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Is vegan leather always ethical?

When plastic replaces leather in fashion, it’s a quick win for manufacturers – but not for the planet
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Is vegan leather always ethical?

With demand for vegan trainers on the rise, Vivobarefoot has questioned whether plastic-based vegan products are doing more harm than good.

Vivobarefoot, which produces both plant-based and leather shoes, has called on its fellow
manufacturers to change how they label their products so consumers can make more informed
decisions about the products they are purchasing.

Leather vs plastic

Brands ranging from leading budget supermarket Aldi all the way up to fashion powerhouse Balenciaga are creating ‘vegan’ trainers containing PU (Ployurethane) and TPR (Thermoplastic rubber), which can have a much more damaging impact on the planet than responsibly sourced leather.

Writing on Vivobarefoot’s website, the company’s head of sustainability, Emma Hamilton-Foster, explains: ‘It is time for us to take a moment and unpick what ‘vegan leather’ actually means. In a growing number of cases, it is a euphemism for, let’s say it like it is, plastic.

‘At first glance it is a smart marketing tool for a substitute which doesn’t harm an animal, but what of the impact of that substitute? The truth is that any synthetic product can be classified as vegan.’

Unintended consequences

Many who are boycotting products that depend on the slaughter of animals switch to a product that may arguably accelerate not only that, but also the destruction of their habitats and ecosystems.

The biggest destroyers of plant and animal life are the industry that extracts and processes the crude oil needed to create plastic materials and the industry that makes the toxic chemicals needed to make them. They wipe out entire species.

While record numbers of people once again took on the Veganuary challenge this January,
Vivobarefoot believes it is important to get past labels and headlines. Unfortunately, it isn’t always as simple as choosing plants over leather every time to reduce our impact on the environment.

A call for radical transparency

A synthetic sweater, made with chemical dyes, leaching microplastics and made in a factory by
unsafe, underpaid, vulnerable people can be labelled vegan. A Shetland jumper made from
locally sourced, organic, small-scale farmed wool and dyed naturally by hand could not.

We need to change the language we use when talking about making fashion more sustainable. We need to appreciate that while some materials can be made badly, they can also be made well.

Instead of quoting generic, unscientific data to justify something is sustainable, customers should be getting radical transparency of how things are made and what impact is has on the planet.

The goal at Vivobarefoot is to offer products that are beyond sustainable; that are regenerative.

products that have a positive impact on the planet – for both the vegan and natural materials used.

‘We’re not there yet’, says Emma, ‘but we’re working on it and we’re taking the industry with us.’

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