Monique Keiran: ‘vegan leather’ is not as eco-responsible as it seems
Someone who pays $ 300 for a faux leather bag or item of clothing – let’s call it that – is probably getting some sort of plastic.
“Vegan leather?” he marveled. “How is it possible?”
“It’s vinyl,” I say.
Nature Boy had accompanied me to a local store as I looked to replace a computer bag that had fallen apart. He had thought it would be a quick stop among the day’s errands while I quickly reviewed the available selection, decided and bought, or moved on.
Instead, he received a lesson in marketing.
“A vinyl bag? For $ 300? He continued to marvel.
“We used to call it ‘leather’,” I said. “And a person your old age would know the term ‘Naugahyde’. “
These earlier names did not acquire a lasting cachet for the vinyl apparel and accessories industry. Today, “vegan leather” taps into both the eco-friendly and forward-thinking market and its associated spending dollars.
But someone who pays $ 300 for a faux leather bag or item of clothing – let’s call it that – is probably getting some sort of plastic. Most faux leather – or “faux” leather, if you prefer valuable, non-transparent marketing terminology – are usually made from layers of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane that have been painted onto fabric.
Items labeled “vegan leather” can also be made from cork, bark cloth, glossy cotton, waxed cotton, and paper, but these options are much less common.
PVC was the first faux leather material for years, but has recently been overtaken by polyurethane. PVC contains and releases harmful chemicals including dioxins and phthalates, plastic softeners that turn PVC into the rigid material that forms the malleable plastic water pipes found in vinyl.
Both chemicals persist in the environment. Both have been shown to cause genetic mutations in healthy animal cells, i.e. they cause cancer. Both are known to interfere with animal and human hormones.
The production of polyurethane faux leather is also problematic as highly toxic solvents are required as part of the process. Additionally, most polyurethanes are made from petroleum products, with all the associated environmental implications, although some versions use corn or soybean oil instead.
And there is another problem. Plastic, whatever its name, doesn’t break down, but faux leather handbags and shoes do, eventually. That trendy vegan leather handbag, computer bag, belt, pair of shoes or jacket that you have shelled out for, after a decade or maybe less, will develop a case of scabies and get rid of plastic flakes in a case of very very bad dandruff.
These flakes end up in the landfill, next to what’s left of the item. They can also be found in the ground, rivers and the ocean, where creatures can ingest them.
Of course, leather is not without its problems either. The tanning, hardening and dyeing of leather are toxic and unhealthy activities. And while cows are not bred specifically to be purses or jackets – leather being a by-product of the meat industry – raising animals for meat contributes to climate change, to loss of forests, wetlands and other ecosystems, water problems, etc. There are also associated concerns regarding animal welfare and the ethics of raising animals for food.
That said, well-dried and tanned leather ages well and can last for generations if properly made and cared for.
When I was in high school I bought a second-hand leather coat from a thrift store and wore it regularly for 20 years before the seams failed. I have leather shoes that I reseed every few years because they are very comfortable. My niece has a leather satchel that my mother made from some of the hide of Charlie, a cow her brother raised on the family farm.
After 60 years, the satchel needs a new zipper, but if not, it has become an awesome and trendy “distress” item that attracts attention and compliments. Even though it was made before computers became personal or portable, my niece uses it as a laptop bag.
Obviously, with this stamina, using leather in a disposable or “quick” fashion is a waste.
“Does ‘vegan leather’ look like ‘turkey ham’?” Nature Boy said, referring to ready-to-eat processed meat that is made from cooked or cured turkey meat, water and other ingredients, including binders. “I never understood that term either. The mental image of a turkey strutting around with pork thighs instead of drumsticks, frankly, is disturbing. “