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Is the 'vegan leather' label misleading consumers?

By Regina Henkel

28 Oct 2019

Fashion |BACKGROUND

In its judgment of 10th September 2019, the German district court in Hanover decided that it is not misleading to consumers when handbag manufacturers label vegan products with the terms ‘vegan leather’ or ‘apple leather’. Does that make sense?

A contradiction in terms: vegan leather

Everybody is familiar with terms like ‘vegan sausage’, ‘soy milk’ and ‘vegan leather’ and it is clear that vegan sausages contain no meat and soybeans no milk. The same is true for vegan leather, which is not made from skin and can therefore never be leather. However, some people do not appreciate this blending of contradictory terms. In 2017, a court prohibited manufacturers of milk alternatives to use the word ‘milk’ in their product name. Thus, ‘soy milk’ became ‘soy drink’. And for some time now, even the association of the German leather industry (VDL) has been wanting to stop ‘vegan leather’, ‘apple leather’ or ‘mushroom leather’ to be called such because it is not leather. In a legal dispute with the German manufacturer of vegan leather handbags Nuuwai, the district court of Hanover has now ruled that these terms are permitted. The VDL had argued that they were misleading and anti-competitive.

The VDL has been sending threatening letters to companies

Nuuwai is not the only label that was contacted by the association. German label Zvnder also received a letter asking them to come up with another word for their tinder fungus leather and mushroom leather. The VDL’s justification in the letter is rather dry: "As leather, genuine leather or with a term that, according to current opinion, appears on leather or a type of leather (box calf, nappa, nubuck, morocco leather, etc.), can only be described, for sales purposes, a material made from the unsplit or split animal skin or coat through tanning under preservation of the grown fibres in their natural interweaving. Which material can basically be called leather is defined in designation regulation RAL 060 A2 - the differentiation of the term leather compared to other materials." "They are threatening us with penalties of up to 250,000 euros per violation," says Svenja Detto, managing director at Nuuwai.

Contradictory jurisdiction

Why did the controversy arise? "In short, every product should say what is in it,” says Thomas Heinen, vice chairman of the VDL and managing director of Heinen Leder, Germany’s last tannery for leather used for shoes and bags. "This makes sense for all participants because then it is also clear what one is paying for, what it can be used for and what not. Consumers are then not misled positively or negatively by a name that has nothing to do with its content." There is also leather tanned on a vegetable basis, something one could mistake apple leather for.

For the VDL, the verdict is a harsh defeat. So far, the court’s justification is not yet available, and the association is still considering whether to appeal as it actually has a series of successful lawsuits to boast: In eleven similar cases, the association was allowed to deny furniture stores and other retailers to use terms such as vegan leather, textile leather, eco leather or PU leather.

Vegan leather just means that it is not leather

The aim of the association is to ensure that regular leather is not linked with products that have nothing (or want nothing) to do with leather. "Leather has inimitable haptic, optical and technical properties. These properties have resulted in a consistently positive image for centuries. Now, this positive image is being ‘diluted’," says Heinen and adds that one has to defend oneself against that. It is unlikely that vegans share the same enthusiasm for leather and the question remains: Why do they name their products like this then? Though there would be hardly any consumers who would mistake vegan leather for genuine leather - and no one is being misled (as the court argues) - the term does, however, obscure what it actually is. Vegan leather just means it is not leather but what is it then? In Nuuwai’s case, apple leather is made half from apple waste and half from polyurethane, while Zvnder’s mushroom leather is made 100 percent from the tinder fungus. Oftentimes, vegan leather is actually polyurethane or made from other synthetics, i.e. petroleum-based plastics that once snarkily used to be known as artificial leather or ‘pleather’ (plastic leather).

A clear terminology would be more honest

It would be more honest to come up with new terms, such as Pinatex, the ‘leather-’like material made from pineapples. Probably the term ‘leather’ is only used out of necessity because there is no other terminology for vegan leather yet. But this should change soon in view of the growing popularity of veganism. The VDL accelerates this process and gives the companies it identifies a nasty shock. In terms of content, however, vegan leather producers have no problems. "I don't really care about my material being called leather,” says Zvnder founder Nina Fabert. She is currently coming up with a new term.

This article was originally published on FashionUnited DE. Edited and translated by Simone Preuss.

Photos: Zvnder, Vegan Fashion Week, Nuuwai