Just a few years ago, it would have been inconceivable to question the future of leather goods. It’s still hard to imagine leather not being ubiquitous in fashion, from shoes to handbags to accessories. But while the global leather goods market is worth over $200 billion and growing, there are signs that younger generations are beginning to question the material’s role in their consumption diet.
Suddenly, veganism is exploding into the mainstream: the number of vegans in the US has grown by 300% since 2004, and increasing numbers of consumers are also describing themselves as “lifestyle vegans,” eschewing animal products not just in their diets but in their consumption of cosmetics and clothing too. In a recent survey Wovn conducted on behalf of a premium leather handbag brand, we asked respondents how likely they were to purchase a range of handbags made of more ethically sourced leather. We found that of those uninterested in purchasing the bags, almost a quarter of them volunteered that it was because they are vegan and/or don’t buy leather products at all. This sentiment was particularly prevalent among respondents under the age of 35.
As veganism gains steam, new attention is beginning to focus on leather’s impact on the environment. Leather has a relatively large carbon footprint, and toxic chemical and water footprint issues are problematic too. According to fashion search platform Lyst, searches for vegan leather are way up over the past year while searches for leather are slightly down. Of course, not all leather alternatives are better for the environment than the real thing; a large volume of what’s being marketed as vegan leather is petroleum-based, non-biodegradable, and contributes to microplastic pollution.
The race is on for better, non-plastic alternatives to leather. One contender is mushroom leather, used by Stella McCartney and by Adidas in a recent Stan Smith revamp. Hugo Boss, Paul Smith, and others are experimenting with pineapple leather. Alternatives made from cactus, apple skins, cork, tea, flowers, wine byproducts, and more are vying for market share. It’s inspiring to see material innovation happening at such a rapid clip, but one big challenge for any leather alternative hoping to challenge the supremacy of the real thing will be moving beyond proof-of-concept to achieve scale.
As with any material in fashion, addressing leather waste and overproduction is the most logical first step in reducing environmental impact.
Meanwhile, fashion brands that want to draw in a younger consumer would be wise to embrace alternatives to animal leather. It's clear that veganism’s rise is accelerating and that Millennial and Gen Z consumers are leading the charge on reconsidering the presence of animal products in both their diets and their wardrobes.
This rapid shift in preferences also underscores the risk to brands of relying on historical data to predict future demand. Preferences are changing perhaps faster than ever before, and real-time consumer insights can help brands and retailers to get ahead of shifting consumer tastes. No one knows how consumers broadly will feel about leather five years from now, but it’s clear that there’s a shift underway, and brands would do well to keep a finger on the pulse of consumer sentiment to see where it goes.