vegan leather

Like everybody else out there, I regularly look for inspiration from my fellow designers.  I frequent design blogs, Pinterest pages, and Instagram photos-- looking at the beauty created every day by a large group of very talented people.   I also learn a lot from my peers-- about everything from furniture arranging to current trends to new and innovative products.

Now and then, however, I see something that really rubs me the wrong way.  As a designer, I take seriously my responsibility to give my clients the most truthful, honest answers to their questions about everything from the kitchen sink, to bathroom tile, flooring-- and the best sofa and throw pillows.   Not every product out there will meet the needs of an individual client, and clients can make the best decisions if they have the most information.  It is my job-- therefore--  to know about the ingredients in the products and the companies that sell them-- and to pass on that information as clearly as possible to my client.

In an age in which we are inundated with fake news and false advertising-- it is even more important than ever that designers are fully transparent when selling products to clients.

So... I want to raise concerns over the product that is sometimes called "Vegan Leather".

The word vegan suggests something that is ecologically sustainable and probably healthier for humans as well. Vegan leather, however, is a higher-tech version of vinyl.

Here's the story:  

Leather is a bit of a conundrum-- beautiful and incredibly durable-- but not for every application.  Sometimes a situation is too intense for even leather to handle-- upholstered benches in a nightclub, for example-- and sometimes people object to the political choice of using animal skin on their furniture.   In came vinyl-- or leatherette, naugahyde-- plastic alternatives that tried to mimic leather in their look and feel.

In the design world, however-- vinyl has a pretty bad name.  Bad looks, bad feel-- generally very fake.  No designer wants to use it unless s/he is doing a retro-look kitchen banquette. 

In the last fifteen years the textile industry has responded by using new technology to create a wide selection of faux leathers-- sometimes called 'technology leathers'-- beautiful, soft, totally look-and-feel-like-leather products in every texture and color-- all of them made of 100% plastic.  

"Sometimes referred to as poromerics, poromeric imitation leathers are a group of synthetic "breathable" leather substitutes made from a plastic coating (usually a polyurethane) on a fibrous base layer (typically a polyester)."   Their ingredients are polyurethane, poly-vinyl with a top coat of urethane, polyester, phthalate free polyurethane (polycarbonate)--  all of them poly-based vinyls, i.e. plastics.

Don't get me wrong-- I use these faux leathers regularly for applications that require the water-proofing and sturdiness of plastic -- again, the upholstered benches at a nightclub.  But I am clear with my clients that the product that I am showing them is PLASTIC.  They need to understand that this is not an ecologically sustainable choice in any way other than its longevity (which can at times make something the best ecological choice).  Neither are these faux leathers healthy for humans to live with-- while fine in a cavernous space with lots of ventilation that is only occupied for 12-14  hours of a day-- the off gassing of the poly's is not good for humans to breath in smaller, enclosed spaces like the average home. 

The majority of furniture companies do not care about the environment or about our health-- but they will use a phrase like "vegan leather" that is technically true if it helps them to sell their products.  

Interior designers, however, need to dig a little bit deeper and ask a few more questions.

Don't be fooled by false advertising, people.