May 30, 2023
by Karl Smith
Are “Vegan” Fashion and Footwear Hurting Our Sustainable Future?
by Karl Smith
May 30, 2023

It may seem strange when you consider the mainstreaming of veganism and plant-based living, but “vegan fashion” is quickly falling out of favor.

Of course, the idea that proponents of more traditional, animal-based options would try and slow the encroachment of next-generation offerings into their perceived territory isn’t surprising at all. But opposition to “vegan” fashion and footwear isn’t just coming from the old guard – the call is also coming from inside the house.

Why, then, would brands whose entire purpose in this world is the creation of purposeful, planet-friendly and cruelty-free options across fashion, footwear, fabrics and materials, have a problem with “vegan” options?

Well, to be clear: they don’t. Not really. It’s not so much about the finished product as it is about wording – and, more specifically, about that first word. It’s a question of purpose – about what that means in terms of planning for the future – and a sense of merit-worthy, plausible solutions vs. a ready-made get out of jail free card.

At base, then, it’s about a term we’re all familiar with by now: “greenwashing.” Not just righteous indignation at the fact of it, but also an equally righteous – if slightly more niche – frustration with the damage it does to the market for animal-free production and to the movement itself, in terms of reputation.

Here is the problem: animal-free and planet-friendly are not the same thing. A brand can drop every single instance of animal-based material from its product line – which, you know, is very much a good thing in its own way – and still be producing something that is harmful to the environment, the ecosystem, and the animals that call it home.

The main culprit here, of course, is plastic. We’re talking PU, TPU, PVC – all those familiar acronyms we used to group together and call “pleather,” but which have been rebranded as “vegan leather,” burying their non-organic origins in their animal-free credentials.

But what’s wrong with good ol’ polyurethane? After all, isn’t objection to PU just another industry ploy to steer us away from a future without animal cruelty?

Well, no. Especially not when you consider the source of anti-plastic sentiment.

There are multiple, legitimate issues where plastic is concerned, and there’s a reason that companies like Natural Fiber Welding are dedicating their research and development dollars to innovations like MIRUM – viable, scalable, and specifically plastic-free alternatives to animal-based materials.

Whether it’s a single-use bag from the grocery store or a PU-based “vegan leather” jacket, plastics are almost always derived from harmful, non-renewable fossil fuels. Less common knowledge, perhaps, is the fact that some plastics – and it is some, rather than all – are also made with the addition of stearic acid, which comes from animals. So, in that sense, plastic itself is not only tangentially harmful in the environmental sense, but also not reliably animal (or cruelty) free in its makeup.

The issue isn’t just virgin plastics, either. Recycled plastics – even materials made from plastic waste, like bottles harvested from the oceans by companies like Parley – may seem like a sustainable alternative, but they have a distinct lifespan and are not truly circular. With each use, the material becomes weaker and less fit for purpose. With each round of recycling, too, those bottles shed microplastics into the environment – the kind that have been found in our water, our earth, our air, and even recently in our bloodstreams.

There’s also the issue of pricing. Not long ago, PU clothes and accessories were the cheaper alternative to animal-based leather – as consumers, we knew that the quality was lower and the product was less likely to last, and the price point was adjusted to reflect that. Opportunism, however, has changed that: the chance for labels to rebrand “pleather” as “vegan leather” and cover their petrochemical footprints has also afforded them the chance to up their price in accordance.

Suddenly, PU is a more valuable material precisely because it isn’t animal-derived. Doc Martens, for example, have a “vegan” offering, made from a nebulous “range of extra durable, synthetic materials with a 100% animal-friendly construction” – which sounds a lot like pleather but comes with the same price tag as its animal leather counterpart.

The haphazard adoption of green terminology allows for an equally haphazard application of a green tax onto products – added value by virtue of a change in vocabulary. This way, culture is capitalized and scrutiny is avoided; thanks to the addition of just one word, “vegan,” consumers are happy to be fleeced for an illusory feel-good factor. And, with this in mind, it’s easy to understand why the flip-side of the industry has begun to shun the term.

