Why I’d Just Say ‘No’ to Vegan Leather
After hearing from my sister that the Falabella bag by Stella McCartney was constructed from a leather substitute, and that Natalie Portman was starting her own vegan leather shoe line, I started to wonder: what the heck is meant by ‘vegan leather’ anyway? And is it really more eco-friendly than ‘normal’ leather?
This leather substitute is used to make clothing, belt leather supplies, shoes, accessories, upholstery and more. It’s often indistinguishable from the real thing, and is much cheaper to manufacture than leather–even though designers, like McCartney, inflate the price. While a few vegan leathers are cork- or kelp-based, the vast majority of faux leather has been around for ages, and is made of scary materials like polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyurethane and textile-polymer composite microfibres.
In other words, generally speaking, ‘vegan leather’ reeks, literally and figuratively, of petroleum.
Vegan Leather and the Environment
It gets worse. Both leather and vegan leather production emit chemicals harmful to environment and factory workers alike. Leather production’s preparatory stage, in which the raw animal hide is prepared for tanning, usually incorporates substances (like hydrogen sulfide and ammonia) which put factory workers at risk for skin, respiratory, ocular or nerve damage, or in cases of extreme overexposure, death.
The tanning stage prevents hides from rotting (as normal skin would normally do), often through the use of chromium, which then leaks into nearby soil and water at high enough levels to be carcinogenic and mutagenic. For every tonne of hide produced, twenty to eighty cubic metres of chemically toxic, pathogen-contaminated wastewater is unleashed on the environment. And Amazon rainforests are being depleted at a rate of one hectare every eighteen seconds by cattle ranchers looking to cash in on a bustling market for luxury leather items.
Despite these eco-horrors, many eco-warriors find vegan leather production even worse. For example, the manufacture and incineration of PVC-based synthetics produce one of the most toxic chemicals known to man: dioxins. Found in almost every single modern human’s body, dioxins promote developmental disturbances and increase cancer risks tenfold.
Since plastic-based synthetics don’t fully biodegrade, they produce micro-particles that are ingested by animals and thus enter the food chain at all levels: even Arctic polar bears have been found to have dioxins in their bloodstream. When it does break down, vegan leather releases phthalates–initially added as a softening agent–which subsequently enter the food chain and the atmosphere, causing breathing problems, breast cancers, hormonal disruptions and birth defects.