Vegan leather is a phrase you see around a lot these days—on the hangtags of Zara bags, on the label of your new moto jacket, in an article about a new animal-friendly accessories line. But while we’re all pretty clear on what leather is (even if we don’t particularly like thinking about it), the “faux-leather” label isn’t necessarily so clear.
For one, the label is an umbrella term that covers several materials, including PVC (polyvinyl chloride), PU (polyurethane), and many other, more innovative synthetics. According to Joshua Katcher, an adjunct professor at Parsons School of Design and the founder of slow-fashion line Brave Gentleman, the field is constantly changing, so that the cheap, plasticky, unbreathable “pleather” of our parents’ generations bears little resemblance to the vegan-leather options in stores today.
“The technology has advanced so that, in general, any faux leather is going to be better today than it was five years ago or 10 years ago, and especially 20 or 30 years ago,” says Katcher. “That’s the thing about synthetics—they’re always getting better. They’re always getting more refined, more efficient, more sustainable. And when it comes to leather, there’s only so much you can do to an animal.”
Ok, but won’t real leather last you longer? Not necessarily, says Katcher. Like anything in fashion, there are some pieces that are better-made and use higher-quality materials than others. “What we see in the cheaper stores tends to be what’s called a coated canvas—just imagine a piece of canvas with a liquid plastic that coats the top and makes it look like leather,” he explains. Naturally, something like this doesn’t have the same strength and durability of animal leather, especially if it’s poorly-constructed. No one’s denying the sturdiness of a good pair of leather boots or a well-made jacket, but the problem, Katcher says, is that the skins needed to make them are a finite resource, and the processes to turn that biological material into something that doesn’t decompose are incredibly harsh, both for the environment and for the people that work in leather tanneries, who, in places like Bangladesh, can be exposed to toxic chemicals and hazardous working conditions.
Plus, there are now sustainable alternatives that hold up just as well. “There’s nothing magical about skin,” says Katcher. “It’s a material that’s constructed of many, many little fibers that are intertwined. We can reproduce that synthetically, we can grow it in a laboratory, we can find different sources that will result in a similar effect. The only limit is our ability to innovate and right now we are just on the brink of so many exciting innovations.” This year, in fact, Brooklyn startup Modern Meadow raised $40 million to research and develop ways to scale lab-grown leather, which they first successfully grew in 2012. According to Business Insider, they plan to partner with fashion brands and tanneries to help bring the product to consumers in the next few years, a move that could majorly disrupt the $100 billion leather industry.
But aren’t synthetic materials bad for the environment, too? In certain cases, yes. PVC (otherwise known as vinyl), in particular, is “a toxic substance and a known carcinogen and a pretty nasty material,” says Katcher, who avoids the material himself but says other designers still use it thanks to certain aesthetic qualities. Greenpeace calls it “the single most environmentally damaging type of plastic”—though naturally, the vinyl industry claims otherwise. As for polyurethane, the environmental impact varies depending on how it’s produced. “There are many different ways to make it, and some of the methodologies are pretty benign and harmless and there’s other ways that aren’t.”
So, should you give up leather? Opt for vintage? The choice is yours, but investing in something well-made is the best way to ensure you won’t be throwing something out in a season or two just to buy something new—which, in the end, is really what will have the most impact.