12/12/18 Is ‘vegan leather’ more sustainable than animal leather?

Increasingly, more and more of us are trying our best to lighten our social and environmental footprint, but we’re often faced with the dilemma of knowing which is the lesser of two evils. Case in point, ‘vegan leather’ vs. animal leather.

There is a huge amount of contradictory discourse on whether vegan leather is or isn’t more eco-friendly than animal leather, so it can be tricky to figure out which is the worst offender. Of course, every manufactured product inevitably has an environmental cost, and there’s a myriad of aspects to every stage of both leather and faux leather production that can cause serious harm to both people and the environment. Of course, it’s all subjective and the better choice will depend on your values. Still, let’s explore the pros and cons of both materials.

What exactly is vegan leather?

Simply put, vegan leather is a leather alternative that does not involve animal products. Instead, in most cases it’s a synthetic fabric that is structured and printed to perform a lot like leather. This type of fabric is not new, even if the ‘vegan leather’ label is, although the technology has advanced considerably over the past few decades. Most faux leathers consist of a knitted polyester base with a PVC or polyurethane coating. And since they are essentially plastic-based and usually manufactured from fossil fuels, they come with many of the same environmental problems of other synthetics.

But there’s a demand for fake leather, and not only for people who want to avoid animal products. While there has been an increasing focus towards animal rights led by several organisations, this is coupled with a rising stringency in laws governing real leather which is propelling demand for synthetic leather. Some faux leather manufacturers are also refining their polyurethane products to reduce the amount of petroleum needed to produce them.

For example, designer Stella McCartney claims her “vegetarian leather” is made with a recycled polyester backing, solvent-free polyurethanes and a coating made from at least 50% vegetable oil.

To compare the environmental credentials of traditional leather versus ‘vegan leather’, it helps to understand a little about how animal leathers are made. In comparison to plastic-based leather alternatives, those within the animal leather industry point out that it’s basically a by-product industry and if it no longer existed, one could argue that we would have a massive amount of hides dumped, creating an enormous waste problem.

Chrome-tanned leather has been criticised for polluting waterways, but the industry has developed techniques for reducing and reusing waste. Chrome from the tanning process can be filtered out and reused, with the water recycled and purified for irrigation, according to the CSIRO. However, the problems Western countries faced in the last century are now being felt in developing nations. The environmental impact is still dramatic as they don’t have the financial resources to introduce the kind of technology needed to clean up the industry.

In comparison, vegan leather requires no grain to be watered and harvested for feed; nor animals to be reared and then slaughtered. It’s not a major contributor to water pollution, requiring only the land of the factory used to produce it.



Image courtesy: Stella McCartney has designed the first ever vegan Adidas Stan Smiths


Is vegetable tanning a natural alternative?

A much smaller industry than chrome tanning, vegetable tanning involves using the tannins that naturally occur in certain plants to transform a hide into leather. Vegetable-tanned leather is thicker and not as pliable as its chrome-tanned cousin, suiting it to heavy-duty applications like shoe soles and belts. But this method comes with its own downsides, according to RMIT textile technologist Mac Fergusson.

“Vegetable tanning materials, you’ve got to put a lot on. You’re putting on 20, 25 per cent of solid matter onto the leather,” said Mr Ferguson, who has spent 20 years working in leather and faux leather manufacture.



Image courtesy: Pinterest


Commonly used tannins come from trees such as oak or, closer to home, wattle, meaning these trees have to be cut down to harvest the chemicals. And it’s a thirsty process, requiring more water than chrome tanning. In fact, a 2016 study into chrome versus vegetable-tanned leather found no significant differences in the environmental footprint of each, but plenty of variation between individual tanneries.

In addition, it’s a good use of a waste product, but there’s a big difference between buying an Italian aniline leather shoulder bag and walking into a fast fashion store and buying what is being sold as a ‘leather’ bag.” Top-grain leather is often labelled as such, and carries a price tag to go with its premium status. Whereas the bottom layer of leather is sometimes called “corrected grain”, and you’ll often find leather-adhesive composites alongside “genuine leather” tags.


The ‘alternative’ alternatives

While the majority of faux leathers still rely on fossil fuels, recent innovations mean they’re no longer the only option for people who want to eschew animal products entirely. New leather-like materials are being made from products that would otherwise have gone to waste, such as cork, pineapple leaves by Pinatex and mushroom mycelium (the fungus equivalent of a root system).

Putting waste products to use diverts them from landfill, which makes environmental sense. That being said, these plant-based leather alternatives still require something to stick the cellulose fibres that make them up together, and that could often be plastic-based adhesives, so they’re not necessarily doing away with fossil fuels entirely.



Image courtesy: Goods made from leather-alternative Pinatex. Product prototypes: shoe by Camper (gold details), shoe by Puma, brown clutch bag by Ally Capellino, ywo iPhone covers by Carmen Hijosa, Backpack+ iPad cover by Smithmattias. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian


So, where does that leave us? You go from one industry which is traditionally based on skins that come from the meat industry to another industry that’s heavily dependent on petrochemicals. There’s no right or wrong. It comes down to you as an individual and what you prefer. It may be the case that you will feel more comfortable investing in a pair of leather shoes which you will keep and re-wear for years, re-heeling and making a conscious effort to care for. Alternatively, for those who want to avoid animal products, there is a growing list of ‘vegan leather’ options that are considered cruelty-free.