Hands up, who’s shopped with vegan leather brand Matt & Nat? I have four items from their range: my classic handbag, my red saddle bag, my nude sandals, and my little travel wallet. I even retired a fifth – my silver sandals – earlier this year. You could say I’m a loyal fan of the brand.
Well, I have some beans to spill.
Over the course of the last few months, my suspicions about Matt & Nat have been growing. And in the last few weeks, they were sadly confirmed: Matt & Nat isn’t quite as environmentally conscious as you may think.
What makes a brand ethical?
You know the drill by now – in my deep-dives into brands, I’ll look for the following qualities:
- Ethical or fair fashion: clothes that pay a fair wage to their producers, garment workers, etc.
- Sustainable fashion: clothes made from materials and practices that are earth-friendly
- Slow fashion: clothes that are not governed by seasonal trends, classics, investment pieces
So while I’m using the phrase sustainable fashion here, I’ll be considering how Matt & Nat measures up to all three.
I have also been in contact with a spokesperson for the brand, whose answers to my questions are peppered throughout this post.
Who is Matt & Nat?
Matt & Nat started out in 1995 as a pure-and-simple vegan fashion brand, based in Montreal, Canada. Their range was limited; in their first 10 years they produced a small selection of handbags, purses, footwear, wallets and accessories, all without the use of animal products.
In the last 14 years, their range has grown exponentially. Their style changed from crinkly vegan materials to new, slicker, sharper shapes; they worked on a collab with Apple Computers; and, since my first purchase with them back in 2014, their range has grown to include everything from carry-on luggage to dog collars, puffer jackets to candles.
However, while the company’s range and marketing strategy has grown extensively over the last 10 years, I think it’s fair to say they still view themselves as not just a vegan label, but an environmentally friendly one too. Sadly, I have to disagree.
What does Matt & Nat stand for?
To understand the blurred lines (or duality) of Matt & Nat, you only need to look at their brand name. Matt & Nat stands for Material and Natural, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that this name means they use vegan materials and natural materials in equal measure.
In fact, if you return to my original review of my Orwell bag, you’ll see how I fell for exactly this – their name made me jump to that same conclusion.
In reality, they predominantly use plastic-based materials. Sure, some of their bag linings are made from recycled nylon. Oh, and don’t forget the cork labels! But other than that, it’s mainly plastic.
Is vegan leather really less harmful?
This brings us back to the ethical conundrum of vegan leather. While vegan leather doesn’t harm animals in its creation, it does harm the planet, and in turn, harms animals. Sophie Benson wrote a brilliant piece about exactly this – is it more ethical to buy first-hand, plastic-based items, or to buy second-hand, leather items?
Either way, I’ve been touting Matt & Nat as an ethical alternative to leather for many years now, as I believed that alongside their animal-free products, they also produced them fairly and aimed to use recycled or natural materials.
After researching further, I’ve discovered this isn’t the case.
Is Matt & Nat’s production ethical?
In my first brush with Matt & Nat on the blog, I noted how they use factories in China to make their goods, and questioned whether this practice was really necessary. This was 2014.
In a later review of another of their bags, I noted how of all their factories are still in China, with only one meeting Social Accountability International’s SA8000 standard. (In short, the SA8000 standard means they do not have child labour, forced labour, they do have health and safety measures, the right to unionise, and that working hours and pay are legal.) This was 2017.
Flash-forward to today, and it’s still the same story. When asking whether Matt & Nat’s production is ethical, I got the same weak response:
“One of our factories operates by the SA8000 standard and we hope to make this standard a bigger part of our production going forward.”
I don’t think that’s good enough. Having operated in China for years, and the taking into account marked growth of the business over the last five years, the lack of progress with the way they run their factories equates to no real investment in their people and practices.
Matt & Nat went on to say:
“We visit diligently each factory and build strong personal relationships with their owners; they too are a part of the Matt & Nat family. This involvement in the making of our bags ensures integrity every step of the way.”
This is something I’m tired of hearing, too. It’s what Inditex chief, Pablo Isla, says about Zara’s hundreds of factories – and we all have our doubts about that. In my eyes, if the welfare of all workers does not meet the SA8000 standard, or another independently-vetted standard, quite frankly it’s not ethical.
Are Matt & Nat’s products sustainable?
So, to dive into the sustainability part of this analysis, I decided to look at materials first.
After consulting my own items, Matt & Nat’s website, and researching elsewhere, I have found Matt & Nat’s main materials are:
- PVC – polyvinyl chloride – a plastic polymer that requires toxic chemicals to produce and cannot be recycled
- PU – polyurethane – a plastic material that is less harmful than PVC, and can be recycled
- TPR – thermoplastic rubber – a blend of plastic and rubber that can be recycled
- Recycled nylon – also known as ECONYL – a recycled plastic that can be re-recycled (I covered this material in more detail in my guide to eco swimwear)
- Cork – a natural material obtained from cork oak trees
As you can see from this list, there’s a lot of plastic. Greenpeace and PETA have both spoken out against the use of PVC, which Matt & Nat say they’re moving away from, preferring PU where possible. How long this will take – who knows.
