I was blown away by the response to one of my recent blog posts, What the Fast Fashion Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know. I know how passionate this community is about the environment, animals and other humans. But your overwhelming positivity, support and enthusiasm for this topic really knocked my socks off!
Your excitement also left me more determined than ever to band together to save our precious planet. When our individual contributions start to add up, we have the power to change the world.
Since the blog post went up, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about my favorite ethical, sustainable and cruelty-free brands.
Many of you have also asked for more specific shopping how-tos and tips. Well, I heard you loud and clear and I’m thrilled to say that today’s post is the first in my new eco-friendly series! We’re kicking it off with the ultimate guide to leather alternatives that are not only cruelty-free and vegan, but also safer for the environment.
What’s the problem with leather?
If you read my post about the fast fashion industry, then you’re already aware of some of the issues that come along with exploiting animals for their fur, skins, etc. Animal agriculture requires massive amounts of land, water, fuel and feed. This industry is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all of the world’s transportation systems combined, and 70 percent of the Amazon rainforest has been cleared to make way for pastures or for growing feed crops (source).
When it comes to leather specifically, the picture doesn’t get any better.
The leather tanning process is often incredibly toxic. People who work in tanneries or live near them are exposed to harmful chemicals used to process, treat and dye animal skins. This often takes place in developing countries where child labor isn’t regulated, proper waste management systems aren’t in place, and workers aren’t well-protected or paid (source).
And our innocent animal friends endure horrific conditions. They’re often confined to overcrowded indoor spaces without access to sufficient food, water or fresh air. They suffer through painful procedures without anesthesia (like castration and branding) and face countless other forms of unimaginably cruel treatment (source).
We can do better. Animals, other people and the environment do NOT need to suffer for our wardrobes. That’s where eco-friendly vegan leather alternatives come in!
What is vegan leather?
Vegan leather comes in many forms. Some options are made from natural components (like pineapples and mushrooms—more on that in a bit!), but man-made materials are still the most versatile and widely used. Two synthetic alternatives you may have heard of are PVC and PU.
PVC is a petrochemical product that is heavily processed from start to finish. Many companies have moved away from using it because it requires fossil fuels to produce, contains toxic chemicals like Phalates (not safe for the environment or people!) and creates an enormous amount of waste (source). I suggest avoiding brands that use PVC and its derivatives.
What is PU leather?
PU (polyurethane) is a popular vegan leather alternative that’s used by many of the brands I’m sharing today. It’s generally considered to be more eco-friendly than PVC, but do a little research and you’ll find some conflicting opinions.
On one side, folks say that PU production results in just as many toxic emissions and waste as PVC. On the other, people argue that PU is preferable to animal exploitation and overall its environmental footprint is still smaller than that of leather.
My team and I did a lot of research on PU because we know that navigating this stuff can be confusing. For the most part, we agree that while PU does have its flaws, it’s still less harmful than leather. And because it’s more widely available than some of the more natural options, we believe that it has a role in protecting animals from harm.
Here’s something to keep in mind: No matter what a product is made of, it’s only as sustainable, ethical and kind as the company it’s from.
A PU purse from a brand with strong environmental practices is far better than one from a company that doesn’t take sustainability seriously. So please get to know the brands you buy from. Learn about the materials they use, their factory standards, how they treat their workers and how they manage waste, etc.
One more thing—if a brand doesn’t provide clear, specific info about how it protects people, animals and the environment, proceed with caution. Companies who prioritize the planet speak up about it.
A peek into the future: more sustainable vegan leather alternatives!
Some brands are creating truly innovative vegan leather options out of organic and recycled materials. They’re more eco-friendly than the standard alternatives we discussed above, but are often more expensive, harder to find and not as broadly appealing (either because they don’t mimic the leather look and feel people want, or aren’t as high-end looking). But as the demand for sustainable vegan leather grows, I suspect we’ll see these options continue to improve and become more widely available.
Here are some of the coolest, most innovative materials that stood out to me:
- Piñatex: Fruit is even more awesome and versatile than I thought—this incredible vegan leather is made from pineapples! It’s beautiful, watertight and durable. Plus, the company that manufactures it has some fantastic sustainability and social practices (learn more about them here). My fave cruelty-free watch brand, Votch, has an entire collection of piñatex watches.
- MuSkin: This vegan leather is made from another one of my favorite plants—mushrooms! More specifically, it’s made out of the cap of a parasitic, inedible variety called Phellinus ellipsoideus (source). I don’t see a whole lot of MuSkin products available yet, but I bet that’ll change soon.
- Apple peel leather: You read that right! An apple a day does more than just keep the doctor away. Companies like Veggani are using industrial apple peel waste to create environmentally friendly pieces like this gorgeous crossbody bag.
- Recycled materials: Recycled rubber, recycled car tires, recycled plastic… oh my! Lots of companies are repurposing materials that would otherwise sit in landfills (or the ocean, rivers, forests, etc.) by creating shoes, bags, belts, etc. out of them. Rothy’s, for example, uses plastic water bottles to make their super cute (and machine washable!) shoes.
