BY FEMKE VAN BRUINESSEN
As someone who eats vegan most of the time, people get really confused when they find out I buy leather. The reality is that sometimes an ethical product isn’t sustainable and sometimes a sustainable product isn’t ethical. There is a certain pressure on consumers to be perfect and this expectation that if you say you care about the environment, you must do everything in your power to care for the environment. However, being a conscious consumer is not black and white. It is not always easy; choices have to be made and buying or not buying leather is one of those.
Leather has many advantages. It is a great option when it comes to shoes and bags. One of the reasons leather is great is because of how durable it is. Leather products last really long and can still be in great condition after. The fabric is moldable enough to not break over time and vegan leather is just not there yet. Obviously, leather is not the most ethical choice, but it can be when bought secondhand. Buying secondhand however can be difficult because they may not have your size or what you’re looking for.
Vegan leather is often considered to be more ethical because an animal did not have to be killed for it. However, vegan leather is most commonly made from polyurethane, which is a plastic. Plastics are made from oil and oil companies are among the world’s most harmful companies for the environment and also society with oil playing a role in for example terrorism and global political tension. Where leather is biodegradable, plastic is not. So, when the vegan leather purse breaks, it will most likely end up in a landfill.
In my personal experience with vegan leather products, the bags would break after a year and the shoes would never really be comfortable like leather shoes are. It just does not compare to real leather. Leather may be less ethical from an animal activist point of view, but it is more sustainable since it is biodegradable and generally lasts a lot longer than its most common vegan counterpart of which the ethicality is also very questionable. Where my vegan leather products broke quickly, my leather products (some new, some secondhand) are still in my possession and are still being worn with one bag even being more than twice my age. From my point of view, both are not ethical, but leather is better in the long run when considering sustainability.
When talking about leather versus vegan leather it is important to mention the research being done regarding leather alternatives. One example is mushroom leather. Stella McCartney already has mushroom leather bags for sale. These non-plastic biodegradable alternatives are usually a lot more expensive than both actual leather and the plastic option., but with change being the only constant in the fashion industry, it might become a more common and affordable material in the future.
The most sustainable thing will always be to buy less, buy better and to wear longer. If for you, plastic leather is what is available and affordable than that is the best choice for you. I will not be able to buy mushroom leather anytime soon, so I will stick to animal leather, because I believe it to be more sustainable in the long run. When it comes to finding balance between ethical or sustainable options, the best choice is always what is right for you even when it is not considered perfect by others. Trying to be a conscious consumer is difficult enough in a world so intertwined with hyper-consumerism and exploitation, the last thing we need is to drag others down for doing their best.
Solomon, Erika. 2015. “Isis Inc: how oil fuels the jihadi terrorists” Financial Times, October 14, 2015. https://www.ft.com/content/b8234932-719b-11e5-ad6d-f4ed76f0900a
Bezamat, Bia. 2018. “Bolt Threads and Stella McCartney introduce mushroom leather handbag” TheCurrent Daily, April 17, 2018. https://thecurrentdaily.com/2018/04/17/bolt-threads-stella-mccartney-mushroom-leather/
Tsekova, Denitsa. 2019. “What Is Vegan Leather, and Should You Be Wearing It?” The Washington Post, August 27, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/energy/what-is-vegan-leather-and-should-you-be-wearing-it/2019/08/26/3a59b7ba-c878-11e9-9615-8f1a32962e04_story.html