Titled ‘Is vegan leather worse for the environment than real leather?’, the article published on the Harper’s Bazaar website on April 17 sought to investigate how and if ‘any leather’ has a place in the future of fashion, and whether alternative materials can rival the quality of genuine leather. The article begins by pointing out the alleged benefits of a vegan diet for the environment and then explains what the alternative, ‘vegan materials’, are made from, which can be petroleum-based or made from more sustainable alternatives, such as pineapple leaves, cork, apple peels and recycled plastic.

The author, Jessica Davis, then outlines the opinions of fashion designers on both sides of the argument, with some favouring polyurethane-based materials for collections, or mixing both materials. Fashion label Rejina Pyo claims that it only sources leather from Leather Working Group (LWG) rated tanneries, while Jourdan Norcose of Boyish Jeans warned of greenwashing by some brands. Citing Brazil as an example of deforestation due to livestock breeding that leads to “biodiversity loss” and contributes to climate change, Davis does outline that “despite vegan alternatives being thought to have a lower impact on the environment than the real thing, it does have clear drawbacks, particularly when it’s made from plastic” and explains how micro-plastic pollution is a big threat to the planet; “13 million tonnes of synthetic fibres enter our oceans each year”.

Responding to the article, Leather Naturally said in a letter to Harper’s Bazaar it is good to see articles that provide “some balance to a debate which has been notable for its lack of interest in any actual facts. Much of the discussion regarding leather and its substitutes has been based on myth and what appear to be deliberate inaccuracies”. LN suggested that, as the magazine further explores the topic, leather organisations and respectable tanning groups be contacted for information on leather, adding that some tanners “would all feel very aggrieved by the arguments that making leather should be labelled with the terms “toxic” and “heavy metals” which are both weasel terms used in an emotive way to frighten consumers”. LN also said that the leather industry is highly regulated with initiatives such as the ZDHC (Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals), the LWG or similar in Italy and Brazil, which “give brands and consumers the opportunity to use leather with a good conscience”, and that as far as the claims about the use of energy and water go, “these have been transformed in the last thirty years as new equipment has been introduced with higher levels of efficiency and reduced water consumption”. Referring to alternative materials, the LN said that it “would much prefer consumers used some of the biologically based materials” mentioned in the article “although the actual processing they use is not very transparent, and we are aware that most of these incorporate quite large proportions of polyurethane that are rarely disclosed”.

In the letter, LN recognised that “a tiny minority of tanners in certain high-profile locations do continue to flout the law through ignorance or lack of enforcement of the laws. Mostly these are small historic units often with illiterate workforces and management”, but added that it is “strongly opposed to their continued existence and is glad to see that action appears to be underway to either train and guide them to be working according to international standards or eliminate much of this sector”. LN concluded its response by saying that “one of the reasons that these ‘legacy’ situations remain in a few, mostly far flung places, is that the livestock industry has always been widespread and the leather industry has been a major force in providing large numbers of jobs to pull impoverished people out of poverty”.

Other industry reactions to the article

“Harper’s Bazaar, I’m a bit speechless about this one. The primary source used for information about the leather industry is…PETA? Hides/leather are ‘often times’ a by-product of meat production? Huh? When, exactly, are they not a by-product then?”, Stephen Sothmann, President, Leather and Hides Council of America (LHCA).

“True, it could have been better if the author would have engaged with professionals from the leather industry. But that’s deliberately not the goal. The goal, unfortunately, is to spread the term ‘vegan leather’, which is, of course, an oxymoron and induces people to believe that man-made alternatives to leather are ‘not that bad’ in spite of depleting finite resources, polluting the oceans and not knowing at all their production process… Sorry, simply bad journalism”, Gustavo Gonzalez-Quijano, General Secretary, Cotance.

To read the article published on Harper’s Bazaar, please click here.