Changing from an omnivorous lifestyle to a vegan lifestyle has been a really interesting journey for me. Making a conscious effort to change what I put in my mouth was actually surprisingly easy (I’m not just saying that as I found that after a while I stopped craving meat, dairy and eggs!). However, transitioning to a vegan lifestyle is so much more than what you consume because what you choose to support with your dollar is just as important. So, being relatively new to the vegan game I wanted to investigate and throw some light on the impact of the leather industry and what vegan alternatives are out there. To my surprise, there are so many companies that are doing amazing things with plant based alternatives that I’m sure it won’t be long until we see these new materials change the way we look at leather forever.
The sad truth is the leather industry is a major contributor to climate change. Raising cattle for food and leather requires an extremely large amount of resources including food, water, land and fossil fuels. The water used in tanneries is contaminated with hazardous chemicals and is thrown back into nearby water ways, creating ecological imbalances, loss of agricultural production and low quality drinking water. Tanneries are also responsible for releasing pollutants such as ammonia hydrogen sulphide into the air, posing a major threat to our precious atmosphere. Once leather is treated, it makes the once biodegradable textile completely unable to degrade, creating more harmful waste. Unfortunately, it is not just the animals that suffer at the hands of the leather industry. It also has a huge effect on the people who work to create these materials and those who live near these factories. Those exposed to these harmful chemicals will have an increased cancer risk of 20-50%.
I know what you may be thinking, you’re telling me not to wear leather – what if it ends up in landfill, wouldn’t it be almost unethical not to wear leather? Leather is commonly thought of as a by-product of the meat industry, but do not be fooled by this misconception! You may be surprised to know that choosing to buy leather does not mean you are ‘saving waste’. The leather industry is a more profitable market than the meat industry and actually helps to keep the meat industry afloat. This is possible as this “by-product” doesn’t require refrigeration and food safety testing like meat does. Consequently, the industry is able to receive a much higher return which makes leather more of a “co-product” as it directly contributes to the demand for cattle farming.
The lack of animal welfare in the industry is a very real problem. The torture and cruelty these innocent animals endure in order for us to wear the skin off their backs is simply horrifying. Extreme crowding, deprivation, castration, dehorning, branding, tail-breaking and tail-docking all without painkillers are just a taste of what these creatures have to endure on a day-to-day basis. When the animal’s skins are ready to be harvested, cows will have their throats slit, and some will be skinned and dismembered whilst still conscious. Is the suffering really worth it?
This leaves us with a predicament. How can we keep our social conscience clean yet still fuel our addiction for leather shoes? Fear not friends, there are many companies out there that are doing fascinating things with technology and making a leather-free world a much more possible future. These alternatives are nothing like the PVC plastic faux leather that we are so used to seeing. No, these companies are creating degradable, sustainable and eco-friendly alternatives that are extremely comparable, and in some cases, dare we say it, better than the original.
1. Pineapple Leather
Ananas Anam has created an alternative to leather that is natural, low cost, durable and biodegradable. Launched under the name, Piñatex, the innovative textile is created using the leaves from pineapples that are usually left to rot post-harvest. The best part about this new textile is that it costs no more to produce and the by-product of the natural fibres can be reused as fertiliser and given back to the farmers, feeding the product life-cycle again. Piñatex also has the amazing opportunity to increase employment for these farming communities, as the demand for these natural fibres begins to grow – a win-win for everybody.
2. Kombucha leather
Much like pineapple leather, this next vegan alternative also uses the by-product of an existing industry and uses low scale technology to create it. Kombucha is a fermented sweet tea that is created using a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. Originating in ancient China, this ‘immortal health elixir’ has existed for over 2000 years and has just made a resurgence among health junkies and hipsters. Scientists and designers from our very own QUT have entered the cruelty-free leather market with a ‘bacteria-based clothing revolution’ where the bacteria colony is reused from the kombucha adding to the already long list of its benefits. Lead scientist, Dr Peter Musk is blazing the way with this new sustainable material by stretching and drying it to create vegan leather. QUT’s School of Design Head of Studies Dean Brough states that it has the potential for widespread use. In principle, you could actually make a garment out of kombucha fabric, put it in a blender, reblend it and make another garment because it’s just a cellulose fabric.
3. Lab Leather
A company called Modern Meadow is experimenting with cultured animal cells and tissues to create lab-grown leather. Lab leather can be controlled and altered throughout its development to suit the client’s needs. Factors including durability, elasticity, strength and water resistance offer a new frontier that if successful, farm-grown leather could not compete with.
Although the development of these three new technologies is fantastic news, all three of these amazing alternatives are a long way from lab to market. However, here are some alternatives that are killing it (figuratively, of course) by producing sustainable and most importantly, stylish clothing and accessories that are available to us right now. Regardless of what you choose to put in your gob, these fashion houses need to be on your radar.
1. Stella McCartney
High fashion icon Stella McCartney is the one of the very few luxury designers that uses vegetarian leather. The fashion house has developed one of the best leather alternatives that are pushing the boundaries in a sustainable manner without sacrificing style in any way.
2. Matt and Nat
Short for Materials and Nature, accessories designers, Matt and Nat are using vegan materials and other eco-friendly materials such as cork, nylon and rubber in all of their designs. In every bag that Matt and Nat produce, 21 recycled bottles were used to create the bag’s lining. Their signature vegan leather is durable and strong ensuring that these bags will last a lifetime.
3. Well Made Clothing
Australian e-commerce fashion marketplace, Well Made Clothing wants to increase awareness of ethical fashion labels. The company believes its clothing wears better, feels better and looks better because it is good to people and the environment. The labels that are stocked by the website need to follow a set of requirements which includes local, handcrafted, transparent, gender equality, vegan, minimal waste, sustainable and of course, fashionable.
When looking at the facts, it is hard to deny the reasons why we shouldn’t consider an alternative and with so many options available to us, there is no reason not to! You may not realise it, but we have the power to say no to cruelty, say no to destruction and say no climate change. By making an educated decision when making your next purchase to choose cruelty-free plant-based alternatives over animal skins, you can influence change in the world – it is that simple.