One of the first purchases I made when I was just dabbling in eco-friendly fashion and living was a vegan handbag. I was so proud to have an item that would (I thought) help to reduce my impact on the environment. It was a nice enough bag, but that tag with the word "VEGAN" in big green letters made me really LOVE it. If only I knew then what I know now. Not only did that bag not help save animals or the planet, but it probably made things a little bit worse. Now that I know better, I hope I can spread some info and keep you from making the same mistakes I did.
The beef/cattle industry is one of, if not the, worst perpetrators of crimes against the environment. It is the leading cause of deforestation in the world, and cows themselves emit huge amounts of methane. Then there's the acres of chemically-treated grain needed to feed livestock, and the toxic run-off leaching into the global water supply. Even if you're not concerned about veganism, or saving the lives of the individual animals, you can see why anyone who cares about the environment might want to avoid beef and leather products.
With that in mind, it's obvious why "vegan leather" products seem like an ethical alternative. But before you fall for a vegan brand's greenwashing, here is some important information to keep in mind.
"Vegan Leather" is PLASTIC
Most materials labeled "vegan leather" are actually plastic. Specifically, they're usually either polyurethane (PU) or, more often, polyvinylchloride (PVC, aka vinyl.)
The main component in vinyl is chlorine. Chlorine is one of the most energy-intensive substances to produce. It requires a lot of resources like water, raw materials, and energy. "Chlorine production for PVC consumes an estimated 47 billion kilowatt hours per year - equivalent to the annual total output of eight medium-sized nuclear power plants." That means your handbag or jacket has a really REALLY big carbon footprint, and it's killing the planet - you know, that place where animals live. Greenpeace called vinyl "the most damaging plastic on the planet." And that's not even the worst part. Vinyl is loaded is with toxins, and it releases metal stabilizers, phlalates, and heavy metals into the atmosphere at an alarming rate. That stuff causes asthma, cancer, and all kinds of medical problems. You're exposed to that just by having vinyl around.
Polyurethane isn't much better. As it's also a plastic, its manufacture is costly in energy, and creates carbon emissions and chemical waste. PU contains isocyanates, a substance that can cause lung irritation and asthma. It can also irritate the skin. Scientists suggest that anyone who suffers from migraines should avoid polyurethane fumes, along with pregnant women, young children, the elderly, or anyone with lung complications. Doesn't sound like something I want to have around.
The "Vegan" Brands
There are plenty of brands that like to exploit the fact that their handbags are "vegan." Sure, Angela Roi makes some beautiful handbags, but guess what they're made out of? Polyurethane. Matt & Nat is another popular vegan brand, but their products are made out of polyurethane and vinyl. They even state on their website that "PU is less harmful for the environment than PVC and we make it a point to use it whenever possible." But in actuality, they use more PVC than PU in their products! They and Freedom of Animals like to brag that they use recycled water bottles in their products (usually just the lining,) but plastics can only be downcycled, not recycled. That means they're broken down and separated, and some elements are recovered to create lower-grade materials. The rest is disposed of in the form of nasty sludge, chemical run-off, toxic fumes, residue, etc. The resulting materials are not the same make-up or quality as virgin plastic, so recycling does not reduce the demand for creating new plastic, and it doesn't really keep all that much out of the environment. Urban Expressions love to talk about how vegan and cruelty free their products are, but when I reached out to the brand and asked what materials their products are made of, their response was: "We are unable to disclose that information. Our apologies for the inconvenience." Ok, so I definitely will not be purchasing any more of their products! And check the tags - does it say made in China, or Bangladesh? Your "vegan" handbag was probably sewn together in a sweatshop. That often means major human rights violations, unsafe work environments, low wages, indentured servitude (slavery,) and other exploitation. For more information about the environmental and human rights implications of fast fashion, I highly encourage my readers to watch the film The True Cost.
The market is flooded with brands and designers selling "vegan" products. My point here is that we (myself included) are being duped by brands that promote the fact that their products are technically "vegan" in order to distract us from their unethical manufacturing practices and toxic materials. It's time to start holding them accountable. Check your tags, and reach out to brands to find out what their products are made of, and where. If they don't meet your ethical standards, let them know! Together, we can encourage these brands to change their business practices and be more ethical.
Sure, your "vegan leather" handbag isn't made out of an animal's skin, but that doesn't mean that no animals are going to be harmed as a result. To choose a "vegan leather" handbag just because it appears to save the life of one animal seems incredibly short-sighted, especially once you know that the manufacture of the material may very well contribute to the destruction of animal habitats. I would go so far as to say it's hypocritical to purchase, promote, or support a brand just because they're "vegan" if their products are made out of harmful materials, or manufactured in sweatshops.
This post might make it seem like I think real leather is better than "vegan leather," which is not the case. I admit to having few very carefully selected leather items that I treasure. My Sseko bucket bag is indeed leather, and I support the ethos behind the brand. My Pelechecoco jacket is made out of totally recycled leather, meaning it doesn't support the cattle industry or require virgin leather. Still, in most cases I prefer to avoid real leather altogether. And of course real leather is not an acceptable option for vegans.
I assume that almost everyone who supports these handbags (and "vegan leather" shoes, jackets, wallets, etc.) does so with the absolute best intentions at heart. This article is not intended to villainize anyone who has purchased or promoted the brands mentioned. I've done so myself! But now that I know better, I can make better-informed choices, and I hope that this will help my readers do the same.
What's a Vegan, Ethically-Minded, Lover of Handbags to Do?!
Shop Pre-Loved & Vintage
Buying used is a great way to add pieces to your wardrobe without having your dollars go towards the cattle industry or vinyl manufacturers. It doesn't increase demand for new products, or virgin petroleum-based materials. I especially love Tradesy and the Poshmark app for shopping used. If you still covet a "vegan leather" designer bag, find a used one, like I did! I purchased a pre-loved Matt & Nat bag on Poshmark and am very happy with it. (Use my code for $5 off a purchase on Poshmark: JUFTW)
Look for Plant-Based Materials
We are living in a golden age of eco-friendly materials! Don't fret about giving up petroleum-based vegan leathers, because we are really spoiled for choice in plant-based alternatives. Some to look out for include:
Organic Cotton - Cotton can be tricky because there are definitely some human rights and environmental issues affecting the cotton industry. Keep an eye out for organic and fair trade options, of which there are plenty!
Cork is my favorite plant-based leather alternative. It's one of the most renewable materials in the world as well as biodegradable, and durable. There are a LOT of brands and designers working with it, so there are some really beautiful and chic styles available in a nice range of prices.
Piñatex is a relatively new material that's actually made out of pineapple fibers! More and more brands are starting to use it, and I'm constantly impressed by how gorgeous the pieces are. Here's a video about the creation of the material.
Try These Instead!
All of these beautiful handbags are vegan* and NOT made out of vinyl, polyurethane, or any petroleum-based materials! If you have a favorite designer or brand, please let me know in the comments, below.
*It's come to my attention that some Elvis & Kresse products include repurposed parachute silk. Silk is not considered vegan.
Looking for the most eco-friendly and ethical leather or leather alternatives? Check out Project Just's list of approved handbags and leather.