17 Eco-Friendly Vegan Leather Alternatives
There are so many wonderful companies out there dedicated to making fashion a kinder, more eco-conscious business, and I’m thrilled to highlight some of them today! This list is purely for your info and to support you on your eco-friendly journey—I’m not sponsored or getting paid to promote any of these brands.
Note: These brands use a variety of materials—both man-made and natural. There are plenty of options if you want to avoid PU!
- GUNAS (maker of high-end purses, wallets and shoes) believes that just being vegan isn’t enough—they’re looking out for other humans and the environment, too. And here’s something that really sets them apart: They encourage conscious consumerism. So rather than pushing you to buy fast and often like so many of the brands we’re familiar with, they want you to take your time and make careful decisions. I love this more purposeful, minimalist approach!
- Whatever the season or occasion, you’ll be able to find the perfect pair of vegan leather shoes from Bhava. I’m eyeing these strappy sandals—what color is your fave? Bhava also does a great job explaining some of the problems with leather and fast fashion, along with what they’re doing to change the face of footwear.
- Svala helps protect animals in more ways than one. Not only is their line of purses and wallets cruelty-free, they also donate a portion of the profits to charities like WildAid, whose mission is to end the illegal wildlife trade. Svala also buys carbon offsets to reduce their environmental footprint and uses recycled plastic bottles to line their bags—yay!
- Rafa makes beautiful, hand-crafted vegan shoes in Los Angeles, California. While they keep a few things in stock, most items are made to order. This allows the Rafa team to dedicate time and quality craftsmanship to each unique pair. Check out this short and sweet video about how (and why!) they do what they do.
- This is a trend I didn’t think I’d see again—fanny packs! HFS Collective’s belt bags are designed to “free you from your baggage.” That means more hands to pet every pup you meet, carry green drinks and do other stuff you love.
- I mentioned Rothy’s in last year’s eco-friendly holiday gift guide, and this is still one of my fave brands for comfy shoes that can be dressed up or down. Their pointed toe flats are the perfect versatile basic. The uppers are made of 100 percent post-consumer water bottles, and the other parts of the shoe are made of a mix of recycled, non-toxic, vegan materials. Even their shoe boxes are biodegradable!
- A pair of easy-to-wear slides is a must-have for the warmer months of the year, and Indosole has totally nailed an eco-friendly option. Not only do they come in some great colors, they also give a second life to a pervasive waste product—car tires!
- Noani (meaning No Animal—yes!) has vegan leather belts for everyone in your life. They use innovative eco-friendly materials like eucalyptus and apple fibers. Plus, they’re committed to maintaining safe, fair working conditions for everyone involved in creating their products.
- I love how transparent VEERAH is about the materials they use to make their luxury, sustainable, vegan shoes (check out a detailed list here!). Plus, can we talk about these gorg bright blue pumps made from apple leather? Anyone who thinks eco-friendly and fashionable don’t belong in the same sentence should get a load of those!
- MooShoes is a vegan leather lover’s dream. Unlike the other brands on this list, this store is a hub where you can get goodies from a variety of cruelty-free brands. Their NYC location was the first cruelty-free retail store of its kind when it opened back in 2001 and they’ve since expanded to LA. But no worries if you’re not close to either of those locations—the website is easy to use and jam-packed with shoes, bags and more that’ll satisfy all style sensibilities.
- I think that Angela Roi makes some of the most beautiful cruelty-free purses out there. That said, I’d love to see them expand the info available on their site about their sustainability practices and working conditions. Transparency is where it’s at, folks!
- Looking for some comfy kicks for walking the dog, running to the store and everything in between? You’ll love Native Shoes, which are cruelty-free AND easy on the planet. In fact, Native has committed to making all of their products 100 percent lifecycle managed by 2023 (learn more about what that means here).
- This circular purse from Hozen is so cute! And there’s a lot more than meets the eye here—Hozen donates 10 percent of their profits to Mercy for Animals (one of my favorite orgs!) and makes their products in small batches to avoid wasteful excess stock.
- Nae (stands for No Animal Exploitation—so good!) has something for everyone. These desert boots are a great wardrobe staple. And who doesn’t need a simple, everyday black belt?
- One of the wardrobe essentials I’ve had trouble finding in cruelty-free form is a vegan leather moto jacket! Then I came across this piñatex stunner from Altiir. It’s certainly not cheap, but could be a worthwhile investment if you wear it a lot and keep for years to come.
- Labante London makes gorgeous purses, wallets and other accessories out of recycled materials. According to their website, they’ve already saved 10 million plastic bottles from languishing in landfills! I’m a big fan of this functional, timeless wallet.
- Beyond Skin has a wide range of sandals, boots, heels, flats and more available in a variety of fun prints and fabrics. They’re also really upfront about their business and sustainability practices, which means you can buy with confidence. And how about these must-have mustard sandals? Love!
I want to hear from you! Have a favorite sustainable, cruelty-free brand I didn’t mention? Shout them out in the comments below! What other topics would you like me to cover in this eco-friendly series (home goods, skincare/makeup, etc.)?
Peace & cruelty-free fashion,