Is ‘Vegan Leather’ Better For The Planet? Lessons From Our Journey Towards Plant-Based Products

by | Jan 29, 2021 | Accessories, Design, Design House Manufacturer, Equator - The Belt Factory, Sustainability, Sustainability Journey

With the urgent call for more ethical and sustainable products and practices in fashion, vegan leather has been one trend to emerge in response.

The discussion around whether vegan leather alternatives are better for the environment is a complex one. 

As manufacturers of both traditional leather and faux leather products (and manufacturers who have the desire to be as sustainable in our practices as possible) this is a topic of discussion that often takes over our product development team meetings, and is something that we have dedicated funding, time and resources to exploring. 

Despite the current model of fast fashion and overconsumption – which can admittedly be good for business but not equally good for people or the planet in the long run- we believe in a future where we are able to produce less units while balancing job retention and economic stability. One where customers are able to buy lasting, quality products less often, and share or repurpose them. 

Leather can be good for this purpose. Good quality leather can last a lifetime and even be passed on to the next generation.  Leather is also biodegradable at the end of its life. However, in 2017, virgin cow’s leather was ranked to have the highest cradle-to-gate environmental impact of commonly used fashion materials in the Pulse Of The Fashion Industry report

It’s important to take into account that this impact is measured based on the current unsustainable state of animal agriculture, of which leather is a waste-product. “There are important arguments around the need for regenerative farming – in which livestock and permaculture play a deeply symbiotic and crucial role,” says director Leon Buhr. (We suggest watching Kiss the Ground for an alternative view). “It is our belief that leather sourced and tanned responsibly, and used in products designed to last, can be one of earth’s most sustainable materials.”

We still have a long way to go in transforming industries to make this possible. In the meantime, using recycled leather can help reduce this impact and is something we are committed to doing. Currently between 12 and 28% of our fabrication comes from recycled sources and this percentage is increasing. We are of course also committed to increasingly buying leather that is traceable and certified by a credible agency.

But what about vegan leather alternatives? 

The term vegan leather can be misleading in itself. Often people assume that something labelled vegan is environmentally friendly – which is simply not the case. As Charlotte Turner, head of sustainable fashion and textiles at Eco-Age, a brand consultancy agency specializing in sustainability, explains: 

“Traditional faux leather (which is commonly used in fast fashion) is made from petrochemical-based materials like polyvinyl chloride (PVC), acrylic, polyester, polyurethane, and nylon. “These synthetic materials have a significant impact on the environment; they are made from petroleum oil, their production can be highly polluting, and they are not biodegradable or easily recyclable, adding to landfill, breaking down into smaller plastic particles and potentially contributing to water, air, and land pollution.”

Admittedly, at Equator we still manufacture some belts from PU and PVC. However, we are working very hard to incrementally reduce the amount of plastic fabrication in our products without impacting the cost to consumer, and to eventually vastly diminish the use of plastic in the industry by working with our customers to create the demand for alternatives. 

Ultimately our goal is to move away from plastic leathers towards more plant-based content alternatives in our finished product – and we are not alone in this. 

In the past three years, a number of plant-based alternatives have emerged, including leathers made from:

  • Pineapple
  • Cereal Crop 
  • Cactus
  • Corn
  • Flowers, grass and trees
  • Apple Peels
  • Coffee grounds
  • Mushroom
  • Coconut
  • Cork
  • Food waste
  • Wine waste

In our case, our first plant-based material wallets are ready and our belts will follow shortly. The vegan-friendly, leather-look material is Oeko-Tex certified and has been used to manufacture bags, headwear, luggage labels, stationery items and other “leather” goods. 

Unfortunately, the sponge filler (between the upper and the lining) is still not plant based or biodegradable, but it constitutes a small portion of the overall bulk and we are still searching for a more sustainable option as part of our ongoing journey. To this point we believe any solution that reduces the overall fossil-fuel derived content (in the meantime) is progress. If we use 50% less that is HALF the impact.

The market-ready end-material

  • looks, ages and softens like leather
  • is recognized as a vegan-friendly material and has a number of environmentally and socially responsible credentials
  • is more accessibly priced than some other plant leathers. 
  • is highly versatile, abrasion-resistant and durable – making it the perfect material for a high-quality and lasting product.
  • Gives excellent results after printing, processing and washing – highly versatile (can be easily stitched, printed, laminated or coated)
  • Withstands stonewashing, enzyme washing & dry-cleaning
  • Is dimensionally stable & does not shrink, stretch or delaminate
  • Is Lightweight & easy to handle
  • Is Highly abrasion-resistant & durable
  • Has high stitch tear & wet strength for washing & outdoor exposure
  • Provides a leather effect touch & feel

It will take us some time to produce products that are 100% plant-based or biodegradable, however, we are slowly and committedly working towards that goal. Every improvement – however incremental, is an improvement.