Amid evolving consciousness about consumption in fashion, sustainable vegan leather is being rooted for. But are these alternatives actually helping the environment? We dig in

The L-word aka leather has had a controversial history in the fashion industry. Sure, we love to flaunt our timeless leather jacket, but the debate over the ethics of its iconic material will always be ongoing. With ethical fashion being the utmost important objective at present, consumers are reading their labels carefully, and opting for more sustainable choices. 

“A recent report suggests that the vegan leather industry would be worth $89.6 billion by 2025. With the onset of pandemic and people consciously trying to switch to healthier alternatives across our habits and consumption behaviours, the growth of cruelty-free vegan fashion and leather products is very promising,” explains Mr. Pradeep Krishnakumar, Co-Founder and COO, Zouk, a homegrown PETA-certified vegan lifestyle brand. 

According to global fashion search engine Lyst, consumers have increased their appetite for more sustainable brands with searches up 75 per cent year on year. Brands have been introducing leather alternatives with vegan leather and faux leather in the hope of delivering on this demand. But, are vegan-leather alternatives actually helping the environment? Let’s see how designers and brands debate this choice. 

Paio footwear, which is famous for its sustainable and vegan footwear options, was built on the idea of cruelty-free and conscious fashion. Founder Shweta Nimkar explains, “As avid animal lovers and supporters of multiple animal rehabilitation NGOs, it was an easy decision to make when we launched the brand. Fashion cannot come at the cost of a life is a strong fundamental on which the brand was founded, and continues to grow. We work with a variety of materials from artificial leather to fabrics like hemp and jute. We are currently exploring eco leathers like pineapple and cactus for their functionality and durability in footwear.”

Vegan leather is not one material fits all, brands work with different materials. For example, the accessory brand Aulive uses four kinds of leather alternatives in its products. The first is synthetic leather, which is also one of the most widely used leather alternatives in the market, and the rest are plant-based leather alternatives such as piñatex, cork, and coconut. 

“In 2019, we introduced bags made with pineapple leaf fibres. Piñatex is made of fibre from the leaves of the pineapple plant. In 2020, Cork was added to our plant-based leather collections. In 2021, we partnered with Kerala-based Malai Biomaterials to add a coconut leather alternative to our Plant Collection. We hope to continue growing the collection with various alternatives, while keeping the designs classic,” explains Wamika Shekhawat, the co-founder of the brand. 

Sasha and Kaabia, co-founders of Outhouse, recently launched a new collection of vegan bags. “When we began the research for our new luxury line of handbags and accessories at Outhouse, we learnt about one of the darkest sides of the luxury leather industry — the slaughter of innocent animals. There is no guilt among the majority of the end-users as they are simply unaware of the harsh manufacturing processes of the leather used to construct the handbags that they flaunt proudly. But as creators, we decided to start by making small differences and chose to use a cruelty-free substitute that gives the same look and feel to the product, and is much easier on the environment. All our handbags and accessories are handcrafted in 100 per cent vegan leather that is primarily fabric or polyester-based. We have taken the vegan route with our previous collections and will continue to do so,” they add. 

Delving into details about the demand for leather alternatives, Shekhawat says, “In the last five years, we have only seen an upward swing. More so, the last three years have seen the consumers become even more aware, which is good for business. Earlier, a large part of our social media activity was involved in educating the community on the different alternatives, the pros and cons. Lately, most of those who reach out are already aware of seeking only technical clarity before purchasing the products.”

Similarly, Sasha and Kaabia add, “The demand for vegan leather has definitely seen a steady increase. Vegan leather is an ethical alternative to traditional leather, and we see its demand only growing from here. Ethical fashion is the new trend we’re seeing a lot of consumers following.”

A lot of luxury global brands are adopting sustainable measures to manufacture their product. Vegan leather is also very affordable but can these alternatives fill the void of actual leather qualities? 

“90 per cent, yes. The other 10 per cent will pretty much happen soon. There is a paradigm shift in fashion, and science that is collaborating with fashion. With the pandemic shaking up everything, how we think, what we eat and wear, there is more effort and research in practices and life cycles of fashion products to increase longevity and with minimal care,” Shekhawat states.

But here comes another dilemma. While one buys vegan leather products to be more environment conscious and also prevent animal cruelty, some of its alternatives are plastic-based, which is harmful to the environment and takes years to degrade. Can this vegan leather be considered sustainable for the environment? Designer and founder of Junipero, Drishti Doshi, opines, “The carbon footprint associated with cattle and animal farming is alarming. Vegan leather produces a fraction of carbon dioxide and requires less water than animal leather. In addition to this, vegan leather requires fewer chemicals as opposed to the toxic chemicals such as chromium and pentachlorophenol used in the tanning process of animal leather.”

“Vegan leather not only replicates genuine leather, but it is also available in more colour variations and textures and is as durable as genuine leather. The demand has surpassed our expectations, with men and women alike choosing sustainable and vegan alternatives over animal leathers,” agrees Nimkar. 

Designer Shruti Sancheti adds, “As a brand, we have taken a pledge with PETA to never work with leather because we oppose cruelty in any form. However, leather is a big fashion textile and we feel vegan leather is a fabulous and ethical substitute. In fact, one can be more innovative and is sustainable as it is made from plant and vegetable sources.”

However, most commercial vegan leathers adopted today are made from PU or PVC, which are made from plastic, and also known as pleather. While being cruelty-free towards animals, they are not eco friendly or biodegradable and thus, not sustainable. “Plant-based vegan leather, on the other hand, has a lesser impact on the environment. It is a circular material and thus puts less pressure on the system to mine new natural resources. It is cruelty-free and has lesser CO2 emissions. While vegan leather is a necessity today, a switch to a more sustainably viable vegan leather will be the future with advancements in technology and research,” adds Supriya S, Founder & Creative Director, FOReT Sustainable Fashion, a popular brand known for its cork-based accessories. 

We speak to fashion designer Nachiket Barve, and he explains that while vegan leather, in most cases, is environment friendly, it is important to keep in mind that plant-based vegan leather is the real solution in this conundrum on how to kind of consume products more mindfully. “If vegan leather is made from polyrhythms or petroleum-based products, then it is not necessarily as environmentally friendly, plus it kind of peels faster in some cases. The solution would be to work with plant-based alternatives and when not possible, one could also work with leather alternatives that are byproducts of the meat industry. It is vital to buy better quality and ethically made products, as well as buy less,” he adds. 

When it comes to sustainability and the fashion industry, even the most eco-conscious manufacturing processes have an environmental impact. If you are thinking of buying vegan leather, you need to look into what alternatives the brand is using, and be aware of the effects of plastic-based products. Find out who you will be giving your money to, and whether it’s something you wish to support. Conscious consumption starts with conscious thinking, after all.