Since the rise of ethical fashion, eco-warriors and animal activists alike have decried the use of animal leather. The main issues are how the raw material is acquired and the environmental impact of the production process. The response by many fashion brands was to make items using vegan leather.
When evaluating animal and vegan leather options by looking at factors like manufacturing, waste, greenhouse gas emissions, and water usage, what leather should you purchase? The answer is not as straightforward as you may think.
What is vegan leather?
The term “vegan leather” is considered an oxymoron because, technically, it’s not leather. Vegan leather is a material with a leather-like look and feel that does not use animal products in its manufacturing process. The phrase is commonly used to collectively refer to traditional leather alternatives. It’s interchangeable with faux leather, artificial leather, imitation leather, and synthetic leather.
Vegan leather can be created from a variety of plant-based materials, including:
Pineapple leaves: Piñatex, a leather substitute that originated in the Philippines, is made mainly from pineapple leaves and other waste parts of the plant. Though the plant fibers are 100% environment-friendly, the resins used to coat them are not.
Cork oak: The bark of a cork oak tree, used to make coasters and wine stoppers, can also make cork leather.
Grapes: Vegea, an Italian tech startup, has pioneered the production of wine leather, or grape leather, from the waste that accumulates during the production of wine.
Mushrooms: Known as MuSkin, this leather alternative is made from the peel or external layer of giant parasitic mushrooms found in subtropical forests.
Teak leaves: The fallen leaves of teak trees are combined with cotton fabric to make the leather alternative and then sealed with non-toxic BOPP film, a type of thermoplastic polymer.
Difference between vegan leather and real leather
The fundamental difference between vegan leather and real leather is the use of animal hides. However, there are other differences to consider:
Durability: Good quality animal leather can last for many years when properly cared for. On the other hand, vegan leather is often thinner than its traditional counterpart and more lightweight. As a result, it is less durable and needs replacing more often.
Quality: As real leather ages, it develops a patina that adds some character to the item. Vegan leather doesn’t age well and tends to crack and peel over time, making the product look unattractive with continued use.
Versatility: Vegan leather is available in a broader range of finishes, colors, and patterns than natural leather. Also, if a brand needs uniformity in the appearance of its products, this is better achieved with vegan leather than its traditional counterpart.
Upkeep: To maintain real leather goods, they need regular conditioning and polishing. On the other hand, most vegan leather products are kept clean by wiping with a damp cloth or using a mild detergent.
Real leather vs. vegan leather: environmental impact and sustainability
Though more environmentally aware and eco-friendly practices are being implemented in the animal leather industry, there is still plenty of concern over animal welfare and the environmental impact.
Plant-based vegan leather options may be truly sustainable, but most are still under development and not yet ready to go to market. As a result, several fashion brands opt for PVC or PU leather, two affordable and readily available leather alternatives made by combining plastic with fabric. However, using these synthetic materials has raised questions about the impact of vegan leather on the environment.
PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, is a plastic compound made from a mix of chloride and carbons, which come from fossil fuels. PVC undergoes various chemical processes to soften and make it flexible enough before applying it to a base material like cotton, rayon, polyester, or nylon. Phthalates, one of the plasticizers used to soften the plastic, is highly toxic.
The manufacture of PVC releases toxic chemicals like dioxins, which build up in the air, water, as well as the food chain. This affects not only the environment but also the health of humans and animals alike.
In addition, there is no safe way to dispose of this plastic compound. When burnt, PVC releases air pollutants such as carbon, nitrogen, and ash and contributes to acid rain. PVC takes hundreds of years to fully decompose in landfills and produces microplastics as it breaks down. This harms both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.
Polyurethane or PU leather is a synthetic leather alternative made by combining polyurethane, a thermoplastic polymer, with a base like polyester. While polyurethane doesn’t have the same toxic issues as PVC, it is still produced from fossil fuels, which means greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are released during its manufacturing process.
Real leather has an undeniable environmental impact, hence the growth of the vegan leather industry. However, there’s still a ways to go before plant-based, sustainable leather alternatives become the norm and more cost-effective. PVC or PU leather, the cheaper leather substitutes, may be cruelty-free, but there are still associated environmental concerns.
One impactful way to collectively lower our environmental footprint would be if more people invested in used, upcycled, and recycled animal leather items rather than buying new ones. In the end, the most sustainable leather purchase is the one you’re most comfortable with, aligns with your values, and one you will use and take care of until that’s no longer possible.