Faux vs. vegan leather and how eco-friendly really is it?
According to the Korea Vegan Union, there are approximately 1.5 million to 2 million vegetarians or vegans in Korea alone in 2022, which accounts for three to four percent of the entire population. Their lifestyle choices extend not only to their diets but also to their consumption patterns.
About a third of the population say they favor a vegan or a vegetarian lifestyle, although they do not strictly abide by one. As more and more people are taking an interest in plant-based lifestyles, restaurants and cafes in Seoul have been incorporating more vegan food options into their menus.
Veganism has also emerged as a trend among Korean fashion brands. Such trend has already been prevalent in foreign brands such as Hermès and & Other Stories which use sustainable plant-based leather for bags or shoes.
“Long ago there was a time when it was considered embarrassing to wear fake leather,” Kim Sung-min, professor of textile and fashion at Mokwon University said. “But now it’s the other way around — you may not get openly criticized for wearing real leather yet, but it’s similar to how wearing fur has certainly become something frowned upon.”
In fact, when searching for leather items on online local shopping sites like W Concept or Musinsa, the term “vegan leather” is more frequently seen than "genuine leather," along with the occasional variations “vegetable leather” or “eco leather.”
Real leather has negative effects on the environment such as deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions and uses lots of hazardous chemicals in the tanning process. Even though the leather itself is biodegradable, when it is treated with pollution-induced chemicals it becomes non-degradable. Apart from the industrial process, the breeding of animals to produce leather requires an immense amount of energy, involving water, feed, land and time.
"Vegan leather” implies the material is strictly environmentally-friendly in addition to being animal cruelty-free. But is there a difference between faux leather and vegan leather?
The bottom line is that vegan leather is just a "fancier" word for artificial leather — both are essentially a leather-looking material that ultimately do not use animal skin, so the terms can be used interchangeably.
“They practically mean the same thing,” said Prof. Kim. “Artificial leather can be made from rubber or plastic too. Nowadays people just have a different term for it; they don’t call it synthetic leather anymore. It’s the same concept in that it’s artificial.”
However, one factor to be careful of is that the term “vegan leather” doesn’t necessarily mean that it is better for the environment.
“A leather jacket made from material that is plant-based and did not use animal substances does not simply mean it is eco-friendly,” Prof. Kim said. “Vegan leather can also be made from plastic. So it has to be observed carefully step-by-step ‘from the cradle to the grave,’ like knowing which materials did it use before purchasing it, and when consumers are done with it, will it be biodegradable?”
When searching “vegan leather” in Korean on Musinsa, an online retailer, none of the top 10 items that appeared had information about whether or not the items are eco-friendly. The only information given regarding the material were terms like “self-produced,” “durable” or “not animal-derived.”
Vegan leather is proving to be a clever marketing ploy. Reviews for such products on online retailers read “I bought it because I liked how it is eco-friendly, since it is vegan leather” and “I’m glad it’s vegan leather and not real leather.”
Hanwon Mulsan Corporation is a local company that manufactures artificial leather out of hanji, a type of Korean traditional paper that is made from the branches of mulberry trees. In a phone interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily, the company explained how it aims to be eco-friendly.
“There are so many dangers to making real leather, like the use of chemicals. We wanted to minimize the energy used for animal breeding and the use of chemicals, which is why we only use non-toxic, water-based adhesives and coating materials,” said Jeong Woo-han, CEO of Hanwon Mulsan Corporation.
This plant-based leather, branded as Haunji, uses only natural fibers such as cotton. The fibers are patched together with hanji using environmentally-friendly adhesives.
In late October last year, First Lady Kim Jung-sook was shown carrying a black bag from local brand Perito when she attended the G20 Summit in Rome. The bag, priced at around 320,000 won ($262.80), was manufactured by Haunji and instantly sold out after pictures of Kim were released.
“Our products are biodegradable. Intertek [a London-based product testing company] did a report on Haunji and found that 92 percent of the material it uses decomposes within six months. That means that after a year, almost 99 percent will have decomposed,” Jeong said.
According to Intertek, at least 90 percent of a material must decompose after 180 days for it to be truly considered biodegradable.
Jo Ye-ryeong, who works in the marketing and communication division of Wicked Lover, said that cactus leather is made by harvesting cactus and drying it in the sun for three days. Afterward it is ground to a powder and processed into a leather-type material.
Cacti have strong molecular bonding, creating durability that is resistant to tears or scratches.
“Cacti don’t require an irrigation facility; you only need a minimum amount of water and natural sunlight to grow them,” Jo said. “On the other hand, animal breeding demands so much care and food — now which do you think would be easier to make [into leather]?”
When using cactus leather, 1,864 percent of greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced in comparison with animal leather, and 78 percent compared with faux leather made from PU, Jo said.
Both brands have emphasized that their hanji and cactus leather products are even better than the real deal, in terms of smell, weight, sustainability, durability and price.
Local fashion brand Marhen.J is the first brand in Korea to use fibers from apple peels to weave into a leather-like material and dyes or inks that do not negatively impact the environment.
Vegan leather is making its way to the seats of cars as well. Mycel, a startup founded by three employees from Hyundai Motor, developed a type of faux leather using mushroom mycelia.
“There are so many factors to consider when it comes to faux leather,” said Prof. Kim. “When it’s made from plastic, it is non-biodegradable so that’s one problem. Perhaps just buying good quality leather clothing and wearing it for decades will be less harmful to the environment. But then what about the animals that are killed in the process? It’s a complex question.
“The best option is to stop overbuying clothes, but if you must buy them, please be smart and wear them for a long time.”
BY SHIN MIN-HEE [email@example.com]