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Vegan materials: good or bad?

The vegan debate is not just based on lifestyle or eating habits. The debate on vegan materials and alternatives to leathers is something brought on by a change in the fashion industry, and an increased awareness of sustainability and green washing. But are vegan materials and material alternatives good? Or do they do more harm than the positive term 'vegan' suggests? The team at Clutch Made took a deep dive this week into the world of sustainable and vegan materials, keep reading to find out...

There is a range of materials that can be used to make vegan leathers and materials, but for faux leathers, it's typically synthetics like plastic. The most commonly used is PVC or PU, which are both plastic based materials. The synthetic materials are often questioned for their impact on the environment. Bonding plastic coatings to fabric backings is the most common way to produce vegan leathers, however this releases dioxins which are potentially dangerous in small spaces and when burnt.

This toxicity makes it one of the 'single most environmentally damaging type of plastic'. PU also releases toxins and is made with oil based polymers which makes use of fossil fuels. So the argument for vegan leathers being more sustainable isn't entirely accurate, whilst they may be more ethical.

Overall to look at the long term impact of one versus the other, there are many factors to consider. For normal leathers, the quality and durability, when cared for can make leather pieces last a life time. Real leather is more expensive, but the craftsmanship of leather products is a highly skilled job and influences the high quality and durability of a leather product. “Leather can be considered a slow-fashion material because of its ability to withstand wear and tear and last in your closet for longer than less quality materials” One of the biggest arguments for leather is that whilst meat consumption is a majority, leather is just a by-product that saves waste in landfills. There are some positive ways to change the impacts of leather, for example chrome tanning is more toxic than vegetable tanning, as vegetable tanning is naturally plant derived. Another plus side is that leather is biodegradable, so even if you throw a leather product out it will decompose better than a vegan alternative will in landfill.

On the other hand, vegan leathers are a lot thinner and more light weight which can impact their durability over longer periods of time, meaning you may have to replace fake leather products multiple times over a life time, instead of mainting one single leather product. Whilst being typically cheaper than real leather, it's cheaper because of its synthetic production, impacting the quality and durability. The largest argument for vegan leather is the welfare of animals and ethical practice. However from an environmental stand point, it's not biodegradable and the synthetic fibers in it are contributing to the microplastic pollutions in the ocean. When you consider the negative environmental impact the environmental friendliness of the majority of faux leather is concerning. 

So what can you do as a designer and consumer who is ethically conscious and maybe wanting to produce vegan products or accessories? Whilst vegan leathers may not be the best environmentally conscious option, there are sustainable vegan textiles on the market that the team at Clutch Made Factory can help you source.

1. Organic cotton

Conventional cotton exposes the environment to harmful chemicals and has a history of forced and child labour in the supplu chain. Cotton clothing that is organic is more ethically and sustainably produced.

2. Lyocell and Modal

Lyocell and modal are fibres manufactured from wood pulp. These use chemicals in the production but are free from harmful solvents. The chemicals are captured and re-used over and over again, so they never get released.

3. Linen (Flax)

Linen is a textile that is made from the reed of the flax plant. It has been manufactured traditionally in Europe and Japan for several thousand years and is a very sustainable option.

4. Hemp

Hemp is another wonderful plant-based fibre with significant environmental benefits. It can be grown on marginal land, so it does not take productive land away from food crops.

5. Soysilk and Peace Silk

Soysilk is a silk-like fabric that is manufactured with the soy residue leftover from producing tofu. However, it does use formaldehyde in the production process, which is a known carcinogen. If you’re specifically looking for a silk alternative, this is a reasonable option.

6. Pineapple Leather and Other Sustainable Vegan Leathers

Pineapple leather is manufactured from the leaves leftover after farming the fruit and is entirely biodegradable.

7. Recycled Nylon and Polyester

You can increasingly find recycled options which take the fabric waste from factories or old garments from consumers and recycled them into new textiles.

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