Vegan leather = sustainable leather. Right? Well, not exactly. The term ‘vegan’ can be misleading. Better for animals…absolutely. But better for people and the environment? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. To help shed some light on this we reached out to Salma Merchant Rahmathulla - founder of a vegan leather accessories brand, The Essentials Story and Creative Director of Pelicans Group, one of Europe's largest design and manufacturing companies of customized items in leather and man-made materials. Here's what she had to say.
Why did you choose to create a vegan leather collection?
We wanted to create a material that was vegan, antimicrobial & locally sourced. We were able to develop this material with one of our long standing partners located close to our factories in India. We were able to do this in the middle of the pandemic & in 5 different colorways. Sustainability, for us, is about caring about the environment & our carbon footprint & this has been an important tenet for The Essentials Story from inception. So we were happy to create a collection of locally sourced vegan materials from factories where we could guarantee the ethical, economic production during a time when there were so many supply chain issues globally."
What have been some of the challenges you have faced working with vegan leather?
The problem with current vegan materials, they don't stand the test of time which makes the sustainability debate complex as far as these materials are concerned. They are not natural, they don't biodegrade, their longevity is in question which has made us do more research in this space to find materials that are more sustainable. This is a difficult debate being had by many in the fashion industry with even an entire initiative & conference around it [Material Innovation Conference]. We believe it's essential to work together to create an ecosystem to continuously find solutions as the landscape & parameters keep changing."
What factors did you consider when selecting the type of vegan leather you worked with for your collection?
Like-minded partners on the ground are key! We had worked with this material for a while for many of our luxury clients [at The Pelicans Group], so knew it well. Also we developed this material with one of our closest suppliers who we have collaborated with for many years. We knew we could add an antimicrobial coating on this material without it being coated and dyed with multiple unnecessary processes. And we had the ability to make it in different colorways which we loved. "
What are the environmental benefits of vegan leather over animal leather?
Unfortunately, the leather industry can be linked to deforestation and ethical concerns related to animals, and worker's health. These issues are not related to vegan materials however not all the concerns are solved yet. We see lots of opportunities for innovations and consistency in vegan leather in the future."
What are the major environmental limitations with vegan leather?
It's not a natural material that's non toxic and biodegradable."
What changes would you love to see in the vegan leather industry to make it a more sustainable product for brands to use?
We would like to see a deeper understanding of the issues & that this is not something that has an overnight solution but requires a mindset that is constantly learning and open to ideas. The fashion industry is designed to have 2 launches per year which does not allow for a focus on finding the right materials. We would like to see more presentation of the facts, less shaming when it comes to the vegan debate. Also flying materials from all corners of the world is not sustainable, we must try to source locally."
Do you have any advice for brands who are currently working with either animal or vegan leather and trying to reduce their environmental impact?
Do your research, don't follow the trends, the hype, the vegan/animal leather is a complex debate and it involves working with your partners on the ground to make innovation happen. Also once you have found materials that work for you, it's important to find ethical manufacturers who understand the complexity of designing and making items in the most sustainable way possible. We are lucky to have the vertical integration where we ethically & sustainably manufacture bags and accessories in these materials in our own factories that have years of experience in working with the luxury market. Sustainability has to continue through the entire lifecycle of the product."
So like all things in sustainability, the leather debate is complex. Although vegan leather may eliminate some of the ethical and environmental problems associated with producing animal leather, it also comes with its own environmental cost. It is also important to point out that not all vegan leather is created equal - with some having a much bigger environmental impact than others (a topic for a future post!) Brands considering using vegan leather should do their research and carefully consider which type of vegan leather is best for them - and to beware of plastic parading as a sustainable, vegan alternative. Although there is no 'perfect' vegan leather, it is clear that the future of vegan leather is only looking bright.
The Essentials Story - Developed as a necessity in the pandemic, The Essentials Story combines smart design with timeless aesthetics in a range of utilitarian bags. Founded by Salma Merchant Rahmathulla, the line of sling bags, wallets and multi-functional packs were designed in response to the need of having your essentials on-the-go. Furthermore, the products are crafted in vegan materials and made in energy-efficient factories in India. In collaboration with Mumbai-based non-profit organization Sneha, the label also gives back. Profits earned from each sale are directed towards donating hygiene products to the lesser privileged women in the city.
Pelicans Group - Established in 1983 Pelicans Group is one of Europe’s largest design and manufacturing companies of customized items in leather and man-made materials. Pelicans Group is dedicated to minimizing the environmental impact arising from their work and production processes and to ‘Giving Back’ having invested in projects all over the world, with a special focus on projects related to education, health, medical research and disaster relief.
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