May 2, 2024

Innovation Is Solving Veganism’s Plastic Problem

By: Kelvey Vander Hart

Veganism has a plastic problem. And I’m not arguing that as an outsider critic—after six years of vegetarianism, I went vegan earlier this year. 

To be fair, veganism is great for the planet in many ways. A study conducted last year revealed that compared to a traditional omnivore diet, vegan diets can reduce emissions, land use, and water pollution by 75 percent. Destruction of wildlife may also be reduced by 66 percent and water use drops by 54 percent. 

All good things. But…there’s still the plastic problem. Specifically, a plastic leather problem.

Plastic leather, or ‘pleather’ as its more commonly known (also referred to as vegan leather), has become the more humane solution to leather products. And it is absolutely more humane—leather is not simply a byproduct of the meat industry, and documentation has revealed instances where animals are skinned alive. Pleather gives the look of leather without the abuse, and for that I am grateful. 

But a humane choice is not always the best choice for the environment, unfortunately. The following quote from Tamsin Blanchard, writing for The Guardian, summarizes the issue perfectly: 

“The problem, however, is that most pleather, faux leather and vegan leather is a product of the fossil fuel industry, and there is no system in place to recycle it. We are simply creating a material monster, its production contributing to the climate crisis and its pollution destroying our ecosystems.” 

So, what choices remain for animal lovers? Do we ignore the cruelty of the leather industry and continue buying things with animal skin? Do we wear plastic? Do we avoid any sort of leather look for the rest of our lives? 

Thankfully, market innovation means there’s a fourth option: sustainable, plant-based leather. 

Vegan Leather Co. is an amazing example of market innovation. The Australian company crafts their products from sustainably grown pineapple and cactus. And it’s an ethical company on the human side too—they refuse to use sweatshop labor, choosing instead to operate their own production house. 

Talking about their fascinating cactus leather process, the company writes: 

“First, let’s talk numbers: cactus absorbs 8100 tons of CO2 per year, while at the Desserto® farm they only generate 15.30 tons annually. That means they’re actually absorbing 529 times more CO2 than they generate! And it gets better: Desserto® only need 3 leaves to produce one linear meter of cactus leather, and each plant can be harvested up to 6-8 times a year without damaging the plant itself.” 

That process is amazing and means incredible things for the plant-based leather industry and mitigating climate change. (And full disclosure, I was so intrigued that I now have a couple cactus leather items from the company’s product lineup headed my way to fill out closet gaps.) But Vegan Leather Co. isn’t the only innovative company in the space. 

Mylo is a brand that uses mycelium, the root-like structure of mushrooms, to make their plant-based leather. “While cows require extensive resources and years to raise, the mycelium used to make Mylo is grown in less than two weeks inside a state-of-the-art vertical farming facility powered by 100% renewable electricity,” the brand explains.

Cactus, pineapple, mushrooms—these and other plant-based leather options are rolling out as an option for consumers who don’t want leather products made from animal skin or plastic. The quality is already impressive but, like in all things, competition and innovation will make it even better in the coming years. 

Pleather may have been veganism’s plastic problem. But plant-based leathers solve it.