Veganism has caught the public’s attention. The combination of environmental and health benefits has made huge numbers of people switch to a plant based diet. According to The Vegan Society, the number of vegans in Great Britain quadrupled between 2014 and 2018. Today, there are 600,000 vegans in Great Britain, or 1.16% of the population; 276,000 (0.46%) in 2016; and 150,000 (0.25%) in 2014 and this growth doesn’t show any signs of slowing.
It’s not just vegans who are buying into this growing market. Many people are cutting down their meat consumption and opting for meals without animal products. It’s cool to buy “vegan”, right now, whether you are one or not.
The vegan trend has continued into beauty with 82% of all new vegan items launched in the UK last year belonging to the beauty category. And, now, it’s the turn of the fashion business. Brands are seeing pound signs from consumers wanting a complete vegan lifestyle, or an alternative to products using animal skins or products. The anti-fur/exotic skins movement has seen many brands drop ranges from their collections and replace them with items labelled as vegan.
While the reduction in carbon emissions and environmental benefits is clear by switching from meat to plant-based food, is switching from leather to non-leather substitutes, usual plastics, that beneficial? Isn’t vegan fashion just more plastic in the world?
Helen Farr-Leander, Founder, Watson & Wolfe, a new vegan, PETA approved British men’s accessorises business, says: “For me, vegan fashion encourages us to think about our future and our responsibility – being sustainable and environmentally-friendly and cruelty free.”
“Our intention was originally to work in the leather industry, which is where our experience lies, but our research into starting the business uncovered some facts that we didn’t like and we realised the true cost of the industry. The level of cruelty I witnessed and the impact on the planet of industrial farming for leather and the pollution from the chemical processes of tanning led me to transition to veganism and this was the turning point,” she says.
Watson & Wolfe’s “eco-leather” is a giant stride towards fully sustainable leather. Rather than being 100% polyurethane, the base material is made with more than 50% bio plant material, that does not divert resources necessary for food farms or animal feed. This bio content comes entirely from renewable sources and is carbon neutral, so the production of the material has a substantially lower impact on the environment. The recycled linings are made from 100% post-consumer plastic bottles which are recycled into a PET yarn and the gift boxes and tissue papers are also made from high quality recycled materials which are biodegradable and recyclable.
“In the case of the leather industry, projections indicate that the industry will need to supply 430 million cows annually by 2025, a staggering statistic that is at odds with the 360% rise in vegetarianism and veganism over the past decade. We are focused on providing a more responsible, environmentally friendly product and we continue to seek material which avoids the use of animal-based components and that continually improves the sustainability of our collection,” says Farr-Leander. “This is not the case with all vegan fashion, and consumers should always do their research before buying anything,” she says.
The V&A’s exhibition “Fashioned From Nature”, last year, featured materials such as ‘Vegea’ which uses grape waste from the wine industry to form a leather-substitute, as well as a Ferragamo piece made from ‘Orange Fiber’ derived from waste from the Italian citrus industry. There is leather also made from apple skins used by new ‘sustainable’ designer labels such as Zilver.
These materials are often more expensive than traditional leather and aren’t available in the quantities many brands desire. For the ethical cynics, there are some brands labelling plastic as vegan to jump on the ethical band wagon. Some consumers are also skeptical about these new leathers being as durable and tough as traditional leathers, especially for things like bags and shoes.
Jack Millington, Co-Founder of Billy Tannery, a new British tannery using goat leather from the food industry, says, “There are lots of so-called vegan alternatives to leather, but the vast majority are plastic products like PVC or PU which are being re-labeled as vegan. If we are comparing plastic with artisan leather created from a by-product, then I don’t think there can be any confusion as to which is better for the environment. Even with recycled plastic materials, there needs to be more research done into the micro-plastics that these materials could be emitting.”
“There are a few plant fibre materials that are also touted as ‘vegan leather’, but in our experience these are more similar to cardboard in performance than leather, so end up being coated in a layer of plastic anyway,” says Millington.
Billy Tannery’s goat leather is produced using goatskins sourced from the British food industry that were previously going to waste. Before they started nearly all of these goatskins were being destroyed, so they take this waste product and turn it into a functional material in their own micro-tannery in the Midlands, between Leicester and Northampton. Their signature “Gote” tote bag is £395 and is made in Somerset or Leicestershire.
“We believe that ours is one of the most environmentally friendly leathers available today. Our unique tanning process not only uses bark extracts instead of the usual metal salts, but it recycles 90% of the water used and turns much of the waste into compost. Also, when compared to most industrially tanned leather which circles the globe to be tanned as cheaply as possible, our supply chain is kept in the UK which drastically reduces the ‘leather miles’ and in turn the carbon footprint.” he says.
Like all environmental labelling, it’s good to read behind the lines. Just because something is “organic”, it doesn’t mean it hasn’t been flown halfway around the world and just because something is labelled “vegan”, it doesn’t mean it’s any better for the environment. It’s important for consumers to ask questions, do their research and buy from brands taking us in the right direction with or without animal products.