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Plant or Plastic?: How to decode vegan leather alternatives


Most alternative leathers contain a type of plastic called polyurethane (PU), there are legitimate concerns about whether they’ll sit in landfills for decades post-use

LUCIANNE TONTI: One of the fastest growing areas in the quest for next generation materials is vegan leather. Although these alternative leathers – whether they are plastic or plant-based or both – are marketed as a sustainable alternative to real leather, the jury is still out on their long-term impacts.

Since most of them contain a type of plastic called polyurethane (PU), there are legitimate concerns about harmful microfibre shedding, their durability in shoes, and whether they’ll sit in landfills for decades post-use… 

Angela Winkle, the chief sustainability officer at boot maker R.M. Williams – which is exploring vegan leather alternatives through an investment in startup Natural Fiber Welding – says: “We need to know whether leather alternatives can actually improve over time, in the way that leather does.”

“If companies have to make more products and consumers have to buy more products because the materials don’t last as long, then the benefit of lower initial footprints will be completely lost.”

Alden Wicker, the editor-in-chief of EcoCult and author of the upcoming book To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion is Making Us Sick, says unfortunately “a lot of [alternative] leather on the market has a synthetic finish, which can crack and peel”.

Wicker also sees a lot of spin in the space: “It’s incredible the lengths vegan brands go to in order not to reveal that their product is in fact [plastic].”

Jamie Nelson, of footwear label Nelson Made, launched a capsule of plant-based leather shoes last year. “Oftentimes when I got the materials to the factory for the first time, the factory was like ‘there’s a level of PU in here’,” she says. “So, it was the factory who told me, not the supplier.”

To help you decipher marketing from fact, here is a rundown of the most common vegan leathers available. SOURCE…