Being fashionable is still important to a lot of conscientious people, which is why a lot of effort is currently going into creating eco-friendly, ethical, and cruelty-free fashion options, particularly sustainable vegan leather alternatives. We will discuss the alternatives that already exist, the new ones you may not have heard of yet, and how there may still be possible to feel comfortable not giving up real leather completely.
Obviously, vegans are always looking for ways to avoid contributing to the demand for products that come from animal suffering. When considering what to wear, leather, fur and wool are at the top of the list of no-nos’. But it doesn’t have to mean that we all end up wearing only organic hemp sacks (although I’m sure at least one model has walked a runway wearing one).
Can we replace genuine leather?
Finding a substitute for leather is a tall order! Leather has been around for centuries because its versatility has provided unrivaled usefulness. It has been used for armor, boots, satchels, tents, writing surfaces, book covers, saddlery, and jewelry. In more modern times it is desirable as furniture upholstery, cool jackets, a popular option in cars (“ Nice car! Does it have leather seats??”), women’s handbags, briefcases, and various accessories. Leather became fashionable and synonymous with quality and money. People appreciate the distinctive texture of a leather finish and its durability. But at what cost?
The environmental cost of leather
On top of all the obvious environmental problems related to the process of raising cattle on a large scale, it is also a fact that the tanning and manufacturing of leather has its own ecological impact. The tanneries introduce many toxic chemicals into our environment. On top of that, working in tanneries is very dangerous for the workers, especially those in poorer countries where safety laws are lacking or not well enforced. In the United States, the number of tanneries has significantly decreased in the last 40 years due to the decreased demand for leather, increased leather imports, and environmental regulation.
Is real leather biodegradable?
It depends on how it has been treated so, as usual, you will have to research your sources. Since it is a natural raw material, leather manufacturers often market their products as “natural”, “biodegradable” and “eco-friendly”; another example of greenwashing. But the fundamental purpose of tanning is to stop the leather from degrading by stabilizing the collagen and protein fibers. It makes sense when you think about it because, presumably, the concept of tanning leather came about a long time ago when people discovered that they didn’t really want to wear bits of rotting animal skin.
It is estimated that tanned and treated leather in a landfill may take anywhere from 25 to 50 years to decompose into the soil. It is especially difficult for leather that has been made using mainstream tanning techniques to biodegrade because it will still contain so many toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde and coal-tar derivatives for coatings and finishes.
Vegetable-tanned natural leather
Before the industrial revolution introduced high throughput, chemically-laden tanning methods, people were tanning leather using natural extracts from various types of tree bark. It is still done but, of course, this leather is much more time-consuming and expensive to produce now and is therefore not a popular option for large, modern producers looking to maximize their output and profits. However, if you search, you can find products labeled "vegetable-tanned leather", "natural leather" or "bio leather". At the end of their life, these will still take a very long time to biodegrade but they will do it without leaching toxic chemicals into the environment. In that respect, vegetable-tanned leather is the much better option.
It is also important to note that, overall, very little environmental benefit is seen by using vegetable tanning (as it is done today) rather than chrome tanning. In fact, the longer process required to achieve vegetable tanning may actually do more harm in terms of potential water contamination.
Is leather just a useful byproduct of the meat industry?
The earliest civilizations used leather because it was there as a result of hunting animals for food and it made absolutely no sense to waste it. These days some people would argue that leather is still just a by-product of the meat industry (“waste not, want not”), but it isn’t really a valid ethical excuse anymore.
Bovine leather comes not just from animals used for their meat in slaughterhouses, but also from cows at dairy farms whose milk production has dwindled. Calves are even removed prematurely from their mother’s womb as they are slaughtered because their skin will produce the softest, most luxurious leather. The same thing is also happening to lambs.
What is “Exotic” leather?
There was a demand for leather made from animals that are killed solely for their skin because their particular type of leather has a unique aesthetic that is deemed more desirable and can be sold at a higher price. Think alligator and snake leather, even ostrich (yes, that’s a thing).
