Vegetarian leather

Vegetarian leather

As a vegetarian brand we do not use leather, skins, fur or feathers in any of our products, collaborations or licensed products.

We diligently work to source and design beautiful, modern and innovative materials that we use to create our signature handbags, accessories and shoes – all of which are PVC free.[1]

It can be a difficult task for our design team to source, study and test a range of textiles that combine different blends of organic and synthetic fibres until they find a material that looks stunning, yet is versatile enough to undergo a variety of production techniques. Owing to the scientific research that goes into creating these blended fibres and subsequently, their scarcity, innovative materials could be considered a true luxury, rather than leather, which has become a commodity.

We use vegetable coatings and materials that truly push boundaries in a sustainable manner without sacrificing style in any way.

We can often face difficulty with the creation of our shoes: using synthetic or woven materials that are thinner and less elastic than leather makes it more difficult to achieve a uniform product. The issue is that many of the industrial techniques and machines used in leather shops are not appropriate for non-leather shoe manufacturing.

In order to achieve the highest standards that machines cannot always guarantee, most of the steps in the production of both bags and shoes are executed solely by hand by skilled artisans. Our bags, for example, can only be produced by a handful of factories in Italy that specialise in non-leather production. About 70% of the work is done by hand, and depending on the style, it can cost us up to 70% more to make a pair of shoes than any other brand – yet we do not mark them up for the customer

Both bags and shoes require the use of glue and this too is diligently tested to ensure the high ethical standards for which Stella McCartney is known. No fish glue, or any other glues derived from animal parts, are used in the production of our shoes and bags.

We think that not using leather is a modern and at times a daring choice.

We cannot help but wonder why more companies do not consider breaking their dependency on leather when it has been shown over and over again the intense negative impact that leather has on the planet.

Leather vs synthetics

While we do not use leather for reasons based on principle there are also very compelling environmental reasons to avoid the use of leather.

Using the Environmental Profit and Loss we are able to directly compare the impact of the synthetic alternatives that we use to the impacts of leather use.

Leather impacts are driven by land use and greenhouse gas emissions associated with animal rearing, as well as the energy usage and water consumption requirements of tanneries. In Brazil for example, the cattle industry has been a driver of deforestation – resulting in a loss of important ecosystem services. Additionally, it is inefficient in terms of production per hectare. As a result, leather from Brazil has very high environmental impact.

Leather from Brazil has 24 times the impact of recycled polyester and 17 times the environmental impact as virgin polyester.[2] Leather from Brazil is an extreme example, as Brazil is considered to be one of the highest impact regions to source leather. However, even when making a comparison to a lower impact source of leather, such as leather from France, a synthetic alterative has roughly 1/4th of the impact (per kg of material).

Although our choice to avoid leather enables us to have a lesser impact than those that do use leather, we openly acknowledge that the synthetic alternatives are not without environmental concerns. We are working to reduce the impact of our alternative materials by using recycled and bio-based materials. The EP&L has shown us that the majority of the impacts associated with synthetic fibres are from the processing of oil into yarn.

Our veggie leathers

We use recycled materials whenever possible, as we do not want to be dependent on petroleum. There are a lot of untapped resources in the materials already available on the planet and is the reason why we are increasing our usage of recycled polyester and nylon. All handbags are lined with polyester that comes from recycled plastic water bottles – we have also used a Recycled Microfiber made from recycled plastic water bottles.

We have switched our polyurethanes (PU) to waterborne PU instead of the traditional solvent-based PU. Waterborne (solvent-free) PU offers significant reductions the consumption of water and energy. The most important difference between waterborne PU and solvent-based PU is that waterborne PU is much safer to work with. Exposure to chemicals that may be emitted during or after the application of solvent-based PU can be toxic to humans.

We also work with bio-plastics (plant-based plastics) from time to time. All of our eyewear is made out of over 50% plastic coming from natural resources and our Eco Alter Nappa has a coating that is made with over 50% vegetable oil.

Since autumn 2013, we have been using an innovative material called Eco Alter Nappa as an alternative to leather in our shoes and bags. It is made from polyester and polyurethane and has a coating made with over 50% vegetable oil which is a renewable, natural resource. This enables us to use less petroleum in our products. The vegetable oil used our eco alter nappa comes from non-food sources

For all bio-plastics in our production we ensure that the plants used to make these plastics come from non-food sources and are not causing any land conversion. However, the traceability of plastics is more difficult than cotton, for example, which is why we have not embraced bio-plastics more widely. Inadvertently contributing to deforestation by increasing demand for agriculture is something we want to avoid at all cost, preferring to remain focused on recycled options.

Leather’s environmental impact

Omitting leather from our production chain helps us to reduce our overall carbon impact. Meat and leather production is responsible for 18% of all manmade greenhouse gases, with a single cow emitting 19.3 pounds/8.75kg of methane annually. Methane is potent greenhouse gas, causing 25 times more global warming impact than CO2. Compare this to transportation, which only accounts for 13% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

We are committed to becoming a zero deforestation company and by not using leather we significantly reduce our risk of contributing to deforestation. The cattle sector in the Brazilian Amazon is the largest driver of deforestation in the world; it is responsible for 14% of the world’s annual deforestation. According to the Brazilian government: ‘Cattle are responsible for about 80% of all deforestation’ in the Amazon region. Forests play a vital role in stabilising the world’s climate by storing large amounts of carbon that would otherwise contribute to climate change. The Amazon is estimated to store 80-120 billion tonnes of carbon. If destroyed, some fifty times the annual GHG emissions of the USA could be emitted.

Factoring in the resources needed to rear cattle 1 kilogram of leather can have up to 20 times the environmental impact of 1 kilogram of a synthetic material like polyester.

The problem with tanning

Leather, skins and furs all need to be tanned.

Animal skins used for clothing and accessories are loaded with caustic, toxic chemicals that prevent the skins from decomposing – the very opposite of what we expect from an organic resource.

Tanning is one of the most toxic industries in the world due to the chemicals involved. Chrome, a known carcinogen, is used in vast amounts; as are acids, natrium and ammonium.

Groundwater near leather tanneries has been found to contain critically high levels of chromium, lead, formaldehyde and even cyanide, causing cancer and other fatal illnesses in nearby populations. The worst cases of such problems are in developing countries where there are little to no safe guards to protect the local population from the toxic impacts of the tanneries. In Bangladesh, which now has a $1 billion-a-year leather industry, chemical exposure and equipment accidents pose such a great hazard that workers (many of them children) are not expected to live beyond age 50.


[1] PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is considered to be the most environmentally damaging of all plastics (Greenpeace). We do not use any PVC in any of our products – we have been 100% PVC free since 2010. Vinyl chloride is used to make most PVC plastic and vinyl products. Short-term exposure to PVC has resulted in central nervous system effects, such as dizziness, drowsiness, and headaches in humans. Long-term exposure can result in liver damage and can lead to an increased risk of cancer.

[2] This comparison is made using EP&L values.

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