Think about your favorite handbag. What is it made of? For many, the answer is probably leather. And if not, odds are you have a backpack, wallet, shoes, or even a fanny pack that is. Unfortunately, from exploitative factory farming conditions to worrisome deforestation, it’s no secret that leather doesn’t have the best rap when it comes to the environment.
That’s why it’s no surprise that vegan leather erupted on the market to serve as the antithesis to its traditional animal-based counterpart. We saw the word “vegan” and thought it had to be true—this eco-friendly leather alternative could actually allow us to sport fashionable handbags and jackets free of any eco-guilt. But, that wasn’t 100 percent true.
Even vegan leather has its pitfalls. Are they enough to write it off altogether, though? Are there other materials we should be using instead? This is exactly what we dive into in the latest episode of Good Together. Laura Wittig, Brightly’s CEO and co-founder, chats with Inder Bedi—the founder of the vegan leather goods company Matt & Nat. Bedi has since gone on to launch 457 ANEW, a slow fashion line that creates handbags, clothing, and more out of some pretty surprising materials (hint: seatbelts may be involved).
Continue reading below to learn more about vegan leather, Bedi’s journey within sustainable fashion, and the innovative new materials that could make up your next handbag.
What Is Vegan Leather?
Vegan leather mimics real leather, but it’s produced using artificial or plant-based materials. In many instances—particularly within fast fashion—vegan leather is produced with PVC and polyurethane. These materials are plastic and petroleum-based, so not exactly the most eco-friendly alternative.
That said, vegan leather can also derive from more natural materials such as cork, paper, and even apples and bananas. Yes, that’s right—the same ingredients used to make your morning smoothie can be used to make your handbag.
Is Vegan Leather Sustainable?
Now whether or not vegan leather can really be considered “sustainable” depends on how it was made. For instance, plastic-based leather alternatives, while not directly harming animals in the production process, can still take years to degrade, which is harmful to the environment.
But is that plastic pollution more detrimental than the environmental impacts of traditional leather? Not only are over a billion animals slaughtered each year for their skins and hides, but even the tanning process itself (in which hides are turned into leather) has its own negative connotations.
Tanning and dyeing utilizes heavy metals, which can leach into waterways, resulting in the death of sea life. It can also harm the manufacturing plant workers.
Ultimately, it comes down to what sustainability factors are important to you. No eco-friendly product will be perfect. Real leather can harm animals and be processed using chemicals, while plastic-based leather doesn’t directly harm animals, but may not biodegrade and can release dangerous toxins. It creates a bit of a “lesser of two evils” scenario.
However, let’s not forget about those apples and bananas we mentioned earlier. There are a variety of plant-based alternatives rising in popularity. For instance, MuSkin is a vegan leather made from mushroom caps. It’s tanned with non-toxic ingredients and is even said to be softer and more water repellent than traditional leather.
At the end of the day, it’s important that we as consumers do research into where our vegan leather products come from and how they’re made.
Alternatives to Vegan Leather
Bedi and his team at 457 ANEW take what some could argue is an even more innovative approach than utilizing mushrooms to create their products. Instead, they reuse scrap items.
“We were able to get our hands on a bunch of aircraft leather,” says Bedi. “They do their seats every now and then, so we got a bunch of that and made a line of backpacks and duffel bags.”
Also used in Bedi’s line of products is Econyl, a yarn derived from different types of ocean waste, such as fish nets and even carpet fibers. But to really provide that true leather look that customers were craving, Bedi and his team turned to… cactus.
“We discovered Desserto, which is a plant-based leather grown from cactus leaves in Mexico,” says Bedi. “To me, that was very interesting in terms of how that world has evolved from using vegan leathers back in the day at Matt & Nat, and now seeing that there’s this rush to make them out of everything from cactus to mushrooms to grapes. It’s not perfect yet. It’s devoid of PVC, toxic chemicals, and phthalates, which is good, but there are still certain binding agents they need to use, even though it’s plant-based.”
How to Make Sure the Leather Products You Buy Are Sustainable
As consumers, we can look for brands that are transparent about their leather production processes, whether it be traditional leather or vegan. Of course the most sustainable thing anyone can do is simply buy less, but Bedi realizes it’s not realistic to expect everyone to stop shopping altogether.
“In terms of mainstream customers, I think there’s always going to be that desire for new, for fresh,” says Bedi. “I also feel that we could do it in a way that ties more into slow fashion and less into fast fashion by making sure that items always have a second life, by ensuring they don’t end up in a landfill, and of course, by using resources that are sustainably made.”
Bedi’s team tries to ensure their products avoid a garbage-filled grave by giving customers the option to return their used items. “We have a program called Last Beyond You,” he says. “When customers are done with the items, they can return them back for a 25 percent credit. We refurbish them and get them out to an organization in Montreal that supports homeless youth.”
While 457 ANEW is one of the few brands right now that’s putting a big emphasis on innovative sustainable materials and the reuse of products, Bedi believes the rest of the industry will eventually hop on board. “As there’s more demand from consumers, and as more mainstream brands jump on this, I think it just puts that much more pressure on the industry to come out with materials that are more sustainable and take into account the type of impact they’re having on the environment,” he says.
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