The Definitive List of the Vegan Leather Alternatives, Ranked
Megan Doyle & Alden Wicker
12 Feb 2023
In the rush to eliminate conventional leather usage are these new leather alternatives really any better for the planet?
It seems like every other month a new, plant-based leather alternative hits the materials market, promising to revolutionize the fashion industry.
There is a huge amount of investment in the space — according to the Material Innovation Initiative, $980 million was raised by next-gen material companies in 2021 — more than double 2020’s fundraising efforts. And around 70% of these next-generation material companies are in the business of creating alternatives to leather.
While this is exciting, it also means the landscape is becoming increasingly saturated. Choosing the right material is a minefield for sustainability professionals, brand owners, and especially shoppers to navigate.
All companies in this space tend to promote their cruelty-free and vegan credentials, however, these terms don’t actually denote sustainability. “My main issue with these materials is that if they’re using plastic then they’re going to kill turtles or dolphins or fish,” says Paul Foulkes-Arellano, a textiles expert and founder of consultancy Circuthon. So while you can guarantee your “vegan” leather hasn’t harmed a cow, there are other insidious issues to be aware of.
In 2021, a report by the FILK Freiberg Institute in Germany made waves in the materials industry by uncovering the presence of toxic chemicals and plastics in a range of leather alternatives materials — currently, it’s one of the only reports available on the issue. “Other than this report by FILK, I don’t know of any other report that has looked into this,” says Foulkes-Arellano. “I don’t know why the leather industry isn’t spending more money exposing the lies of the fake leather industry.”
One of the biggest concerns — besides fossil-fuel-based plastic binders — includes the presence of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which are toxic chemicals that have a wide range of environmental and health impacts on people that use them. “A lot of these products are absolutely full of toxics,” says Foulkes-Arellano. “Even the ones that look really good are full of dyes, coatings and PFAS that they don’t need to declare.”
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