Vegan Leather: The Real Cost

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You have chosen a green life in to lessen your imprint on the planet, believing it’s time to give back. There is no better way to do so than with the love you have for animals.

You have moved from being an omnivore to being a vegetarian and then to vegan. You donate money to save the creatures in the forests and oceans. You answer any and all questions on social media and from your friends and family. Finally, you purchased a vegan leather purse, pants and couch. The question is, before purchasing, did you do your research?

The term “vegan leather” has caused confusion about how it varies from faux leather or pleather. Some experts answer the question by stating there is no difference between artificial and vegan leathers except for terminology.

The first organization to turn to when researching anything related to animal activism is PETA, which says about vegan leather, “What’s so great about vegan leather? Only everything…But what is it? Most vegan leather is made of polyurethane, a polymer that can be made to order for any designer’s whim.” PETA says Planet Earth loves vegan leather because processing hides into leather uses more energy and produces a toxic brew of chemicals, including mineral salts, coal-tar derivatives, formaldehyde, oils, dyes and finishes, some of them cyanide-based.

At first glance, this description is perfect for any vegan or animal activist. However, PETA may be biased on the topic and vegan leather may be causing more harm than good. The organization states that vegan leather is easier on the planet, but this is not completely accurate for many faux leathers.

The important thought on every faux-leather consumer’s mind, and thus every merchandiser’s, is whether cruelty-free materials are being used. This is what companies focus on and thus it’s one of the first things you will see when purchasing vegan leather products. There is more to be told in these cruelty-free materials. While some vegan leathers are made from organic materials, most faux leather is composed of materials such as polyvinyl chloride, polyurethane and textile-polymer composite microfibers.”

Break the scientific jargon down with the online dictionary and the dangerous materials are revealed.

Polyvinyl chloride is the plastic known at the hardware store as PVC. As it degrades it gives off noxious gas. The PVC version of faux leather doesn’t breathe well and it’s not often used for purposes that come in contact with skin.
Polyurethane is a polymer composed of organic units joined by carbamate links. The polyurethane version of faux leather is usually machine washable and softer and isn’t quite as toxic, but the Association of Plastics Manufacturers in Europe notes that producing a pound of polyurethane emits 3.7 lbs. of CO2, slightly less than burning a gallon of gas.

This is not to say all vegan leather is bad; gathering all the facts before you purchase a product is paramount. It makes sense for vegan shoppers to pay close attention to what they’re buying, who they’re buying it from and who manufactures it. Options to chemically synthesized vegan leather are made with products such as barkcloth, glazed cotton, waxed cotton, paper, cork, kelp and even pineapple leaves.

What leather-free products are truly eco-friendly?
Stella McCartney was one popular, faux leather designer on a recent Vogue list. Most of Stella’s bags are constructed from 70 percent polyurethane, 15 percent polyamide and 15 percent polyester with a tagline, “This item is made from non-leather, cruelty-free materials using highly skilled manufacturing techniques. The polyurethane used is water based and solvent free. This is part of our ongoing commitment to animal- and eco-friendly fashion.”

The Freedom of Animals is a company dedicated to creating eco-friendly, cruelty-free bags. They have a similar tagline that describes use of high quality, luxurious fabrics and materials composed of post-consumer polyurethane and organic cotton. They state their process follows EPA guidelines, claiming, “Polyurethane is a safer alternative to PVC as it doesn’t emit carcinogenic dioxin nor is it filled with harsh chemicals. A percentage of the polyurethane is recycled, which also allows for a lower carbon footprint.”

Rafa is a women’s luxury footwear collection designed and created by a group of artisans that are committed to top-quality materials, ecologically friendly materials and sustainable processes. Vegan textiles, including soft ultrasuede, and man-made outsoles characterize their style.

You’re a dedicated vegan; you want to protect the environment, as well as the animals that are a part of it. But how can animals live healthy and happily without the planet to sustain them? We do not want to become the problem when we’re trying to find a solution. Start by gathering all the facts. ■

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