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Facts rule over Fiction - Vegan Leather is NOT Vegan: Here’s why…
23 December 2019


Emma Foster-Geering, who is Head of Sustainability at Vivobarefoot writes that there is a growing awareness of environmental and ethical issues surrounding the meat industry and this has seen the vegan community rapidly expand almost overnight. Whilst it might seem as simple as eliminating any animal products from your life, it is actually far more complicated than it seems.

The most common place to start is what we consume in our diets. If we choose not to eat meat purely for ethical reasons; it’s simple – plants over animals. The only shade of grey comes into the debate when we can be sure animals are being farmed in a healthy and happy way (which is presently rare).

When we choose not to eat meat for environmental reasons it’s much more complicated. The amount of misinformation on this topic is truly horrifying. Yes, the intensive, factory farming of animals has a concerning carbon footprint and for many more reasons than just that it should be illegal to exist.

However, there is a plethora of inaccurate statistics used over and over again in documentaries and educational content about the environmental impacts of animal agriculture that need to be revised. Yes, in many ways’ animal agriculture can have a negative impact on our natural ecosystems, but...

Animal agriculture can and does have an important positive impact on our natural ecosystem.

Why? Because in our current capitalist society the unfortunate reality is that land and the natural ecosystems attached to it are only truly valued when there is a cost attached as well. Which is exactly why we are currently seeing the Amazon cut down and the Australian outback burnt to a crisp.

Because trees and water are more valuable for big business than they are for conservation.

The natural resources these ecosystems rely upon are valued higher for immediate commercial gains by the Government or by industries (farming or forestry or mining) than it is as something needed for our long-term survival or god forbid, the pure existence of a natural space just for the point of it.

It is a most hilarious joke to think that as societies transition away from animal agriculture systems these expanses of land are being handed over to ecologically fertile green spaces. Wool farms are converted to mono-crop tree farms and cattle ranches to property developers.

The truth is; animal agriculture can be regenerative. We have proved it. All over the world. Plant-based agriculture can be too – but at the moment, largely is not. Which is an important point, because intensive farming of any kind (whether it be plant OR animal) is prejudicial. environmentally and ethically unsustainable.

One only needs to do a little research into the devastating effects the rapid expansion of avocado plantations in Mexico has had on the environmental and social situation there to see this in action.

The real question is though; does veganism even exist outside of food? What does it mean to buy a vegan handbag or beauty product or a vegan shoe?

The truth is right now the overwhelming majority of the vegan community classifies a synthetic product as a vegan friendly product. If we take leather, the only real alternative to it right now that is commercially viable and that won’t fall apart, is one made from what is essential, plastic.

This is the most frustrating aspect of the vegan lifestyle to any true environmentalist. Long classified as an essential part of the environmental movement, it can completely contradict itself. By choosing to boycott animal products because of the slaughter of animals, it can arguably accelerate just that thing.

The industry responsible for the extraction and extrusion of the crude oil used to make these materials and the chemicals needed to manufacture them is without a doubt the single biggest destroyer of plant and animal life on this plant. It’s not individual plants or animals; they wipe out entire species.

The proliferation of these toxic materials into the world is an entirely different catastrophe. They last hundreds of years in our ecosystem, put microfibres and toxic chemicals into our bodies and waterways and require a ludicrous amount of engineering to achieve properties such as odour control or water repellence that would otherwise come for free on a natural material.

It is surely no surprise that the fossil fuel and chemical product industries don’t make the data that supports these claims well known. In fact, the total lack of public data on the real impact the extracting and making and disposal of synthetic materials has on our planet is entirely criminal.

Even beyond synthetics, the endless pursuit of some technologically magic vegan material made from lab-grown mushroom fungus means we are constantly de-prioritising opportunities to restore our planet via regenerative agricultural practices on this land, in these existing industries.

Not to mention disregarding the fact many animal products exist purely as by-products of a meat industry that will continue in many cultures and demographics for years to come (which we should acknowledge and respect) and therefore would otherwise go to waste.

An abomination of the use of scientific-method, the fashion industry has long evaluated a product’s environmental impact using life-cycle data analysis without real data on the extraction and extrusion of synthetic materials. An acrylic jumper full of carcinogenic plastic fibres will score considerably better than a natural, biodegradable wool and so the media shouts to the masses.

The irony is, anyone in the vegan community who understands the important role animals play in the testing of cosmetic products know that just because it is not directly an animal product, does not mean it conforms to the vegan mandate. So why hasn’t it translated?

Who knows. Perhaps it’s because no one has done a Netflix documentary on it yet? Or maybe it’s just an ugly reality that most people aren’t willing to face. My only challenge is, if we truly want a future where we and our natural world thrives in ecological bliss, we must embrace the complexity of that and be open-minded to all the potential solutions that can bring it about. Those that include animals and those that don’t. Because if one more vegan preaches to me about the environmental wrongs of eating meat, always buying and wearing clothes, shoes and accessories made from synthetic materials, I’ll go mad.

Unfortunately, much like this article, it is a concept far too complicated for most ‘consumer messaging’ – unlike the vegan label which can again, ironically be attributed to direct and expansive commercial gain and so, it shall continue on, irrespective of the science, until perhaps we just all don’t exist.


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