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Vegan leather vs real leather: which is more sustainable?

  • 7 min read

Vegan leather vs real leather: which is more sustainable?

By Tena @ Thinking Threads

I get it: animal cruelty is out, and we don’t need their skins to protect or keep us warm anymore. I mean, you don’t need to live a vegan lifestyle to avoid unnecessary products (and suffering). But is the so-called vegan leather more sustainable?

As a student, I didn’t have much money, and I remember having to save up to buy something. Once, I was saving to buy new shoes for the fall season, and after 2-3 months, I bought a pair. Shortly after, I was visiting home and I showed my new shoes proudly to my mum.

She looked at me in shock: “You bought fake leather shoes? Why? Next time ask and I’ll find some money to send to you. Just don’t buy cheap stuff, please!”

Me explaining that I no longer wanted to support animal cruelty, and I saw no reasons to wear animal skins, didn’t help much. However, years after this, it finally struck me: growing up, faux leather was considered cheap, something that wouldn’t hold up, and would make you sweat a lot. Basically, a waste of money. And we had a lot of names for it, all of which indicated something “less good” than animal leather.

 

leather shoes

 

Nowadays, this is known as vegan leather. It also seems to be everywhere, from fast to high fashion. While it is cheaper than animal leather, it’s no longerreserved only for cheap clothes.

And I get it: animal cruelty is out, and we don’t need their skins to protect or keep us warm anymore. I mean, you don’t need to live a vegan lifestyle to avoid unnecessary products (and suffering). But is the so-called vegan leather more sustainable?

Ugh, well, there’s no simple answer to that.

What is vegan leather?

First, let me say that vegan leather is mainly a marketing term. I’ll explain shortly.

It’s a synthetic material that imitates leather, and it goes by many names: artificial leather, pleather, fake or faux leather, and so on. It’s not that new either, people have been trying to make a leather replacement for centuries. Not necessarily because of the concern for animals but because it’s cheaper. Whatever you think of animal leather, the truth is: it’s expensive. Yet, it was only in the 20th century that synthetic leather as we know it started taking over the market. After many tries and innovation, people were finally able to produce a material that feels and acts like leather. It’s water-resistant, flexible, soft, and easy to clean. And with the arrival of fast fashion, it became a popular choice for our shoes, jackets, belts, handbags, and more.

However, in most cases, synthetic leather today is, put simply, plastic. 

synthetic leather

Generally speaking, there are two types of faux leather: polyurethane (PU), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC, sometimes known also as “Vinyl”). PU is made by coating a fabric with Polyurethane (plastic). Depending on the use and expected results, the fabric can be organic (like cotton), or plastic. This material looks very similar to animal leather and is often used in shoes and furniture. And, PVC or “vinyl” isn’t much different but means more layers. Again, the fabric is covered by plastic-based layers. This usually makes it tougher but more durable. 

You can probably start to see issues here. Indeed, what we’re sold as vegan leather is essentially plastic. Not only that this comes from non-renewable resources (fossil fuels), but it is also really bad for the environment. Such materials shred microplastics every time we wear them, and once we discard them, they will sit in the landfills for centuries. And, the way it’s largely made today, includes the use of toxic chemicals, like phthalates (a group of chemicals that make plastic flexible and durable). And some faux leather (especially the PVC type) can release dioxins, which is bad news for human health.

It doesn’t sound fun at all, does it?

And yet, this is all masked when we call it a “vegan leather”. I mean, a denim jacket is technically also vegan ( it contains no animal products) but we don’t see brands calling that “vegan”. This is what I mean by saying that vegan leather is a marketing term: it certainly sounds nicer than plastic leather. With the rise of environmentalism, we associate “vegan” as eco-friendly. Though, in the case of faux leather, there’s nothing eco-friendly about it.

Does this mean that the real or genuine leather is a better choice after all?

Not necessarily.

 I mean, a denim jacket is technically also vegan ( it contains no animal products) but we don’t see brands calling that “vegan”. This is what I mean by saying that vegan leather is a marketing term: it certainly sounds nicer than plastic leather.

 

Why is animal leather an issue?

My mother definitely knew something: the real leather usually lasts longer than the synthetic alternative. And if you ever wore both, you’ll know that the one coming from animals is also more breathable and if of a good quality, becomes softer with time.

Yet, leather is a product or, sometimes, a sub-product of the animal industry. Animal industry is one of the most harmful industries in the world: it’s responsible for much of the GHG emissions, water pollution, soil degradation, biodiversity loss, etc. It would require a whole separate article to list everything our excess meat production has brought to us. Let’s just say that, because of an evident connection with climate change, scientists today urge people to adopt a more plant-based diet and lower their meat consumption. The thing is, the way we raise, keep, and slaughter animals is far from sustainable and calls for a big reform. 

