Vegan Leather: Should We Fake It Til We Make It?

In search of a new jacket, the Environmentalist from Hell finds an ethical dilemma instead.

Close-up of a rectangular, dark brown leather patch on the interior neck area of a brown leather jacket.
Photo: Rawpixel

About three years ago, I bought a vegan leather jacket for over $200. I’d looked for a stylish moto jacket for over a year before I happened upon one at Anthropologie. I wasn’t expecting to purchase vegan leather, but when I finally saw something close to perfection and read “vegan” on the label, I quickly considered the ethics and impulsively threw down my credit card. My quest was over!

Now, I have to say, I’ve been happy with my purchase. It has attracted compliments from stylish strangers, it makes me look super badass, and, I’ll be honest, I feel a bit smug when I say, “It’s vegan.” But, after a few years of consistent spring and fall wearing, it’s starting to show signs of age. This spring I saw cracks in the “leather” around the shoulders, and noticed the base material poking through at the seams. I’m concerned about its future.

Here’s the thing: Vegan leather is plastic.

What will I do with it when the “leather” cracks more? It’s going to look like I’m wearing a half-canvas garbage bag. Unlike leather, it’s not going to get softer — or that casual, worn-in look — with age. No one will be able to repurpose the material to make a bag or a belt, and no one else will want to wear it. So, most likely, it’ll end up in the landfill. How long will it take to decompose? Probably a very long time, because here’s the thing: Vegan leather is plastic.

Only now — after my jacket began to erode, and my new Matt and Nat backpack (“Finest quality #vegan accessories”) got scuff-marks within a week of purchase — have I started to unpack the clever marketing behind “vegan leather.” Long-time vegetarian though I am, I’m now unsure which is worse for the planet, fake leather or real leather.

Let me break this down for you.

Animal Leather

The big problem for me with real leather is that animals die to produce it, and, as a vegetarian, this bothers me. I’m also aware that factory-farmed animals are treated poorly, and that animal-farming creates pollution and uses resources that could be better used elsewhere (see my earlier Asparagus column on why I became a vegetarian).

Yes, I hear your “They were going to die anyway for others to eat their meat, leather is a good way of using the whole animal, and even you wear leather shoes, Bynoe!” arguments. I do wear leather shoes, and I struggle with it on the daily, which is why I bought the vegan leather jacket in the first place.

The process of tanning leather is also a major source of pollution. It involves toxic chemicals that aren’t good for the earth, or for the workers doing the tanning. If people think about the life cycle of leather, many assume that it’s biodegradable, but archaeologists have found un-decomposed leather goods from 2,500 years ago, so… (shrug).

Vegan Leather

Vegan leather enthusiasts will argue that it requires no slaughtering of animals, or waste of agriculture and water resources. But “vegan leather,” as it turns out, is a fancy way of saying polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane (PU). When I hear PVC, I think of plastic pants on dominatrixes or goth kids, probably because I came of age in the 90s. Not a lot has changed since then, though, at least as far as the chemical process for making plastic that looks like animal skin goes. Actually, not a lot has changed in the fashion sense, either. The 90s are back, unfortunately.

PU “leather” fabric is made by applying or laminating a 100% polyurethane finish to a base material like polyester, cotton, nylon, or rayon. An artificial grain pattern is applied to the surface to imitate the look of real leather. PVC “leather” is similar to PU, but instead of polyurethane, polyvinyl chloride is applied to the base material, after first being combined with with stabilizers (to protect it), plasticizers (to soften it) and lubricants (to make it flexible).

Like most plastics, PVC and polyurethane have their roots in the petroleum industry.

From an environmental perspective, the main concern with polyurethane is that solvents are used to make it into a liquid, and solvents are highly toxic — the chemicals involved have been linked to cancer and birth defects. There’s also the concern that plastics stick around forever, and are hard to recycle once they’ve been bonded to another material. Also, like most plastics, PVC and PU have their roots in the petroleum industry, which, you may have heard, has a crap-load of environmental impacts.

After all this research, it’s clear to me that, as far as plastic leather goes, PU is less horrible than PVC. Since it doesn’t require the same chemical plasticizers, its creation doesn’t cause as much chemical waste. I just checked the labels on my two expensive vegan leather purchases: Both say they are made with polyurethane (phewf!), but both were also made in China, a country that doesn’t have a great track record on clean manufacturing.

And, as mentioned, my vegan leather jacket is damaged, with no way to repair it. So, when it comes to durability there’s no contest: vegan leather doesn’t last as long as real leather. When I’m spending upwards of $200, I don’t think it’s wrong to expect my purchase to last longer than a few seasons. You’ve probably heard about the damaging effects of fast fashion, already — I don’t want to hurt animals, but I also don’t want to contribute to this disaster.

By now you’re probably thinking, “Sara, you spent too much on your jacket and I don’t care. Just tell me what I should buy!” Ok, Alicia Silverstone, here’s what I think: if you’re an animal lover, and a true vegan abstaining from all other animal products, the pain that’s created by real leather production is your number one concern. So, buy fake leather, but know that it still causes environmental damage.

Unless you’re willing to become a nudist, you’re going to have to face the fact that all commercial textile manufacturing pollutes.

If you’re another kind of eco-warrior, the lines really are blurred about what to do: unless you’re willing to become a nudist, you’re going to have to face the fact that all commercial textile manufacturing pollutes.

What will I do, personally, when my vegan leather jacket wears out? After looking into the pollution from both kinds of leather, the real and the fake — and knowing that eco-alternatives like pineapple leather sadly aren’t widely available yet — I’ll likely look for a vintage leather jacket. That way, I can hit multiple birds with one stone: reducing waste, reusing an item, and not participating in today’s harmful farming and leather-tanning industries.

So, if you see me in a year wearing a cracked pleather jacket, know that I haven’t yet found the right vintage replacement. “Vegan leather” is a clever marketing term for plastic fabric, and it’s not worth dropping $200 on, no matter how many compliments I get.

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