Why Vegan Labels Are Not Always a Roadmap to Sustainability

In a world dictated by practical causality, a vegan fashion label would be a reliable marker of an item having been made with sustainability prioritised. The current reality is somewhat different. 

Just as cruelty-free and vegan are connected terms — but no guarantee of each other —, vegan-friendly fashion labels are unable to attest to sustainable manufacturing methodologies. They allude to them, of course, but only because common sense dictates that the two should be inextricably intertwined. The reality is surprising and somewhat disappointing.

The material disconnect

The truth about outmoded vegan-adjacent materials is that they have, traditionally, been constructed using planet-damaging composites and processes. While this has necessarily led to a number of more innovative alternatives being developed, fabrics such as PU remain as popular and cheap substitutes for animal leather, frequently being used within the fast fashion sector. With demand remaining high, the continued harm caused by unsustainable materials is significant and makes it evermore difficult for new alternatives to not only be brought to market in the first place, but also to be accepted by consumers. What can be done to break the cycle and why aren’t people already asking: is synthetic leather eco-friendly?

Educating a vegan demographic

It’s important to recognise that not all vegans are concerned with planetary health, sustainability or even spiritual enlightenment, but in order to make lasting change, these elements need to be made more central to the movement. This might sound like an uphill battle, but anyone who is open to dietary adaptation has the capacity to embrace environmental awareness as well, if it is presented in the right format. Transparent, non-judgemental information sharing is the key, as well as finding a way to relate to an audience that has always been more focussed on cheap and cheerful solutions, as opposed to contributing to the greater good. 

A good starting point is to open a dialogue about where veganism started and the wider consciousness that it was designed to inspire. By making a connection between the wider world and personal lifestyle habits, consumers can be given a new sense of purpose and responsibility. One that will translate into choosing earth-friendly materials over non-recyclables that continue to strip resources. 

Why is PU vegan leather bad?

Pu, or polyurethane — to give it its full name — has long been a popular alternative to leather, being used throughout the fashion industry and wider commercial settings as well. While it offers the benefit of being cheaper than animal leather and cruelty-free, it is made from plastic and toxic chemicals, does not break down and offers little longevity, meaning it has to be replaced regularly and therefore contributes significantly to landfill waste. 

You might be wondering why, given these significant pitfalls, so many people buy PU products and the answer is disheartening: because many of them are marketed as being vegan. While technically, yes they are, labelling them as such offers a sense of eco stewardship that simply is not there. This assumptive-driven identification of materials isn’t actually deceptive but to those who feel akin to the spiritual and ethical side of veganism, as well as the dietary guidelines, there is a sense of being hoodwinked.

How can vegans drive sustainability?

As a movement, vegans are a powerful force for change and by wielding a collective consumer consciousness, the fashion industry will have little choice but to pay more attention to the materials being used. If low quality options are negated in favour of sustainable fabrics and brands that actively support environmental initiatives are supported, the days of PU filled landfills could come to an end. Perhaps things could even be taken a step further, with levies being placed on harmful materials, thereby making them less cost-effective for companies to use in the first place. With the significant increase in leather made from plants being brought to market, there are more than enough alternatives to both animal and plastic-based products, so perhaps they should be financially penalised accordingly.

Everyday change is how sustainability becomes less of a buzzword and more of a driving force. Eating less meat, buying products contained in recyclable packaging and being aware of how, where and when clothing was made. These are easy decisions that consumers around the world can start making today, for a far more sustainable future.