And while leather can come from different animals, including exotic and endangered species (which is an ethical problem on its own), much of the leather comes from common farm animals, like cows, pigs, sheep, or goats. Often, the leather is a by-product of the meat industry, meaning that animal is primarily killed for the meat and the skin is a waste. It doesn’t sound bad at first. The skin would be there anyway, we might as well use it. Except that, considering how expensive a good quality leather is, things often get murky. The leather market is worth over $400 billion and animals are killed and tortured for their skin. 

tannery

Apart from the ethical issues with animal leather, the way we manufacture can be dangerous too. To preserve leather, we need to use chemicals, in a process called tanning. Because of the fast market today, the majority of manufacturers use cheap chemicals like chrome, formaldehyde, and different dyes. These are a  potential threat to the health of the leather industry workers, as well as those who wear the products. While leather is biodegradable (as any organic material), these chemicals can make it problematic, because they can leak into the environment. 

As you can see, both faux and genuine leather is highly unsustainable, for the most part.

But wait, isn’t there an alternative?

In a way, yes. 

What about plant-based leather?

In recent years, because of the increased awareness around the high environmental cost of leather, a lot of energy is put into making a more sustainable alternative. Thus, plant-based leather.

pinatex

If you have been into sustainable fashion for any amount of time, chances are that you’ve heard of plant-based leather before. Some of the most popular ones include Piñatex (made from pineapple leaves), apple (skin) leather, and MuSkin (from mushrooms). There are also versions from cactus, corn, and other plants. These materials are still in the development phase and are pricey, especially compared to plastic leather. However, many brands are embracing them.

And for many good reasons: they come from renewable resources, are of organic origin, they don’t harm animals, and they keep a lot of leather properties. 

It may seem like we found our solution to the leather dilemma until we take a closer look. As I said, these materials are still developing and in most cases: we need to use them with some form of plastic, to preserve them.  Additionally, they don’t often have the longevity of good quality leather. That is to say, it’s not perfect, though it’s a significant improvement. And, as interest in these products rises, there will be more and more innovation. 

Thus, we might be able to make a long lasting, plastic-free alternative to actual leather. But we aren’t there quite yet.

Ok, so what now?

The world of leather is complicated, and there’s no proper answer to which is more sustainable. Animal leather could last you a lifetime if made well, but faux leather avoids direct animal cruelty. Still, both come with a heavy eco-footprint. And the plant-based leather seems like a good idea but there’s more work to be done there.

So, what’s the answer to all of this?

Well, the first step is to consume less. Whichever leather you decide to go for, make sure you choose a good quality and treat it well. Both animal and plastic leather are such an issue for the environment mainly because we overconsume them. Just like with anything else, the key is to change the way we shop and consume before anything else. 

Another possibility is to shop second-hand. After all, what’s there is already there. This way you won’t increase the demand for more new products. I personally choose to do this. I opt for second-hand, quality leather products. In my experience, these truly last and I consider them an investment. At the same time, I’m not contributing to the highly problematic animal industry.

The third option is to go for leather upcycled from offcuts or waste from the fashion or automotive industry, or recycled plastic products. Again, these usually mean using what’s already here but, at the same time, you get a new product. However, if you’re interested in this, I invite you to always check where it’s coming from, so you can determine if it’s truly recycled material.

watch straps

For example, if you’re looking for a watch strap, you can check out the 2°EAST collection of straps made from recycled bottles.  

And in case you’re comfortable buying animal leather, go for the one that comes from trusted and transparent resources, is full grain, and has been vegetable tanned. 

Full grain leather is the highest quality grade of leather. It comes from the top layer of the hide with the entire grain intact. It is more expensive for manufacturers to buy and more difficult to work with but is extremely strong and durable.  As it ages, rather than wearing out, full grain leather softens and develops a patina.  This is the kid of leather that will last generations.

Though it’s not perfect, vegetable tanning is an old, slower but more sustainable form of preserving leather.  Vegetable tanned hides are soaked for up to 6 weeks in vegetable tannins and other biodegradable components.  Rich in character and more durable than any chemically tanned leather goods, vegetable tanned leather is by far the most environmentally friendly leather option. For your watch, you can check out the 2°EAST leather strap.  

Whichever way you go, try always going for quality over quantity.

 

What is your stand on vegan leather? Let us know!

 

 

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Thinking ThreadsTena Lavrenčić - Thinking Threads.
Tena is a cultural anthropologist, a researcher, and an active advocate for sustainable and ethical fashion. 
You can find her on instagram at @thinking.threads







 

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