As Iong as animals are still being killed for leather, we should consider all real leather an animal product in its own right, not merely a by-product. When you buy a new leather product directly from a producer, you are financially supporting the slaughter of animals. Leather sales strongly influence the economics of slaughterhouses and dairy farms. Farmers and ranchers do not intend to sell every animal part to reduce wastage, but instead to maximize revenue and profits (remember the fur industry?)
Why ‘pleather’ wasn’t so great after all.
Unfortunately, the quest for sustainable vegan leather alternatives for fashion has, so far, been fairly unfulfilling. Most leather substitutes that did not directly require any animals to die are often petroleum-based and, as such, come laden with a slew of their own ecological guilt.
The first widely used material that called itself vegan leather was PVC (polyvinyl chloride), a plastic that was briefly considered revolutionary in the fashion industry and lovingly called ‘pleather’. Here is a peer-reviewed scientific journal article explaining how PVC is carcinogenic (cancer-causing). It earned itself another name: ‘the poison plastic’. Evidently, this is not an ideal choice of material to surround ourselves with on a daily basis, but nobody was aware of this in the 60s! And, now that we know the environmental price we pay for plastic, using it to replace leather just feels like trading one evil for another.
Other synthetic leather
Commonly, you can also find faux leather products made from something called PU (polyurethane), also known as leatherette, and a variety of trademarked names. This is an artificial leather made of thermoplastic polymer. Still petroleum-based, but 100% PU leather does not leach gases and chemicals in the same way as PVC. Another feature that makes it better than PVC is that PU has enhanced durability and stands up very well to prolonged sunlight, unlike genuine leather. This has made it a popular choice for luxury car companies as an alternative to real leather seats.
There are some types of PU leather called bi-cast leather which is not vegan. This type of PU leather takes the fibrous parts of cowhide that are leftover from making genuine leather and adds a layer of polyurethane on top of it. This means it is easier and cheaper to produce, the resulting material is easy to clean and maintain, and it can be made in a variety of colors and styles. However, it doesn't last very long and this is probably the version of artificial leather you have seen before and thought that it looks “cheap”. That’s because it does, and it is.
You may also find this type of non-vegan leather labeled as any of the following things:
- Split Leather
- Bonded Leather
- Reconstituted Leather
- Corrected Grain Leather
How long does synthetic leather last?
Ironically, it may not last as long as you want it to when your shoes are made from it. But when you throw them away because they don’t look so good anymore or are damaged, it will last a lifetime at the landfill. Your faux leather bag, bought from one of the popular fast-fashion brands, will last maybe one-third to one-half the lifespan of one made from genuine leather, after which point you might find yourself back in the store buying a new bag and again contributing to the overall carbon emissions caused by the demand for such products. Meanwhile, your discarded accessories are now slowly turning themselves into microplastics somewhere, or being incinerated and releasing toxic chemicals.
Even knowing this, it’s still very easy to simply avoid anything made from animals and choose the humane alternative. But for anyone who actively tries to do all they can to reduce their overall impact on the earth, you see the predicament. Things are not so simple for eco-conscious vegan fashionistas, but the future does look more promising.
New sustainable vegan leather alternatives on the horizon
Maybe now we have reached a turning point. With this realization that the current synthetic leathers may ultimately be more hazardous to the environment than genuine leather, not only are we in need of a sustainable vegan leather substitute that does not come from animals, but today’s fashion-aware consumers want something much more eco-friendly! As fashion designers see this need, surely we will start to see a change happening.
Already, the focus has enthusiastically turned to plant-based materials and other clean leather alternatives. There are already many on the market and probably more on the way. Check out how fantastically long this list is:
Cactus Leather (Desserto)
Desserto is a highly sustainable textile made from a type of cactus you have probably heard of: the prickly pear. We already know that cacti are extremely low maintenance as far as water needs and there are also no herbicides or pesticides needed to grow them, which makes this an extremely earth-friendly material to produce.
Pineapple leather (Pinatex)
Piñatex is a pineapple leaf material reminiscent of leather. Featured in Vogue, this product is taking the eco-fashion world by storm. The eco-friendly material is not only sustainable but also supports local farming communities by generating additional income from the pineapple leaves which would have otherwise become discarded waste!
