With brands developing vegan-leather alternatives out of cacti, mushrooms and grape, are we breaking up with traditional leather for good? We consider the options, and explore whether they really are better.
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I’d been anticipating the purchase for months, lusting after a particularly compact bucket design - not too big, not too small.
For me, my expensive new handbag indicated I had levelled up in the world; no longer a poor university student but a woman on a mission. I perceived leather to be a superior marker of success, and without a bag in my arms, I hadn’t fully transitioned into adulthood.
I wasn’t alone in this thinking, with the leather goods industry valued at USD $350 billion in 2020, growing at a rate of 5.5% annually.
While fashion is consumed with the sustainable frontier, leather, and its faux counterparts, have remained largely forgotten from the conversation.
Narratives within the industry have predominantly been connected with animal welfare only. Vegan alternatives are typically considered sub-par in texture, appearance and quality, causing little rivalry.
The opinion has always been divided: opt for an animal by-product, or choose a plastic-based alternative - with equally harmful environmental impacts.
As a self-described flexitarian, making the most sustainable choice has felt confusing at best. I’ve found myself conflicted, often opting for leather where a brand communicates their ethics and is committed to sustainability, over synthetic, fossil-fuel derived alternatives.
The leather industry has often been shrouded in secrecy - from hide sourcing through to the chemical tanning process.
Brands like Deadly Ponies, Iriarte Iriarte and Nelson Made are embracing transparency however, lifting the lid on how they can best ensure ethical-sourcing, and reduce impacts - choosing to avoid PU/PVC faux-leathers altogether.
Iriarte Iriarte have mitigated the environmentally taxing process of tanning leather, choosing instead to work exclusively with vegetable dyes to create their structural shapes and jewel-toned colour palette - think lush greens, deep reds and delectable caramel tones.
Handcrafted in Barcelona, with limited runs of each curated piece and a bespoke, made-to-order offering; the brand prefers to champion individuality rather than mass-production. In a similar vein, New Zealand brand, Deadly Ponies, have purpose-built their own eco-atelier to challenge the industry status quo, rather than be at the bequest of traditional factories with a monopoly on manufacturing.
“True transparency is all about knowledge and information. Nowadays, products deemed ‘non-leather’ can be viewed as a better alternative for the planet, and unfortunately that’s not always the case. There’s so much noise about what is ‘better’. I like to ask: 'Is it better for the people, the planet, the country of origin and their working conditions?' For me, it is about combining all those factors together and aiming to reach the best standard across them all,” says Liam Bowden, Co-Founder and Creative Director of premium leather goods brand, Deadly Ponies.
Ever an opportunist, fast-fashion has openly embraced a move towards ‘vegan leather’. Remarketing their traditional, plastic-based handbags as sustainable and vegan. While the latter is not untrue, this title has muddied the work of brands trying to develop natural, plant-based solutions.
Leather may be associated with the meat industry, but ultimately plastic alternatives will likely harm animals in the long run, leaching micro-plastics, releasing toxic fumes and waste, and endangering important habitats.
The term ‘vegan’ is often brandished without any environmental commitment, and we often succumb to the belief that the alternative comes with a lower impact.
For many years, leather has been associated with two identities. One of premium taste and appreciation for fine materials and craftsmanship, the other conjuring visions of PETA activists throwing buckets of fake blood in the fight to protect animals. Never have the two sides agreed; until recently.
Premium brands Stella McCartney, Ganni and Deadly Ponies have each explored and developed their own, unique proposition to the vegan leather debate, presenting innovative mushroom, grape and cactus alternatives respectively in the last 18 months. A nutritious remedy for those yo-yoing between each side.
“In reality, it is like comparing wool pants to denim” says Bowden. “Vegan leather is different, so it will feel, touch, and wear differently too. It is important to understand that and appreciate it for the right reasons.”
Finding the perfect composition can be a real art form, particularly trying to avoid the use of PU or PVC bonding to create a smooth, durable finish.
“Our research phase lasted 18 months and saw us test a lot of different materials with a lot of different makers” Bowden continues. “We knew we didn’t want to compromise on the iconic, buttery soft texture that our Deadly Ponies products are known for, so we worked closely with our team to develop the perfect balance of soft and signature, yet sustainable.”
I can attest to the tactility of cactus - the final product is surprisingly soft given its prickly origins. Crafted from mature cactus leaves in Mexico - a by-product of the pharmaceutical industry, the organic farm utilises only sunlight and natural rainfall to grow. Liam describes the innovation as having “changed the game” for the Deadly Ponies.
Similarly, Danish brand Ganni, recently launched their grape leather. Crafting a capsule of eight shoes, the material is made with leftover grape skins from the Italian wine industry to produce a lush, sustainable alternative. A drop I can easily get behind.
Hot on their tails, Stella McCartney unveiled her first foray into mushroom with a prototype showcasing the potential future of the brand. Mylo™ has been developed with innovative partners, Bolt Threads, creating a leather-like substance from mycelium; the intricate underground root structure of regenerative mushrooms. While not on the racks yet - it points to the importance of innovation in the leather industry and why we need to push the status quo.
The past year has seen viable alternatives arrive in leaps and bounds, but the question remains; are we ready to break up with leather?