Fashion North investigates: Will vegan leather overtake the leather market?

Figures from The Vegan Society show that veganism has become increasingly popular in recent years, with the number of vegans in Great Britain quadrupling to 600,000 from 2014 to 2018. The UK even became the most popular country for veganism last year, but where does this leave materials made from animal skins?

The fashion industry faced scrutiny from animal rights organisation PETA (Protection for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) in February when they staged an anti- leather protest at London Fashion Week.

A protestor used special effects makeup to make it appear her skin was being torn off; imitating cow skin being used for leather.

Photo credit: Peta.org.uk

Read more about it here

Sascha Camilli, vegan fashion expert and author of ‘Vegan Style’, thinks: “In this day and age, there’s no excuse or need to use parts of an animal’s body for fashion.

“Compassionate consumers are changing the face of fashion by demanding that designers and retailers ditch cruelly obtained animal-derived materials in favour of animal-free alternatives that look great without causing suffering.

“The more we come to understand animals, the harder it becomes to justify tormenting and killing them for a handbag or a coat. Information about the ways animals suffer for human vanity is now widely available, and once consumers learn the truth, opting for vegan clothing becomes the obvious and lasting choice.”

With more people rejecting where leather comes from, what implications will the industry face?

Office for National Statistics figures show that this April the manufacturing of leather and other related products was at £29 million, the lowest amount on record.

Photo credit: ons.gov.uk

This figure also shows that since 2003 the production of leather has been relatively low, but why is this and is the reason related to the growing number of people become vegan?

We asked Dr Kerry Senior, Director at Leather UK and he said: “If you’re looking at this year it’s definitely Covid. Across the world tanneries closed. The UK tanneries for the most part closed, some of them which are essential to the food supply chain remined open. Italy shut down everything regardless and it’s simply because of supply and demand.

“In that particular time frame, it has nothing to do with veganism it’s all about Covid, everything this year will be about Covid.

“Looking at it over a longer term, there has been a decline in leather production in the UK. In 1994 we had 200 tanneries, we’re now down to about 23/24 and that is due to a general shift in manufacturing across to Asia.

“The amount of leather being made globally hasn’t fallen so it’s not that leather is suffering; it’s losing market share because other markets are growing.”

One of these growing markets is vegan leather.

Research carried out by Opinion Matters for The Vegan Society in July 2017, involving a sample of 2,011 UK adults, showed that over half (56%) adopt vegan buying behaviours such as buying vegan products and checking if their toiletries are cruelty-free.

With more people becoming conscious shoppers the vegan leather market is set to overtake the leather market by 2025. A report from Infinium Global Research shows by then the global vegan leather market will hit $89.6 billion.

However, not everyone is convinced.

Charlie Trevor founder of Equus Leather in County Durham said: “Leather has been with us since the Egyptians and I can’t see 3000 years’ worth of usage stopping and it’s not going to, it seems unlikely, within mine or your lifetime.

“I don’t think the number of people becoming vegan will have a major impact. Leather is a by-product of the meat industry, and there is a lot of people eating meat and therefore there is a lot of skins coming into the industry.”

In fact, last year the USA had its second-best year on record for beef production.

Marc Gummer, Senior Lecturer at the Institute for Creative Leather Technologies, Northampton, explains: “The skins that we get to turn into leather come from the fact that people are eating meat so you have to think, if we don’t use them what the consequence of that is. If people still eat meat those animals will still be killed, it just means that we’re not using the skins to turn into something else and those skins will then be a waste product.”

Meaning the amount of leather that is being bought and sold is entirely down to the meat industry.

Vegan leather however, cannot be made from animal skin, so what is it actually made from?

Kerry explains: “The vast majority of vegan leathers are PU or PVC, they’re just plastic, so if you’re using vegan material, you’re essentially using plastic and with that comes all the inevitable consequences of doing so

“The latest one, Desserto, made out of cactus leaves is 65% polyurethane!

“Alternatively, there are plant-based materials, like Pinatex which is made out of pineapple leaf, MuSkin which is a mushroom leather and Apple leather. The vast majority of those, to give them credit are a way of adding value to waste.”

However, this doesn’t change the fact that leather alternatives are on the rise, so how can leather compete?

Charlie from Equus Leather says: “We don’t compete with cheaper alternatives and fast fashion we ignore them entirely; they have no relevance to our business model or to our customer base because we do the precise opposite of what they do. We do very slow, quite expensive, high-end fashion!”

It seems only time will tell what the future of the leather industry will be in the wake of vegan leather but those who work in the industry don’t seem concerned.

In fact, Kerry says: “The industry has no problem with alternatives to leather, just with the way they are presented.

He thinks there is enough room on the market for both materials: “There isn’t enough leather made in the world to fill all the niches that are currently filled by other materials and nor would you want there to be, we all like a bit of variation!”

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