Not so long ago, synthetic leather had a bad rap. It was shiny, sweaty and squeaky –basically what you’d buy if you couldn’t afford the real thing.

How things have changed. What was once variously labelled as imitation, artificial, faux or fake, pleather now has a new moniker – vegan leather. And with that comes a socially conscious, eco-friendly and trendy reinvention.

Marking fashion as vegan has become a selling point. Once the domain of a few top end designers such as Stella McCartney – who shunned leather before anyone understood what she was on about – now leather-look clothes and accessories marketed as cruelty-free are being touted at the more accessible end of the market. It’s here on the high street that the trend is really taking off. To whit: H&M’s Conscious Exclusive range, Top Shop’s vegan sandals, The Iconic’s Considered edit.

And for some, it’s working very nicely thank you. Dr Martens recorded a 300 per cent rise in sales of the vegan version (a combo of polyester fabric and polyurethane) of its iconic boots over the past year.
It’s not restricted to the world of fashion, either. Alongside vegan leather handbags, shoes and jackets comes the news that electric car manufacturer Tesla has joined other luxury car brands by sporting vegan leather interiors.

Alternative leather is certainly no longer the cheap option. Although vegan leathers include everything from pineapple peelings to lab-grown spider silk, the majority are made with polyvinyl chloride or polyurethane and in some cases it’s more expensive than the real thing. (For genuine vegan leather, this is justified by the fact that the price of materials is only one part of the overall cost. They’re most often made using fair trade practices and are free of the toxic shortcuts taken by big business.)

So why has ‘vegan leather’ become such a buzz phrase? With an increasing number of people trying to eat less meat, animal welfare has been steadily making its way up the list of issues people consider before making their fashion purchases. In fact, the global faux leather market is set to hit $85 billion by 2025, according to a recent report by the joint India and US market research company Grand View Research.
Perhaps above all, ‘vegan leather’ just sounds better than ‘synthetic leather’ and that plays a big part in its desirability.

A note of caution though, over just how sound these new ranges that use the vegan tag are. There’s still much debate over durability, sustainability, environmental impact, pollution and recyclability as well as the working conditions of the people in the manufacturing chain.

Just because something is labelled vegan should not in itself be reason to buy.

In a recent interview with The Vegan Company, vegan bags and accessories designer and founder of Sans Beast, Cathryn Wills, cautioned:

There is a job to be done to ensure vegan fashion stands up to the competitive landscape with strength. It needs to look good and design must play an important part. I see a lot of vegan fashion that is vegan first and design second; the heart is in the right place, but the design principles are lacking. In the next few years I hope to see a polishing of this and more professional entrants to the market who know what they’re doing, and also have an ethical heart.”

And of course if the environment is to be a primary focus, the best approach to is to buy less of everything, including vegan leather.