“Hey Sbri, I love this purse - but can you make it in vegan leather?” – is a question that lands in our inbox from time to time. We’re a leather accessories brand with a sustainable focus, offering beautifully handmade colourful personalised bags and purses (and more!) that aim to make a big impact on your mood but a small one on the planet. From our materials to our production methods, packaging and beyond, we consider our environmental footprint at every step and try to run our small business in the most sustainable way we can.
So why don’t Sbri offer a vegan alternative to leather, when the vegan lifestyle is so heavily associated with sustainability? It’s a big topic, one that we’ve already covered in this blog post asking how sustainable is leather, and this blog post debunking 5 myths about sustainable fashion. In today’s post we wanted to break it down a bit more and share three reasons why we don’t currently work with vegan leather at Sbri. We’re going to discuss whether vegan leather is good for the planet, whether vegan leather is sustainable and why we’re dubious of the term “vegan” to describe it at all. Let’s get into it…
What is vegan leather?
Let’s begin by defining what we mean by “vegan leather”. Simply put, it’s a leather-effect material which is produced without any animal product, something that mimics the look and feel of leather without using cowhide (or any other animal skin). The term “vegan leather” itself is a bit of an oxymoron and we think it can be quite misleading (more on that later) so “artificial” or “faux” leather might be a more accurate description.
While there have been a number of plant-based leather alternatives emerging in recent years, the vast majority of faux leathers used in the fashion industry are made from either polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), both of which are forms of plastics which derive from fossil fuels and have to undergo toxic chemical processes to make them flexible enough to mimic leather.
A little disclaimer before we get started…
We know that buying animal products is out of the question for some people, and that’s absolutely okay - the point of this blog post isn’t to try and convince you to buy real leather if you’re entirely against using animal products, and it’s definitely not to be anti-vegan either. It’s simply to expand on the reasons we don’t think a synthetic option is right for us at Sbri and why we think using faux-leather would conflict with our commitment to sustainability.
Reason 1: We don’t want to greenwash
Have you heard of Greenwashing? It’s where brands or organisations use sustainability as a marketing tactic, giving the impression that they are an environmentally friendly company in order to sell more products without proving it in their actions. Economics expert Will Keaton summarises it best in this article for Investopedia:
“Greenwashing is the process of conveying a false impression or misleading information about how a company's products are environmentally sound. Greenwashing is an unsubstantiated claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company's products are environmentally friendly or have a greater positive environmental impact than what is true.”
Case in point: fashion brands with a poor track record on the sustainability front renaming their “pleather” (or faux leather) ranges as “vegan leather” in an attempt to appear greener. Sound familiar?
As well as the literal definition of not consuming animal products, most people associate veganism with being environmentally conscious and having strong morals and ethics, so you can see why many fast fashion brands want to align themselves with this lifestyle. It makes it seem like they’re doing a good thing, right? But while faux leathers are technically vegan (i.e. animal-free), the processes used to produce them can be highly polluting which doesn’t correlate with the environmentally friendly credentials the word “vegan” alludes to.
At Sbri we are proud of our commitment to sustainability, we have always tried to be transparent about where our materials are from and how they are produced, and encourage our customers to make informed choices about the products they are buying. When brands label these plastic products as “vegan” they remove any nuance from the discussion, misleading customers into thinking they’re making the best environmental choice without taking the time to learn about what they are buying. And we don’t want to be one of those brands.
Reason 2: Vegan leather doesn’t age well
Sometimes shopping for leather or leather-look items can be a bit like a game of spot the difference. Many leather alternatives do a great job of mimicking the appearance of real leather and the feel of real leather, but none can truly recreate its strength (there’s the difference). One reason we love working with leather is because of its durability - it stands the test of time and gets better and better with age. When cared for properly, a good quality leather item will last decades and can be passed down to future generations. You can read all about the ageing process of our vegetable-tanned leather here.
On the other hand, vegan leather doesn’t have the natural ability to age well and we see that as a compromise on quality that we’re reluctant to make. We know that our handmade leather accessories are an investment purchase for many of our customers and we think that when you’re spending your hard earned cash with us, you deserve a piece that’s going to see you through, not one that needs to be replaced a couple of years down the line.
Of course, the other major issue with the shorter lifespan of faux-leather products is where they go after they have left your wardrobe. Spoiler alert, it’s landfill. Unlike natural leather which is biodegradable, plastic leather alternatives could take anywhere from 50-500 years (maybe more) to decompose, contributing to microplastic pollution in the process. With the UK sending over 300,000 tonnes of textile waste to landfill each year, that game of spot the difference suddenly feels more serious, doesn’t it?
Reason 3: We think that vegetable-tanned leather is a more environmentally friendly option
It’s really important to acknowledge that the leather industry is by no means perfect, in fact there is a lot wrong with it. 80-90% of all leather worldwide is chromium-tanned, a process where harsh chemical treatments are used to speed up the tanning process, which can be incredibly toxic itself. In some parts of the world, leather production also contributes to deforestation and water pollution.
The leather we use at Sbri, on the other hand, is all traditionally vegetable-tanned, a centuries old process where leather hides are treated with natural vegetable tannins rather than toxic chemicals. You can find out more here. Veg-tanned leather is biodegradable, it’s safe to produce and has a much smaller impact on the environment than producing chrome-tanned leather does, or indeed PU or PVC vegan leather.
Like we mentioned earlier, there is a lot of nuance in the discussion around vegan leather, and much of it gets lost in translation. It’s definitely not as simple as “real vs fake”. Some leathers are better than others, some leather alternatives are better than others, and for us at Sbri, we feel that responsibly sourced and produced vegetable-tanned leather is the most sustainable option. So, if you’re looking for a vegan alternative because you’re concerned about the environmental impact of leather, learning more about vegetable-tanning could be a better option than defaulting straight to faux.
So there we are, three reasons why we don’t currently use vegan leather at Sbri. This isn’t to say we’re completely against offering a leather alternative in the future, there are some interesting natural leather alternatives emerging on the market and it’s something we keep our ear to the ground about, but until we find something that matches up to the quality, durability and integrity of our current offering, you’ll only find responsibly sourced veg-tanned leather in our studio.