As the co-founder of a vegan leather Indian brand Aulive that offers both artificial and plant-based leather alternative products, I understand the need to address the conversation surrounding vegan products. With the growing popularity of plant and mushroom-based leathers, questions have arisen regarding the sustainability of 'vegan' leather and whether these alternatives truly have lower environmental impacts than their animal-derived counterparts. In this blog post, I aim to provide a balanced perspective and emphasise the importance of offering customers informed choices.
Understanding Animal Leather:
Animal leather, derived from hides and skins of animals, contains collagen, a protein that provides exceptional strength and durability. It's important to acknowledge that the tanning process for animal leather involves the use of various chemicals, some of which can be toxic. Additionally, a thin layer of synthetic polymer is often applied to enhance water resistance and durability. Evaluating the sustainability of different leathers necessitates a comprehensive examination of the entire production process and the environmental consequences linked to each material. Contrary to the perception of animal leather as a mere byproduct, it is important to recognise that animals are often specifically bred for their skins, debunking the myth of it being a secondary outcome. This is particularly evident in the case of exotic skins sourced from wildlife, which are not primarily derived from large-scale food sources and thus carry additional environmental costs.
Unveiling the Complexity:
Critics of traditional leather often overlook the complexity of the industry itself. It is true that traditional leather production involves the use of chrome tanning, a process that has raised environmental concerns due to the release of toxic chemicals and the health effects on workers. However, it is crucial to note that responsible traditional leather brands actively avoid chrome tanning and opt for more sustainable alternatives, such as vegetable tanning, which utilises natural tannins derived from plants. Certifications and transparent sourcing are crucial steps in the journey towards ethical leather.
The Role of Polymer Layers:
Both traditional and vegan leather products may incorporate polymer layers to enhance water resistance and durability. While some argue that adding a polymer layer to vegan leather undermines its sustainability, it is important to consider the context. In the case of traditional leather, the polymer layer is also added as a protective measure and has become a common industry practice. In contrast, vegan leather researchers are actively exploring alternative coatings that align with their commitment to sustainability.
Sustainable Vegan Alternatives:
Vegan leather brands have made significant strides in developing sustainable alternatives to traditional leather. By utilising plant-based materials like pineapple leaves, cactus, cork, and coconut husks, these brands are able to offer innovative and environmentally friendly options. While it is true that some of these materials may require blending with synthetic polymers to meet specific performance requirements, the overall environmental impact is still considerably lower than that of traditional leather production.
Embracing a Multifaceted Approach:
Rather than perpetuating a binary narrative pitting vegan leather against traditional leather, it is important to embrace a multifaceted approach. This approach recognises that sustainability is a spectrum and acknowledges the efforts made by both vegan leather brands and traditional leather producers to improve their practices. Collaboration and dialogue between these sectors can lead to the development of even more sustainable solutions.
Let us celebrate choice and encourage dialogue that promotes positive change.