Still, not all “vegan leather” is plastic. Polyurethane isn’t the only alternative, after all. There’s fruit leather and cactus leather and mycelium leather, all of which are made from natural materials at base. Surely these can happily use terms like “vegan leather” with a clear conscience?

Well, as with everything, it’s not quite that simple. And that’s because the issue here isn’t with the base – the foundations are solid in both philosophical and material terms – but, instead, with the edifice; with the façade. Many bio-based leather alternatives are, in fact, coated with PVC or PU to increase their durability and strength.

As NFW founder and CEO Luke Haverhals notes, “Presently, the alternative materials space is full of marketing that is misleading for investors…and any basic search can reveal a number “new” technologies that are marketed one way, but executed completely differently.”

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. PANGAIA, for example – which also uses recycled wool and so might find it hard to claim the “vegan” mantle anyway – has its own grape leather. Yet, despite being made from fruit waste, “Vegea” is never referred to as “vegan” because it uses polyurethane. (Albeit water-based PU, which utilizes a less harmful process in production.) The self-described materials science brand has a strict line on greenwashing jargon – which includes never referring to its products as “sustainable” – and advocates transparency within the industry. “Our goal,” the UK-based label’s website reads, “is to only use, and continue to develop, petrochemical-free alternatives to animal leather.”

A noble goal, for sure. But, still, it is only a goal – as it is for most brands actively working toward creating a viable alternative for the future, rather than a repackaged version of the past. But, when not everyone can be trusted to provide the same level of transparency, there’s always the potential for a bad aftertaste with “vegan” products. You might think you’re getting an apple, and you are, but that apple also happens to be coated in fossil-derived plastic.

Even poor, oblivious Snow White would think twice before taking a bite of that.

Still, it’s worth noting that animal-derived leather products aren’t plastic-free either; it’s common practice for brands to coat leather sneakers in PU or TPU for exactly the same reasons as it is for their plant-based counterparts. Anyone touting leather as the “natural” option has about as much credibility as anyone still trying to push the “meat industry byproduct” line.

And so, what we have is a trade-off: the here and now, where plastic-free alternatives are not yet available at scale, versus what’s here tomorrow. As consumers, the choice is between harm and harm reduction. But the choice is also a question of priorities: animal welfare versus environmental welfare. Which, of course, is about as false a dichotomy as it’s possible to drum up. You simply cannot have one without the other.

All of which, yes, does sound a little like saying that there’s no winning here. And maybe there’s some truth to that right now. But progress over perfection is the line we’ve always walked at FUTUREVVORLD, and it’s the same line walked by truly well-intentioned brands and next-gen development companies who want to make a lasting difference.

Right now, maybe you can’t have it all – but you can make more mindful choices. You can pause when you read the word “vegan” attributed to clothes and footwear and ask what it means. Or, for that matter, whether it means anything at all. You can make better choices, too. A PU coating is better than a PU construction. Water-based PU is better than regular polyurethane. And sometimes, buying nothing at all is the only reasonable answer.

At the end of the day, too, truth is better than obfuscation: as a label, “plant-based” is clear and concise. Even “partially plant-based,” which Joey Pringle from sustainable production outfit Veshin Factory floats as an option, is a more honest term than “vegan” where the latter can mean so many things and, equally, so few.

In this sense, the media, too, has a role to play in phasing out “vegan” as a catch-all term for products that are – and especially products that merely present as being – animal free. To be clear: it has been useful – particularly when it comes to addressing a broad audience who are interested in consuming more consciously but who aren’t necessarily familiar with the intricacies of the next-gen materials market.

But perhaps now it has outweighed its use – tipped from help into hurt.

And so, as with everything, there is a sliding scale at play. Absolutism and idealism are grand, bold and powerful ideas – but, for the moment at least, they are exactly that: ideas. As a consumer, though, it’s more tangible – it’s about creating small changes through direct action which lead to bigger shifts. Every plant leather purchase is a nudge away from animal leather hegemony; every almost-plastic-free product, imperfect as it may be, is a tip of the scales in favor of a wholly plastic-free future.

Just don’t call it vegan. (Yet.)