When it comes to the better materials, you’ll also find they’re not used half as much. Recycled nylon is used in their bag linings only. As for cork – it seems to be the only natural material they frequently use and even then, it’s used for labels and for their limited cork range only. This makes me further question the ‘Nat’ in their name.
Is PU sustainable?
As I mentioned, Matt & Nat has been making efforts to move away from PVC, the most harmful material in the list, preferring PU where possible. However, I still don’t see PU being a sustainable material, and began to question this further when I realised almost all of Matt & Nat’s shoes are made from 100% PU.
Given that their tagline is “Vegan. Cruelty-free. Recycled.” I decided to ask whether their shoes are at all recycled. Earlier this year, I spotted an Instagram post for a new shoe in their range and asked:
“Hi, what part of your shoes are recycled?”
The response from the official @matt_and_nat Instagram was:
“Hi! Our shoes are made from PU which is biodegradable over time”
When I asked again, if that was recycled, I got no reply.
After doing my research, I can confirm:
- PU is not biodegradable without some serious heat treatment
- While PU is recyclable, it is very difficult and energy-intensive to do so. Most of the time, PU is either burned to make fuel, or it goes to landfill.
Neither of these things seem particularly sustainable to me.
Is Matt & Nat greenwashing?
I’m not the only one to pull Matt & Nat up on this, either. Last month, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) had to warn Matt & Nat over false advertising.
Reported on The Ecologist, their ads displayed 100% PVC bags with the tagline “Vegan. Cruelty Free. Recycled”, which was deemed misleading.
They were warned not to “exaggerate” their use of recycled material in their products – which is something I can agree on.
Looking at my own collection of Matt & Nat, only two out of the five items I own contain any recycled materials:
- Black Handbag – Recycled nylon lining
- Crossbody Bag – Recycled nylon lining
- Silver Sandals – No recycled materials
- Nude Sandals – No recycled materials
- Travel Wallet – No recycled materials
And when I looked at the first 10 handbags listed on Matt & Nat’s site, all 10 mentioned the recycled nylon linings – but did not mention any other materials.
To be doubly sure, I decided to look at 10 pairs of shoes on their site too. Of the 10, five were made from 100% plastic materials (PU, PVC, or TPR), three did not have any material information at all, and one pair was made with corduroy uppers, but who knows what the heel or sole were made from.
Even their cork collection fails to mention why cork is more sustainable than their other collections, which is a real shame.
At best, Matt & Nat is not transparent. At worst, they’re greenwashing.
Is Matt & Nat a slow fashion brand?
Onto my final marker for ethical fashion – rate of production. Fast fashion is named fast fashion because high street retailers make up to 52 collections a year – that’s one a week. Producing fashion at this rate isn’t sustainable, so when it comes to looking for ethical fashion, I look for brands that produce only a few collections per year at most.
When asking Matt & Nat how often they produce collections, I was told:
“They make four seasons a year.”
With four seasons a year, this takes M&N back into the traditional pace of fashion. Four is far less than 52, and in my mind, qualifies as slow fashion.
However, encouraging shoppers to buy new bags and other long-lasting pieces every three months does seem a little much. Factor in that their current range available on their website is made up of over 340 individual items, and I’m even more hesitant about dubbing M&N as slow fashion. That’s an estimated 1360+ styles a year – it seems a bit much.
I’m really saddened by this hunger for growth, trumping everything that Matt & Nat’s name stands for. Material & Natural no more. It seems like Nat has left the company, and the only thing Matt hung onto from their relationship was his vegan diet.
Matt & Nat is not ethical fashion brand. With only one of their Chinese factories meeting an independently-verified standard (that indicates conditions I would expect at all factories, without question), I don’t believe Matt & Nat treats its people fairly, nor invests enough in their welfare.
Matt & Nat is moving away from being a sustainable fashion brand. In what is possibly the biggest shocker in this series so far, I am afraid to say that Matt & Nat is losing its roots, and moving away from having any credibility in the sustainable fashion space. Saying they avoid PVC where possible, and yet still making items made from 100% PVC, is demonstrable of their unsustainable practices. Also – none of their shoes are made with recycled materials, and PU may be better than PVC but it’s still not sustainable.
Matt & Nat is a slow fashion brand – just about. With four seasons a year, this is the only place I can award any points to Matt & Nat. That said, their limited range of womens handbags and mens accessories back in 2015 has now grown into a monster of over 340 items per season, covering everything from sunglasses to candles to dog accessories. Yes, dog accessories.
TL;DR: Vegan leather – and in fact, caring about animals – is only one small part of sustainable fashion bubble, and does not answer the climate crisis, or reduce the exploitation of garment workers. Matt & Nat can do better than this – and so can you.