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Is Vegan Leather Ethical and Sustainable?

Season 1 episode 6

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Listen to this episode on Spotify | YouTube | Apple Podcast | Google Podcast

Thousands of popular brands are introducing vegan leather into their collections. But what if I told you that vegan leather may not be as friendly as you might think?

Hello friends I am your host Lilli and welcome to seams fabricated, a podcast where I unpick the dirty secrets of the fast fashion industry, today we are diving straight into the dirt as we explore how vegan leather is connected with fossil fuels.

There’s no question that the use of animal skins is problematic on an ethical level. But if you’re a meat eater what’s the issue? Many people would naturally presume that leather is a by product of the meat industry and it would just go to waste otherwise so we may as well use the resource, that’s sustainable right?

Leather doesn’t just refer to cow skins, it includes all animal skins including crocodile, snake, kangaroo, pig, and even cats and dogs. However, cattle skins are often the most sought after within the fashion industry, and unborn calves are the most luxurious of them all known as slink leather.

Not all cattle that are killed for meat have pretty enough skins for the fashion industry, so already a lot of skins are discarded of straight away. The skin of a cattle makes 10% of the farmers profit, which pound for pound makes it the most profitable part of the animal. In most cases farmers are driven to sell the skin of the animal for monetary reasons rather than to reduce waste.

Because of the high demand for leather, amounting to 23 billion square feet of animal skins produced each year, manufacturers cannot keep up. Chinese factories have been found passing cat and dog skins for leather as it’s much cheaper and easier to obtain.

The Chinese openly trade dog and cat meat and furs in their own province. The United States along with other countries have banned the import of dog and cat furs, but it is still unknowingly slipping through the cracks. Which means that companies and buyers think they’re paying for products made from cattle skins but the source of the skin remains unknown unless lab testing is done. As I’ve mentioned in previous episodes, the lack of management checking up on the manufacturing facilities creates a whole world of problems.

A huge environmental issue is the carbon and water usage of raising the animal to get the leather. It’s estimated that 17,000 litres of water is needed to make 1kg of leather. So it turns out that all natural leather is not so sustainable after all.

Before I leave the topic of real leather, there’s one more important aspect I need to cover. Animal skins are natural, they decompose. So how do we not smell like dead flesh when wearing leather? A nice chemical concoction of course!

If you haven’t listened to my water contamination episode, what are you doing? Go listen to it it’s important! In that episode I looked at how the fashion industry is the second most water pollutant industry due to the run off of chemical dyes, but also from the treatment of animal skins.

China, Brazil and India are among the highest producers of leather. After the skin is removed from the animal there is only a very small window of time before the flesh begins to rot. Some facilities use salt to preserve the skin but most are put straight into large vats of chemicals. These chemicals are some of the most harmful to humans including chromium, formaldehyde, and heavy oils. Tanneries employ cheap labour, and as we have seen in the past, health and safety of employees are completely ignored. A 2015 report by NGO environmental agency found that the employees were unaware of the health hazards of the chemicals they were using and inhaling every day.

These chemicals cause rashes, cancers, loss of smell, and eyesight issues and breathing difficulties.

Kalkata India 2018 – Marthuri Leathers - three people died of asphyxiation while manually cleaning a chemical holding tank.

Jujmau India 2020 – Two people died of asphyxiation while manually cleaning a sceptic tank at a tannery.

Children as young as 5 years old work in these tanneries, when interviewed workers said that they had minimal safety clothes and the chemical waters splash them all day long burning their skin. Run offs from the chemical waters leach into soil, local waterways and even into local homes and cause air pollution.

Now a lot of you out there are probably thinking, this girl is wild! She’s overreacting it can’t like that. The clothes I buy are not made like that. But that’s the whole reason I made this podcast, because I’ve worked in the industry and I’ve seen buyers and designers blissfully oblivious to the destruction left behind by fashion. This is reality. The ads you see on Tv are not.

So what about vegan leather? Can this be the answer to this entirely unethical situation?

A few years ago wearing pleather was a little cringy, everyone knew that fake leather didn’t last as long, would loose it’s colour, crackle and flake especially in the sun. But most of us could only afford the popular styles by buying cheap Chinese made knockoffs. I probably still have a sad looking pleather wallet degrading in my drawer somewhere.

