Pleather has always had negative connotations for me and an insult to have any clothing item referred to as that.

Increasingly I’ve been hearing a lot about the term vegan leather and I wonder if the dominantly vocalised ‘meat loving culture’ in South Africa will ever drop its “genuine leather” aesthetic and chase vegan leather instead.

The word vegan in most instances rings more positively in my head, but we do know that vegan is not always healthier or more environmentally friendly – especially when the reduction of carbon emissions is important when it comes to the fashion industry.

The textile production produces about 1.2 billion tonnes of emission per year, according to Nature.com’s The price of fast fashion article.

For decades synthetic leather alternatives have been available as plastic based materials, but this has not always been the most ideal solution. In recent years, variants of vegan leathers that are seen as more environmentally friendly and animal cruelty free have been explored, one of which is cork leather.

According to African Leather and Skins, cork leather is a one of the best vegan and eco-friendly fabrics and similar durability and feel to leather because of its water resistant properties.

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Other types of vegan leather such as paper leather are available in the market. But, will there ever be a time where animal leather can be completely replaced by vegan leather? 

“We think the advent of mushroom, pineapple, leaf, paper, bark and apple leathers, to name just a few, which often use waste, tend to employ non-toxic methods of colouring, are hard wearing and trendy, also environmentally and animal friendly, is incredibly exciting and certainly should be the future materials of choice,” said Toni Brockhoven, chairperson Beauty Without Cruelty SA, about vegan leather.

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Nerisha Jairaj, executive director at the South Africa Footwear and Leather Export Association, said it is not possible to get everyone to stop using animal leather but there may be more sustainable ways of manufacturing the leather. 

She said in South Africa most people prefer animal leather but often, because of the costs, resort to other alternatives.

In terms of sustainability in the manufacturing, she said there improvements being made.

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“There are ethical regulations for such things. There may be a reduction of purchases but leather goods will not cease to exist. 

“There are a whole lot of developments worldwide to create leather out of paper, to create leather out of cork, to create leather out of tree bark so people at it, they are looking to it but our actual bovine (cow) leather will not be succeeded by it,” said Nerisha.

She said: “The meat is used for our consumption and we don’t waste the leather thereafter, so it can go into footwear and handbags.”   

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Toni said the position of Beauty Without Cruelty is that “animals suffer and die needlessly for décor, trinkets, trims, bags, coats and footwear”.  

From the environmental and animal cruelty free perspective, Toni said leather production is damaging on both fronts.

“There is no such thing as humane leathers or skins, and the ‘finer’ the product usually the greater the inherent animal cruelty. As far as the environment goes, with leather, there’s the issue of the carbon footprint of cattle rearing and with the recent climate change revelations, this is an added incentive to move towards plant based materials,” said Toni.

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