty-free fabric. It is versatile, printable, strong and easy to work with. The manufacturing and final product have a low environmental impact and high social responsibilty. With the goal of finding substitutes to oil-based and animal-derived materials, along with the collaboration of Italian wineries, wasted grape skin, stalks and seeds are earning a new value.
Although we're somewhat conditioned to look for vegan materials that look and feel like animal leather, many of our brands also use beautiful fabrics like hemp and cotton to great effect. For example, Via Gioa use organic cotton and hemp for their gorgeous vegan ballet flats; Hurtig Lane uses vegan tweed straps for some of its watch styles; and the new Dauntless collection features a stunning bag made from Fique, which is a natural fibre that grows in the leaves of the fique plant, Furcraea andina, native to Andean regions of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.
So if you want to be ahead of the fashion curve, and stand side by side with some of the most stylish and trend-setting people on the planet – ditch the animal leather and opt for the more progressive and sustainable vegan leathers that are out there. Which is what being Immaculate is all about.
Cover image by Alkeme Atelier
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