Because cork harvesting actually aids the cork oak tree that it comes from to enter a regeneration process, cork is considered one of the most sustainable forestry practices. Cork leather is one of the most natural and durable vegan leathers on the market and the cork forests where it is grown greatly benefit the Mediterranean communities surrounding them.
Paper leather (Texon Vogue)
Made from 100% natural fibers that are completely biodegradable and yet sufficiently durable to replace real leather in a lot of applications. The material can be washed and used over and over again. The material is also available to purchase online so that people can use it to make whatever they want.
Mushroom leather- Mylo, Reishi
Stella McCartney has led the way to develop this fascinating new material. It is made from mycelium, which is not the mushrooms themselves but the fine, fibrous roots that mushrooms grow from. The process is highly efficient and scalable to allow for larger production and by all accounts, the material itself is very reminiscent of animal leather in both feel and durability. The fun thing about this is that it can be grown to form specific shapes, thereby eliminating any waste from cutting out shapes from larger pieces of material.
Originating on a much smaller scale in response to India’s flower waste problem occurring at temples and mosques, this pioneering effort combines dried flowers with natural fungi to produce a leather-like material. This ‘flower-cycling’ has also created a new compostable styrofoam alternative.
Made from an all-natural mixture of resin, rubber-based materials, minerals, cork, and coconut coir fiber, Mirum is a composite that is a convincing leather replacement. The company says that at the end of its use, the material can be put back into the Mirum production cycle, making it an environmentally circular product, meaning that all of the natural raw materials used to make it can be broken down and used again to make more of the same material.
Using apple peel fibers leftover from the apple juicing industry and combining it with PU, this company is able to produce a material that they think has the same luxury feel as real leather.
Biofabricated leather (Zoa)
In the same way that we can have ‘clean meat’ that was grown in a lab, why not have lab grown leather? After all, both are made from animal cells which we are able to culture. Animal cells are made of a protein called collagen which it seems is key to the desirable characteristics of leather. Biofabricated leather is what happens when you genetically engineer yeast to grow collagen in a lab setting. Interestingly, the initial result is in liquid form which allows for dyes to be added to it and bonded directly with the proteins, thereby eliminating the risk of chemical runoff.
Second-hand leather as an eco-friendly choice?
Of course, it’s still ok to swear-off leather completely, but hear me out…
Picture yourself in your favorite thrift store (not goodwill, that’s worth another post entirely..) You come across the most fantastic pair of shoes. They’re exactly the style that you have always wanted to own but never managed to splurge for them. You check the label and it says ‘genuine leather’.
Your heart sinks as you realize you probably shouldn’t take them because, being vegan, you might feel like a hypocrite. Or worse, other people might think that you are a hypocrite. Maybe you’ll inadvertently become a walking advertisement for leather and you’ll inspire people who see you to immediately go out and buy a pair of brand new leather shoes because yours look so good on you.
Those are all legitimate concerns, but before you descend into a full-blown existential crisis right in the middle of the thrift shop, think about a few things. Why are the leather shoes there? Most likely it’s because someone who no longer needed them, but knew they still had lots of life left, donated them in the spirit of upcycling; They were hoping that someone else might get some use and enjoyment from them. It’s pretty great that they didn’t just throw them away to end up in a garbage heap that pollutes the water and soil.
Yes, they’re made of leather but by buying them are you giving money to any company who had purposely killed an animal in order to use its skin to make shoes? Nope. The money will be going to a small thrift store business in your local community. Will it hurt animals if you wear them? Nope. Maybe being a vegan is sometimes just about making the most sustainable consumer choices, and leather could fall into that category when it’s secondhand.
The future of vegan leather fashion
In the long-run, the growth and success of these new sustainable vegan leather alternatives will ultimately be determined by the consumer’s preferences and the companies’ ability to scale up their production and dominate the fashion industry by making their product as accessible as possible. It seems that the environmental and sustainability issues that are involved with their production are considerably less than what has been available so far, so it is an exciting step forward for sustainability in the fashion industry!
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