There is much confusion in the fashion world and among consumers when it comes to vegan products, especially leather alternatives: Are they harmful, because some of them use polyurethanes (PU) and chemicals, or are they the lesser of two evils as the perfect, circular material does not exist (yet)?
FashionUnited spoke with Claudia Pievani from vegan label Miomojo that makes handbags and small accessories out of different leather alternatives like cactus, apples or corn who quickly debunked some common myths. She got into the environmental debate with her diploma thesis 20 years ago on the greenhouse effect and started extensive research on various vegan products with leather-like qualities when she launched her label almost ten years ago.
Myth 1: Animal skins/hides are a ‘by-product’ of the food industry
We start our conversation with the claim of leather being a “by-product of the food industry”, thus reducing meat and dairy production waste as is often claimed. “The leather industry starts its argument from the middle, that is when the animal is already killed. But when the cow was born, the whole lifecycle and the intensive farming, all this contributes to climate change,” Pievani points out.
“In reality, industry-facing documentation refers to cattle skins as valuable ‘co-products’, and when skins don’t sell due to decreased demand – even due to a rise in leather alternative popularity, slaughterhouses have reported multi-million dollar losses,” adds award-winning French filmmaker and animal rights activist Rebecca Cappelli in her recent documentary film “Slay”.
Also, what about foxes, raccoons, mink and chinchillas? They are not raised for their meat but for their fur, and that goes directly to the fashion industry. According to “Slay”, 2.5 billion animals are skinned for fashion each year. This is big business of course: “The global leather goods market was valued at 394 billion US dollars in 2020, with growth expected unless major change is made,” reports non-profit Collective Fashion Justice. So the argument of animal skins as a mere ‘by-product’ can quickly be debunked.
In addition, when classifying animal skins/hides as a “by-product”, they are literally being turned into an object: “The living being disappears and it becomes a product,” says Pievani. “Animals disappear into fashion objects in a way that is very troubling and in a way that is intentionally hidden… We are in this system that has normalised cruelty on this massive scale,” adds Cappelli.
Myth 2: Leather is a “natural product”
Praised for its particular qualities, durability and ease of working with, leather is often portrayed as a natural material that can be used “as is”. But that is far from the truth: “With hazardous and even carcinogenic chemicals like chromium and formaldehyde used to ‘dress’ fur – processing it so the skin will not rot, even industry studies show that fashion’s furs do not effectively biodegrade. In fact, a French advertisement in Vogue Paris referring to fur as ‘natural’ and ‘eco-friendly’ was banned by the French advertising authorities, found to be ‘strongly misleading’,” explains the “Slay” booklet.
Those who work with leather suffer too: Tannery workers often exhibit high cancer rates due to exposure to tanning chemicals, which are known carcinogens. They also report skin complaints, eye irritations, chronic respiratory problems and some even succumb to these health problems and die.
Myth 3: Leather alternatives are less sustainable because they use PU
Some leather alternatives such as Desserto’s material derived from cactus leaves is made with PU and a bio based component, Piñatex is a non-woven fabric made of pineapple leaf fibres and polylactic acid (PLA) that is coated with pigmented resin or over-moulded with a high-strength PU-film, the apple pulp for AppleSkin is mixed with PU and while Vegea’s grape leather was 100 percent plastic free, it was changed due to brand feedback.
Miomojo uses AppleSkin and “corn leather” for their bags, the latter combining biopolyols originating from no-food and GMO-free grains with textiles sourced from natural or recycled materials. The raw materials used are FSC certified viscose or GRS postconsumer chain recycled polyester.
“We have completed life cycle assessments (LCAs) of most products and materials and the fact is that their PU impact is lower than that of leather,” states Pievani. In addition, vegan alternatives to leather avoid polyethylene (PE), which is currently the most widely used plastic in the world; something that many textile and garment products cannot claim.
“You can’t expect leather alternatives to be perfect; the important thing is to have progress. At the current time, it is not possible to go from leather to something organic, which is why PU is necessary. We are still pioneers but the efforts are there,” says Pievani.
She also points out that the costs are currently very high and that “it is a daunting challenge to reach circularity to achieve zero waste production”. That is why second life options are there while “we are still figuring out what to do to become fully circular”, states Pievani.
Myth 4: There are no comparable alternatives to leather
While admittedly, there are no leather alternatives that are perfect substitutes, there are many that come close and/or offer additional benefits. Fact is that as demand increases, traditional leather working facilities will have to adapt to these new, ethical materials.
Here are some of them:
- Mirum, a 100 percent plastic-free, 100 percent vegan alternative that only contains natural materials like rubber, plant oils and agricultural by-products, such as rice hulls and citrus peels. Sustainable footwear brand Allbirds recently launched its first pair of sneakers made with Mirum.
- Desserto is a highly resistant, durable and partly bio-based alternative that saves emissions, reduces fossil fuel reliance and requires no irrigation for harvest.
- Piñatex is 100 percent vegan, near 95 percent biodegradable and made largely from otherwise discarded pineapple leaf fibres. It has been widely used by brands such as Hugo Boss, Nike, H&M, Zara, NAE Vegan and Altiir.
- Mylo is derived from mycelium, the root system of fungi, and can be grown in vertical indoor farms in a matter of days. Big names like Stella McCartney, Kering and Lululemon are already relying on this material.
Myth 5: Vegan ‘leather’ is piggybacking on the name and popularity of leather
It is true that leather alternatives are often called vegan ‘leathers’ like cactus leather, pineapple leather and so on. However, this is merely done to communicate to the consumer that the qualities of the material are leather-like and comparable, that it feels like leather, for example. No doubt, new terminology is overdue and the fashion industry may take inspiration from the food industry where vegan alternatives have become established.
“We need to get away from leather, actually and terminology-wise. At the same time, one needs to convey a clear image of how it feels. The term ‘leather’ has been used in the past to compare alternative materials and as a reference to make people understand but now that the materials have been established, it may be better to use the description ‘alternative materials to leather’. In fact, in our Italian materials, we do not use the term ‘leather’ at all,” concludes Pievani.
By foregoing the term ‘leather’ and coming up with either trade names or a new category all together (like vegan or ethical materials), leather alternatives can assert themselves and take their place among materials that provide consumers with the best of qualities while remaining respectful to all beings along the supply chain.