How to Find Vegan Leather That is Conscious & Cruelty-Free

One of the most frustrating things I encounter in my search for sustainable products is the fact that many people are under the assumption that leather is eco-friendly. Aside from the obvious ethical issues surrounding the culling of animals for their hides, recent studies continue to prove that the environmental impact caused by our reliance on meat and its by-products is simply not sustainable. Cattle ranching is the primary driver of forest destruction in the Brazilian Amazon, where it occurs on over two-thirds of deforested land. At the same time, these cows are belching an incredible amount of methane into the atmosphere. A study by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) finds that livestock production is directly responsible for 14.5% of human-induced global greenhouse gas emissions, with beef and milk production making up 61% of the total. 

As if that weren't enough, animal agriculture is also responsible for toxic pollution in rivers and groundwater, dead zones in our ocean, and the extinction of many species of wild animals. If it's not vegetable tanned, the process of tanning leather requires massive amounts of energy and dangerous chemicals, including mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, and various oils, dyes, and finishes, some of them cyanide-based. Furthermore, groundwater near these tanneries has been found to contain critically high levels of chromium, formaldehyde, and even cyanide, causing cancer and other fatal illnesses in nearby populations.

So, we know leather is not sustainable, but how can we tell if our favorite vegan bag brands are? How can we discern between a vegan bag that's earth-friendly and one that's polluting the planet?

Here's what to ask yourself when looking for a new vegan bag:

What is it made of?

Natural fabric | Seek out naturally sustainable fabrics like cork, raffia, and hemp. These fabrics come from plants which are biodegradable and have the smallest carbon footprint. Hemp, for example, is a rapidly renewable plant which requires little or no pesticides, grows without fertilizer, doesn’t deplete soil nutrients, is easy to harvest and requires minimal attention. Another great option is Tencel, a fully biodegradable fabric made from cellulose wood pulp. It uses Forest Stewardship Council-certified pulp and non-toxic chemicals in a closed-loop process. Also, be sure any cotton used is organic, as it uses less water and is free from chemical toxins and pesticides.

Recycled fabric | Anything recycled is a plus because less waste is created. Some vegan suedes, for example, are made from recycled plastic bottles or polyester and are not only easy on the eyes, but on the earth, too.

Vegan leathers | Not all vegan leathers are created equal, as some are more polluting than others. Avoid PVC (polyvinyl chloride) at all costs! The most common and least expensive type of vegan leather, PVC contains harmful phthalates and chlorine which releases dioxins, one of the deadliest of man-made poisons. It is known to cause cancer, reproductive, developmental, and immune problems in humans.

Instead, seek out eco-friendly certified polyurethanes, which are a safer and more eco-friendly alternative to PVC. Look for the Oeko-tex Standard 100 certification to ensure your polyurethanes are free from organic solvents, odors, and environmental toxins.

Environmental toxins to look out for:  

Heavy metals
Allergy-inducing dyes* 

* Common in many synthetic leathers

Where is it made?

Sica Schmitz, one of my good friends and owner of the boutique Bead & Reel, always says, "if it's made in a sweatshop, it's not vegan." People count too. If the manufacturing of a product is harmful to any living creature, whether it be animals or people, it's not vegan. Additionally, seek out brands that make their bags locally, which not only support your local economy but also have a reduced footprint.

Does it give back?

Nothing makes you feel better about your purchase than when brands also give back to people, animals, and/or the environment. After donating a percentage of their sales to the Rainforest Trust last spring, the belt bag brand Hipsters for Sisters saved over 300 acres of Sumatran Rainforest, an area particularly at risk due to the spread of rubber, paper, and oil palm plantations that cause deforestation and directly compete for land needed by endangered wildlife such as Sumatran Elephants and Sumatran Orangutans. Another brand, Freedom of Animals, has partnered with organizations like The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, The Ian Somerhalder Foundation, and PETA. Lastly, while most of their bags are made in the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia, a third brand, Kayu, has brought some of their production back to the USA, providing jobs for underprivileged women through the YMCA.

While it may require doing a bit of research, it's totally worth it to seek out vegan brands that are not only conscious of animals but also conscious of the planet. Because what is more stylish than a bag that can do it all?