Vegan Leather vs Upcycled Leather: The Ecological Dilemma 

Vegan Leather vs Upcycled Leather: The Ecological Dilemma 

As vegans, we know all about the ethical decisions that we make when shopping for food and in the kitchen — the elimination of those food sources obtained through animal violence and exploitation.While some may choose veganism because of their health, or for religious reasons, the bulk of vegans choose to do so on the basis of being “animal vegan” — hashtag I don’t eat my friends.

If you are a vegan consumer, outside of food, you may find that matters become a little more uncertain.  Sure, you will want to apply a cruelty-free philosophy to everything you buy to wear as much as they buy to eat, but the dynamics aren’t always quite as straight forward.

More often than not, vegans are committed to reusing and recycling.  By doing so, they are doing their bit to ensure that the adverse impact that they have on the planet, on the environment, is as minimal as possible.

There can be a dilemma here though.  And that dilemma is between opting for alternative leather shoes, accessories and products on the one hand and upcycled leather products on the other. 

Let’s break that dilemma down a little.

Let's first address the issue of animal skin leather.  Undoubtedly the most well-known non-vegan material of them all, leather is the by-product and king of industrial sized animal cruelty.  When cattle are spent by the equally as cruel dairy industry, they are more often than not slaughtered for their skin to become leather.

The leather industry is notoriously harmful to the environment, using industrial chemicals as part of the tanning process that can make their way into local water supplies and the ecosystem.  This is even more pronounced in developing countries where regulations may be lax or even non-existent. And that's in addition to the already unnatural conditions that the animals live and grow in, which has been connected to the highest producing methane production. In fact, the film Cowspiracy convincingly explores how cows are destroying the ozone layer with the noxious gas that they emit at unnatural rates.

But then there is the argument that second hand leather does not directly contribute to the industry and is therefore a sound ecological choice.

Leather is an issue to vegans, where though does the issue of second-hand leather, for example, take us?  There is a school of thought that proposes that recycled, or rather upcycled leather, is an option that holds merit.

Upcycling is the process of reusing waste or unwanted products into products of better value or quality than they were originally intended to be.

The argument runs, “well, the leather product was already in existence.”  There is no going back from it and it may as well be used again. By doing so, this may actually be more beneficial to the environment in the longer run as it prevents yet more resources being consumed.  A kind of “use what we already have” mentality.

It still was once the skin of a living, breathing, feeling creature. And not everyone will know it is second-hand when they see you strutting your second-hand Fryes. All they’ll see is that you saved two-hundred bucks on a pair of leather boots. It sends the message that you’re ok with buying shoes made from animal skins.

But you know the truth right?

Then there is the unsettling, stomach churning comparator to upcycled leather is the roadkill argument.  “Well, it was already dead, hit by a car, so what’s the harm in using it?”

The morality being:  the damage has already been done — what’s the problem?

Like most vegans who have been confronted by questions about random, abstract post-apocalyptic societies or desert islands, these sorts of arguments represent last case “black and white-ism.”

The reality is, ecological concerns have been a major barrier in vegan fashion up until quite recently.

Pleather and the environment

The second-hand argument makes sense if you are an eco-conscious consumer finding the need to replace your vegan shoes after only three months of heavy wear. You picture shoe piling up on top of some hilltop or floating down the rivers and oceans.

Then there is the whole problem with how traditional synthetic leather is made.Cheap, faux leather known as pleather “plastic leather” because it is made from environmental toxins and pollutants like polyurethane (PU), a fossil fuel, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), vinyl or plastic.

So for many of us, the second-hand leather choice — particularly for shoes — has been the lesser of the two evils. However, ecological alternatives are on the horizon. 

Eco-friendly Vegan Leather on the Market

2018 was marked the year for the vegan. And the market caught on quickly. Vegan foods have made the break-through into the mainstream like I never dreamed possible.  Consequently, it is now entirely common place to walk down any supermarket aisle, peruse most online stores, and even go to a restaurant and easily find vegan-friendly choices.

And now ecological responsible vegan leather is catching on in fashion like never before. High quality sustainable vegan fashion is making an increasing impact this year on the runway. For instance, apple leather hit fashion designer Matea Benedetti exhibited models draped in apple leather at the 2017 Green Carpet Fashion Awards. And London just had its first vegan fashion show, Bare Fashion, this summer, which included many sustainable options including Altiir’s pineapple fabric.

So hope is on the horizon. Better quality vegan leather products are now emerging all the time who make less use of PVC and PU or not at all.  You can find shoes or other leather goods made of cork, pineapple leather (piñatex), apple leather like Frumat, mushrooms, recycled tire tubes, waxed cotton, tree bark, and even sewable stone slates. And if you need a knitted sweater to go with it, you can wear banana silk, hemp, recycled cola bottles, bamboo, or cotton as usual. As the technology of vegan leather improves, so too does the quality and durability of the product.  Thus, we’re finally reaching a place where eco-friendly vegan leather And e-commerce has been more than a friend to the vegan and eco-conscious consumer. Online shopping has made it easier for you to obtain alternative leather products wherever you are.

Consequently, the use of animal skins is on its way out. Eco-friendly vegan is hot at your fingertips

And that’s something to go bananas over.



What is your favorite eco-friendly vegan fashion inspiration? We’d love to hear your thoughts.


It’s not hard to make decisions once you know what your values are.

-Roy E. Disney


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