Why I'm digging non-vegan leather products.

Since 2015, I’ve worn one and the same backpack. After more than three years now it all came to an end. My daily companion was unable to join me on my journeys any longer and I had to search for a replacement. When the company Harold’s contacted me, I couldn’t resist going back to traditions. I got a leather backpack. And I’m proud to say that I love my non-vegan product. Why? Read more below.

This post is about my vision about materials and the latest trend of vegan replacements as well as a PR sample gifted to me by Harold’s.

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Sustainable fashion and choosing the right alternative is a complex battle field these days. Slow fashion has evolved into a whole industry and brands are following a green strategy. Many positive things are happening, which I truly support, but consumers are somewhat being left alone to form an opinion and educate themselves. It’s a hassle deciding to do something good.

Pineapple leather, recycled polyester, lab-grown materials and much more. It makes me wonder:

Why do we make it this difficult to conscious consumers to choose the right thing?

With the great example of my new leather backpack, I am outlining four crucial buying decisions:

  1. Vegan is not always a natural alternative.

  2. Wearing a PET bottle sounds sustainable but it’s kinda not.

  3. Material innovation needs time.

  4. Ask your grandma about longevity.

  1. Vegan is not always a natural alternative.

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When I started my journey with sustainable fashion, I discovered from buying only second hand for one year to the whole world of newly produced slow fashion items. From organic cotton to recycled bottles, - there was a vast amount of things I had to learn. Vegan fashion slowly came into the picture too. According to PETA, vegan leather is any material that has the look of actual leather without using animal skin as a source. The most used substitute is polyurethane, a polymer, a plastic. Our plastic consumption is an immense polluter of our oceans and harming all marine life. Follow me closely, because I’m making a big jump now. Here’s a fact: Our oceans are expected to contain more plastics than fish by 2050, says the Ellen McArthur Foundation.

Vegan leather is not always the most natural and environmental-friendly substitute. In fact, many brands misuse the positive connotation of 'vegan’ to sell their synthetic items through a greener strategy. All the sudden, low quality boots are more sustainable because they’re vegan.

2. Wearing a PET bottle sounds sustainable but it’s kinda not.

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Talking about the backpack story again. Many backpacks these days are made from recycled plastics. Brands use old PET bottles and transform them to polyester threads, which are light in weight and very sturdy. The end result can be anything, from backpacks, swimsuits, outdoor jackets and t-shirts to the all famous Adidas sneaker, when the big fashion giant Adidas has paired up with an NGO, Parley for the Oceans, to produce the upper material out of old fisher nets.

I see some downsides to PET recycling. The whole process (of collecting, cleaning, chemically dying and melting the plastics) until they can become threads again is energetically and chemically not the best for mother earth (following scientist Nebel in this Germany article). I’m not saying that leather production is any better, but most of us are unaware of the processes behind. It’s a long queue of activities, until a plastic bottle can become a fashion item. Another aspect you should consider when buying a recycled PET backpack is the location of the production facility. Many recycling factories are located in Asia, where European and American bottles are being transported to. I haven’t found any studies on the carbon emission of recycled polyester, but I bet it’s not a positive one. And further, I recommend to check out blogs that inform you about material science of your clothes (and all my German readers should check out Franzi and her blog) since this is not my knowledge area. Educate yourself and ask questions before you buy something.

Another consideration you want to make is that many bottles contain chemicals or heavy metals such as antimony which I wouldn’t like to wear on my skin. Symptoms associated with antimony vary depending on the amount you are exposed to it and can be: Raised blood cholesterol (LDL), Heart disease, Diabetes or Anxiety (article found here). I don’t expect my readers to be facility workers in a fashion factory and therefore, the risk is very low. Exposure is only through a small amount of chemicals and heavy metals left within the textile fibre. But coming to a more positive note:

Recycling PET is a great strategy to reduce ocean plastic and general plastic pollution. My vote is, to take another approach away from wearables and consumables. Instead of making a consumable plastic bottle into another trendy shirt, we should invest in other items that harm our environment less or not at all. I vote to use plastic recycling for interior design objects, furniture or architecturally. There is no need to wear plastics on a daily basis and let the microfibres pollute our drain water, so that we eat poisoned food.

3. Material innovation needs time.

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There are many alternatives to leather these days. Pineapple leather, mushroom leather, seaweed proteins and many more. The fact is, that most innovations have not been on the market long enough to be analysed in long-term studies for durability.

And a main reason to not yet trust these items is my personal experience. I’ve worn shoes from pineapple leather for a day and returned them. I didn’t want to wear them any longer. The material didn’t breathe and thus my feet where the stinkiest I’ve ever had. Sure, cork and such are great alternatives, but some materials just need some more time in order to be long lasting.

Leather on the other hand has been keeping human bodies warm and covered since the stone ages. Since at least 3600 BC (is what Wikipedia tells me), humans have tanned leather to make them into wearables. A process that has been changed throughout the centuries but kept alive until the 21st century.

It’s durable, breathable and a great choice because of the following and final point:

4. Ask your grandma about longevity.

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Trust me, she’d know. Leather is simply lasting long. It’s been used for centuries and items can survive generations.

And here is a little anecdote.

I’ve just recently received a leather weekender my father used when I was younger. It’s mine now and funnily enough, also from Harold’s. Back then their logo was different and the inner lining reveals a little retro touch. But yes, this weekender has survived the last 30 years. The sturdy material has allowed my father to take it places. And that’s what I will do with my backpack too. So far, it’s seen Sweden and Germany and will be able to be taken to Berlin Fashion Week in January 2019 and Spain for a relaxing holiday.

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Why I chose Harold’s backpack.

The cute cattle is free roaming in Colombia. The Germany label has a long history of working with the Columbian family-owned facility and they have in fact produced leather items for almost 9 decades. All items are vegetable-tanned which does not use chromium. Since last winter, I am only buying leather items that are free of chromium, a very harmful chemical used in the process of tanning the skins.

The company breathes ‘form follows function’. Most items are timeless and produced with such a quality, that I can trust the item to last longer than a decade. This is a very slow approach to fashion. A company that maintains long relationships to their suppliers, cares about the animals within the production and gives the workers more than an employment. The woman in Colombia are paid above average and get a fair wage.

Thank you Harold’s and Katharina from Kern Consulting. I’ve been wearing your backpack since September. I’m looking forward to make my new backpack my lifelong companion. Find this product and many others here.

Pictures are a mix of Unsplash and mine.