Fast forward to 2022 when climate change, animal rights and environmental impact is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Leading many fast fashion brands to rethink their approach on leather items.

People go vegan for a multitude of reasons. Better health, no animal cruelty, and lower impacts on the environment. So it makes sense that vegan leather should also harness those same qualities… or so one would think…

Most leather labelled as vegan wouldn’t hold up to the ethical standards most people would associate with veganism. Basically another form of greenwashing. While the product itself is not made from animal skin, it is still made from chemicals that are extremely harmful to the environment and human health.

The majority of vegan leather or pleather comes in two forms. The First one is PVC or vinyl made from polyvinyl chloride. This is produced by a combination of salt and ethylene derived from petroleum, and is deemed the most environmentally damaging form of plastic. Because of how it’s constructed it’s very hard to recycle. If it catches fire, the smoke is extremely harmful, and the manufacturing plants omit harmful toxins into the air. These toxins are known by the World Health Organisation as “persistent environmental pollutants” because they remain in the atmosphere for a long time. Among these pollutants is dioxin – one of the most harmful chemicals ever produced.

Wearing PVC can also be harmful.

Besides the chemicals coming into contact with the skin, the fabric does not breath and you’ll be very likely to overheat. The image that comes to mind is the episode of F.R.I.E.N.D.S when Ross thinks he’s super cool in his tight leather pants, but he ends up ruining his date because he got so sweaty, he went to the bathroom to take off his pants to get some relief, but was unable to get them back on, even with the help of talcum powder and some slippery lotion. He ends up walking out of there with no pants at all. So to avoid being a hot mess like Ross I’d strongly advise everyone to steer clear of PVC pants.

The other type of pleather is made from polyurethane derived from petroleum. If you don’t know much about petroleum don’t worry, I didn’t know too much about it either other than it makes the car run….

Petroleum is a fossil fuel and is also known as crude oil. The most publicly known effects of crude oil are the oil spills. Oil spills happen on land but the most devastating happen in the ocean. In 2018 there were 137 oil spills in the United States alone. No matter the size of the spill the environmental impacts are instant. Killing multitudes of marine life from seals, fish, birds, turtles and impacting entire eco systems.

The fossil fuel industry is the number one destructive industry on the planet. Fossil fuels don’t grow back like trees do, once they are gone, they are gone forever. In fact we are on track to completely run out of fossil fuels in this century.

The impacts of mining crude oil don’t just stop at animals, it also has impacts on human health. Air pollutants have caused respiratory issues and cardiovascular diseases within local communities of production facilities. As well as high levels of benzene – a cancer causing carcinogen - making it’s way into soil and air.

A small town in Colorado had readings of almost twice the federal guideline amount of benzene in the air. The Oil rig is located 2 blocks away from a school and parents are understandably worried about future contaminations that may go unnoticed or unresolved.

With just under 1000 oil rigs operational worldwide it’s easy to see the extent of contamination, environmental impact, and dangers to human lives.

So you’re probably thinking, great thanks, you’ve ruined leather and vegan leather for me… what the heck am I supposed to wear? Well I have one more revolutionary product to discuss.

Leather made from plants!

Desserto was the first company to launch this amazing new material made from cactus plants. Water usage is vey low for growing cacti and the product is all natural. Growing plants naturally decreases carbon pollution and these cacti are completely organic!

The textile itself is 100% biodegradable and is now being used by designers across the world.

Piñatex is a leather like textile made from pineapple leaves! This fabric is durable, breathable, soft and light. Made from the unwanted leaves of pineapple farms this textile is a by product of the food farming industry. The entire production is done with the environment and safety in mind.

So if you are looking at buying a new bag or a nice jacket, please read the label carefully, remember that 100% leather does not necessarily mean it came from a cow. And most leathers that are labelled as “vegan” are made from harmful chemicals and fossil fuels.

For all you plant based eaters out there, let’s be plant based wearers as well. I’m really excited to see the environmentally friendly products that will be coming our way in 2022.

Thanks so much for listening in to this episode of Seams Fabricated. Please share this information with your family and friends. My goal is to provide transparency from the fashion industry to consumers, so that we can make educated decisions on our purchases. I hope your start to the year has been a good one and I will see you next week. This podcast is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts. You can also find me on Instagram @seamsfabricated.

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