Vegan Leather Has an Unethical Dark Side

It was the ideal style, price and colour, but most importantly, the vegan leather tote bag had the ideal intention stitched to its very stitching. Yet it took just a couple clicks of the mouse to show an abysmal major question mark over its ethical brownie points.

Welcome to the intricate world of ethical style and its star recruit “vegan leather” (also referred to as faux or faux leather and, previously, pleather).

Yes, ethical fashion is that interested juncture where our conscience meets our credit card. Nobody exemplifies this better than British designer and self-anointed vegan queen Stella McCartney and her high-end handbag and women’s shoes range worn by the likes of Gwen Stefani, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anne Hathaway and Salma Hayek.


However, it’s the non-leather inventory popping up in mainstream brands, such as American Apparel, H&M, Topshop that is really accelerated interest one of the lucrative millennial sector.

Up to now, it’s been so on trend, but scratch the rather vast surface of the vegan leather business and a murkier picture emerges. Clicking on “materials” I see that it is made from “PU” — polyurethane. Okay, that has certainly existed for quite a long time, but just what is it?

A chemical site informs me that polyurethane is formed by reacting a polyol with a diisocyanate or a polymeric isocyanine in the presence of appropriate catalysts and additives.


Pardon my ignorance, but this sounds about as natural as a turducken. However, it’s exactly what PU does to the environment that is the larger issue here, like the solvents which are used in creating polyurethane-based synthetic leather that are highly toxic.  And unlike leather produced from, say, a cow, a product made from PU also won’t biodegrade anytime soon, either, and neither is it recycled.

Vegan leather sits on peak of a market flanked by inconsistency, irregularity and ambiguity. However, it isn’t fair to tar all vegan leather products like women’s ankle boots with the same brush, and this is not good news for either the consumer or the industry. Especially since Stella McCartney is not alone in championing ethical options albeit at hefty prices (McCartney developed her own substance Eco Faux Leather, which uses vegetable oil as opposed to petroleum oil).

You can discover legitimate producers of vegan leather ladies boots which use more sustainable materials like Vegetan, which may be 70-80 percent biodegradable, or Lorica (or EcoLorica), another sort of hi-tech material generated from mixing microfibers saturated in resins. And then there is cork, barkcloth, glazed cotton and waxed cotton.

But that is just it. If you really want to find out more about your vegan handbag or women’s shoes, for that matter, you need to do all of the groundwork. Not exactly what you would call a winning marketing thought.

Bonnie Murthy, co-director of one of Melbourne’s most iconic ethically sustainable retailers Vegan Wares, could not agree more. Additional to the obvious problems related to operating in a regulation vacuum, Murphy informs me that the vast majority of the vegan market remains caught up in seasonal style which almost by definition is unsustainable (i.e. built-in obsolescence, seduction of new more ‘fashionable’ appearances, short product life etc.). While sustainability is fundamental to the authentic vegan philosophy, she says, in practice it often runs a poor second to animal-free component.

So there it is. Even people in the trade believe that vegan leather was coasting for too long on an undeserved reputation and it is no longer enough to understand what it is not anymore. The industry as a whole should take another step and live up to what it claims to be–a workable, consistent and clear alternative to the animal trade.

Introducing tighter regulations are a beginning, but like any industrial market, at the core of the vegan leather motion is the consumer. Up until now we have allowed the business to feed our vanity (Look at me I am helping save the entire world) And our guilt (I know that I cannot really afford it, but can I afford not to get it?), but let us not let it trade any farther on our integrity.