What Is Vegan Leather? Melbourne's Newest Accessory Brand Is Here to Explain
It’s no secret that we have an interest in ethical fashion here at Who What Wear Australia. Being part of an industry that harms our environment, we want to make sure that we are aware of the impact our actions (and shopping habits) can have. From clothes piling up in landfills to rivers being contaminated during clothing production, fashion is one of the world’s biggest polluters; and something needs to change.
Thankfully, it seems that as a society we’re all becoming a lot more aware. A number of major brands have launched “green” lines, and more designers are relying on sustainable production practices. While every little bit definitely does help, one of our favourite changes in the industry has been witnessing more brands turning to alternative materials. From shoes to handbags, an increasing number of garments and accessories are being made today out of more ethical materials than what we’ve used in the past.
Created by Cathryn Wills, the former creative director of MIMCO, Sans Beast is an accessories brand dedicated to creating animal-free products. And as we browsed the selection, we honestly couldn’t tell that the products were made of an alternative material.
By using vegan leather, Sans Beast crafts high-quality products that remind us of the leather accessories we’ve come to rely on. So what exactly is the difference then? To get a little insight about what exactly vegan leather is, and to understand why Wills made the shift, we spoke with the founder for some inside information. Our takeaway? Transitioning to conscious fashion is not an easy process, and there are a lot of factors at play. There are still many questions that the industry needs to face, and this process will likely take more time. Nonetheless, it is important we start to consider (and hopefully embrace) more ethical and mindful alternatives to the materials we’ve become accustomed to. Read on for the full interview.
Was the decision process to creating Sans Beast gradual, or did it suddenly feel like something that needed to be done?
The process occurred over a couple of years. Naturally, it was an incongruous concept during my time heading up MIMCO, but it was something that played in the back of my mind for several years before I finally made the move to start a new chapter. I came up with the name about a month after I left my job, but it took another nine months before I took the step of incorporating the company and proceed with firm plans to build a non-animal brand.
Sans Beast is decidedly not fast fashion. What does this mean, regarding production/ durability of the products?
The aim of the brand is to create pieces that are well considered, functional and stylish. The shapes are classic, so we don’t see them being embraced based on fashion whims, but we recognise that they need to be relevant to fashion as a stylish brand handwriting is key. The approach, however, is to have the collections stand the test of time in both quality and styling. We’ve considered the materials, the hardware and the construction during the design process, with the sole intention of creating collections that can be built upon—changing up straps, for example, gives a bag a new lease of life.
Do you think that people are becoming more aware of where their clothes come from?
Yes—however, I think there is more mindfulness around apparel than there is in accessories; people are having the conversations about provenance, but there is a long way to go. On the flipside, I do think people are more willing to throw clothing away than they are bags and shoes. There is more potential for accessories to be classics in the wardrobe—and therefore go the distance with longevity providing the quality is there. They are objects that can do multiple ‘jobs’ in your outfitting.
What do you believe is the biggest problem in the fashion industry today?
Lack of transparency due to complexity throughout the supply chain, lack of sustainability due to the sheer volume of ’stuff’ created, inordinate use of natural resources such as water, the constant cycle of the ‘need for new’ and therefore (again), incredible waste with clothing being thrown away. Having said that, so much employment is generated through the industry, so in order for things to change, we need to have meaningful discussions around how to generate jobs, yet become more mindful of the limited earthly resources, as well as the human and animal costs.
Why has the demand for vegan leather increased recently?
Our connectivity through social media and the internet means that people are becoming more educated in terms of their health, the environment and animal welfare. Figures vary depending on which report you read, but certainly data that I have read indicates up to half of CO2 emissions are caused by livestock and their byproducts; and this is before you dive down the rabbit hole of lifting the lid on some factory farming practices in terms of animal welfare.
What is vegan leather made of?
Vegan leather is a broad term, and it covers synthetics as well as natural or semi-natural materials. Cork, PU (Polyurethane), PVC, pineapple and mushroom fibres are all being termed as vegan leather. I would say that the generally accepted definition for vegan leather is any material that gives the appearance and durability of an animal hide, yet is not derived from animal sources.
How does vegan leather differ from real leather?
It’s not skin or a hide. It is less inclined to tear than leather. It is also lighter, more sunlight resistant (sunlight tends to fade leather), and its highly mouldable (thermoplastic). It remains relatively ‘new’ looking, depending on the care it gets, and this polish / wipe-down durability can be off-putting to some. Having said that, there are also plenty of leather treatments—metallic foil and patent for example, that are very faux in their appearance... The biggest criticism of vegan leather is the extremely slow breakdown of polyurethane—it is a plastic/polymer coating on a fabric base and can take hundreds of years to breakdown. Polymers are used in paint, fridges, washing machines, cars, athletic clothing, furniture…the list goes on. I believe we’ll have more than vegan handbags to be concerned about in the centuries to come.
Is vegan leather meant to imitate real leather, or is it a completely different material?
I think the intention is to imitate leather. There are good examples and bad examples—and prices vary accordingly—but the best polyurethane materials are tactile, appealing in handfeel, offer wonderful textural interest and allow good colour options from the softest neutrals to the most saturated tones. The spectrum of colours available to leather manufacturing can be limited depending on the rawhide that you use and the method employed in colouration. Some leather finishes, for example, cannot reliably and affordably be done in pastels and neutral tones.
Are there other benefits to purchasing vegan leather as opposed to the real thing?
The cruelty free aspect is a major factor, and I’d like to see it rate more on peoples radar. However, we are a planet addicted to animal products, so I am not ambitious (yet I am hopeful) on this subject. Some of the other positive aspects that add to the appeal of cruelty free materials are durability (depending on quality), colour spectrum, ability to wipe down/clean, and a lighter weight than leather generally.
Is the price point the same?
On average, synthetic leather is a lower-priced alternative to leather. It does depends on the grade of leather or synthetic leather that you buy. You can get very cheap leather and also buy very expensive polyurethane (or alternative material). Price will always come down to quality, rarity, and manufacturing. The Eco PU materials used by Sans Beast cost less than the leather I have worked with previously, if purely compared on a square foot to yardage price. We have opted to buy a good quality material without breaking the bank and put a lot more cost into the labour and the hardware/trims used. Many of our bags have a handmade acrylic handle and a rather large contingent of custom hardware. Price of the final product is based on many factors, so it’s never as simple as just comparing base material costs.
Where do the materials to create vegan leather come from? How much energy goes into making vegan leather?
The base fabric varies but is usually woven or knitted from acrylic, cotton, polyester, or nylon. The 2017 “Pulse of the Fashion Industry” report from the Copenhagen Fashion Summit claims that in three out of the four measured areas, leather is far more resource intensive than synthetic leather. Cow leather is near the top of the list, in terms of negative environmental impact and high resource use, and synthetic leather is much lower in all areas other than abiotic depletion. It’s a much more complex question than it sounds, and, like all aspects of the fashion industry’s sustainability challenge, it is fraught with many factors that impact the answer. Synthetic leather uses water, chemicals, human resources and does not breakdown anytime soon. Genuine leather uses animals, land, a huge amount of water (to feed the animals and then move from slaughtering all the way through to tanning), chemicals, and human resources. The jury is out on the time it takes leather to breakdown, but it’s often estimated around fifty years. Neither materials are perfect for the planet, but I know where I’m putting my money for the future.
Love the idea of vegan leather? Shop Sans Beast accessories on the brand's site.