The market for vegan products is growing. But is animal-free also better for the environment? On World Vegan Day, we take a close look at vegan sneakers.
A race is taking place in the Instagram advertising window: one vegan sneaker is chasing the next. As a status symbol of our time, the demand for sustainability is also increasing in fashion. What is fatal is that vegan leather, which numerous sneaker brands advertise with, is not per se more sustainable than animal leather.
No victory for vegan leather
Alexandra Pfister has been teaching leather at the Swiss Textile College for ten years. At the beginning of the semester, she likes to ask her students about their experiences with leather substitute products.
If you look at the whole chain when it comes to sustainability, vegan leather is not winning the race.
The conclusion is often similar: “If you look at the whole chain when it comes to sustainability,” says Pfister, listing the energy used, the time it has been worn, and the recycling, “then vegan leather won’t win the race.” It usually wears out more quickly than conventional leather. “And in the end, as hazardous waste, it cannot be degraded.”
What makes a shoe sustainable
“You have to carry out a serious ecological assessment over the entire life cycle of a product,” says textile engineer Kai Nebel from Reutlingen University. That is expensive and complex because a shoe consists of around 40 different materials. It is therefore not possible to calculate which sneaker performs best. The researcher still has tips:
- Before you buy new shoes, first think: Do I really need the product and why?
- Animal leather has so far been unbeatable in terms of durability, vegetable tanned leather is more environmentally friendly.
- Even synthetic shoes that are well made will last a while, especially if you take good care of them.
- If a shoe is comfortable and you like wearing it for a long time, a lot has already been done for sustainability.
- The only thing that really benefits the environment is: less consumption.
Leather from fruit
The oldest alternative to animal leather is synthetic leather. It is made of plastic (PU or PVC) and is therefore based on crude oil. More and more companies are now looking for other substances, for example in plant waste. Vegan leather is made from pineapple leaves that are left over from the harvest, corn waste or leftover apples from juice pressing.
Only: shoes have to endure a lot. It doesn’t work without plastic. “Before you can have leather from an apple, that is an incredibly complex process that requires a lot of chemicals,” says fashion designer Pfister.
The problem of the leather industry
It takes around 20 steps to turn animal skin into leather for the fashion industry. The process consumes huge amounts of water and energy. The animal hides are soaked in chemicals and tanned to make them durable and strong. It takes about 500 liters of water to tan one square meter of leather.
In the past, the leather industry was particularly criticized for the tanning process with the heavy metal chromium. There are now also “vegetable” tanning techniques: They are more complex, but use natural substances such as olive oil or rhubarb roots.
Particularly tragic: About 80 percent of the leather used worldwide comes from tanneries in Asia – where workers are exposed to toxic chemicals that are harmful to health and the environment. In 2013, the Blacksmith Institute in New York ranked Hazaribagh in Bangladesh as the fifth most polluted place in the world.
Textile engineer Kai Nebel confirms this. The researcher himself is involved in the development of a vegan sneaker. “There are currently no sensible alternatives to synthetic binders.” And they contain petroleum.
There is also cheating
Everything that is processed in a shoe does not have to be declared. Leather expert Pfister says: “The industry is very clever, depending on the trend you can tune a product accordingly – there is sometimes a lot of cheating.”
In other words, the increasing demand for sustainable shoes is not automatically driving manufacturers in a green direction. “They only sell an attitude to life,” says textile engineer Nebel.
Not enough plant waste
The conscience can perhaps be calmed by marketing, but the reality is different: You would have to grow significantly more fruit to make enough shoes from pineapples or apples, because there is not enough plant waste. “But that would mean that the leather alternatives would compete with food,” says Nebel. Which is also not the point.
A plastic sneaker that I can wear for ten years is already sustainable
The material alone says nothing about sustainability. “A plastic sneaker that I can wear for ten years is quite sustainable,” says Nebel. We don’t yet have that much experience with vegan materials, but Nebel is certain: “We can’t avoid oil”, even if the development of leather alternatives is still in its infancy.
The renunciation is really sustainable
The textile engineer sees the most promising attempt for vegan leather in leather made from fungi, or to be more precise, the underground network of mycelium. This requires less water and space than other raw materials.
Which sneaker is the most sustainable in the end? The one you wear as long as possible. “You have to ask yourself: how many sneakers do I actually need?” says fashion designer Pfister.