Vegan ‘leather’ might be en vogue, but can it satisfy the mass-market?

Published:  02 July, 2019
Isabella Griffiths

Consumer interest in all things vegan and eco-friendly is growing. Whether you consider it a fad or the Zeitgeist of our time, it certainly looks like it is a trend that is here to stay. I do not need to tell you that the leather industry has been hugely affected, if not damaged, by this development – mostly, it seems, because of its own passivity and inability to (re)act and to defend its place in the market.  

Faux leather is big business
According to latest data from retail analyst Edited, the U.S., UK and Germany are the biggest investors in vegan products. In the UK, at the end of January, a 75% year-on-year increase in products described as ‘vegan’ was noted, hot on the heels of what was the biggest ‘Veganuary’ to date. Germany has been identified by Mintel as the global leader in vegan food and drink products and development, having experienced an impressive 131% increase in vegan products year-on-year. The U.S. records the largest quantity of vegan merchandise on the market, while France and Denmark are next on the list of fastest growing ‘vegan-friendly’ regions (the latter having grown by a whopping 320% (!) according to Edited).

The impact on our industry, both in terms of the image and reputation of leather as perceived ethical and eco-material - or not, as it looks to be the case - as well as in real terms in the decline in sales of hides and finished leather products, is considerable. The rise of alternative and so-called vegan materials and new innovations and product developments hitting the global market is seemingly unstoppable. A report published by Grand View Research currently values the global synthetic leather market at US$25 billion, while other projections estimate it will reach US$85 billion by 2025. It’s big business indeed.

Substitutes vs the real thing
The fashion industry has been quick to embrace alternative ‘leathers’ in a bid to cash in on shoppers’ desire to incorporate a vegan or more eco-conscious lifestyle and to buy alternatives to leathers, skins, fur – and now even wool – and is among the key drivers and respondents to the growing demand.
Plastic and petroleum-based leather alternatives such as PVC and PU have been in use for a while, not just in the fashion industry; but because these can be hardly considered eco-friendly, a raft of lab-grown, cell-cultured or bio-engineered materials has emerged, many of which are hailed as the next big thing in material science. Pinatex, the pineapple leaf material, has now been around for a while, as has Bolt Threads, which launched mushroom-based alternative Mylo, but other plant-based ‘leathers’ – and I use the term loosely; the issue of mislabelling is a valid, separate topic – derived from coconut, orange peel to apple waste or cork and hemp variants are being created as substitutes that aim to take over from the real thing.
It is easy to see why reports of these innovations grab the attention of consumers, and consequently brands. What’s not to like about products that are said to not only save the planet, but also animals (ignoring the fact that leather is a natural by-product that would otherwise be destined for landfill) and allow shoppers to indulge in consumerism with a seemingly clear conscience.

A question of scale
But if we scratch the surface beyond the headlines – are any of these new materials really viable for the mass-market?
Staying with the world of fashion, some brands – mostly in the accessory and footwear sector – have started using them in their collections, but so far there are vast limitations; starting with a higher price tag, and therefore excluding the majority of consumers, to issues around inconsistent product quality or undesirable aesthetics, to durability and considerations around life-cycles and disposal – not to mention the fact that all of these, currently at least, still have to be treated with non-biodegradable chemicals so that they do not rot away. And then there’s the issue of scale. These ‘bio-materials’ may well be able to be incorporated into a small, luxury capsule collection of sneakers, handbags or wallets. But can they be produced in the quantities that the (genuine) leather supply chain currently delivers, not only across fashion and footwear, but also automotive, furniture, sports equipment and everything in between where leather has been used for years?
Perhaps the more interesting question is, what would be the environmental impact of some of these bio-engineered or plant based ‘leathers’ if they had to be harvested/produced on a mass-market scale? I don’t have the answer, but it’s food for thought and maybe an indication, a ray of hope if you will, for the leather industry that it cannot be eliminated just yet. Currently, bio-based materials are still inferior to leather. What’s more, most are still in development and it is estimated that it could be a decade before products such as Modern Meadow’s Zoa – whereby yeast is bio-engineered to generate collagen which allegedly can be moulded into a material that can be tanned and dyed to brands’ specifications - will be ready to be used on a commercial scale. Now is the chance for leather to reclaim its place and the narrative surrounding its eco-credentials.

Time to act
But we must be under no illusion - research and development in the alternatives to leather sector is accelerating, and the leather industry cannot afford to stand still. It must itself invest in development and innovation, review its processes and environmental impact and become as ‘clean’ and sustainable as possible. We may not be able to get away from the fact that leather comes from animals, but at the very least, we can ensure that our processes live up to the highest ecological standards. Good examples already exists – I’m thinking of the Scottish Leather Group’s ‘Journey-to-Zero’/low carbon leather or JBS Couros’ new ‘Kind Leather’, which are making impressive headway in terms of circular economies as well as ethical and ecological leather production.

Now is the time to act - and to show the world that genuine, natural leather is still the better alternative than its faux counterparts.

Isabella Griffiths, Editor

July 2, 2019

About the author
Isabella Griffiths is an experienced b2b journalist and Editor, having joined ILM from the fashion and retail sector, where she spent 15 years as Editor-in-Chief of a leading national trade title in the UK, reporting on industry news and market developments within clothing wholesale, retail and e-commerce. Originally from Germany, Isabella trained as print journalist and started her career as reporter for one of the country’s largest newspaper groups, Funke Media Group.