vegan leather purse and wallet
Vegan leather purse and wallet /
Kari Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons

What are the differences among real leather, faux leather, and vegan leather? Real leather raises controversy on more than one level. What advantages do leather alternatives have? Especially for the environment? 

Genuine leather raises ethical issues for some people. First, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals persuaded numerous luxury brands to remove fur from their offerings. That was before I ever heard the word “vegan,” but militant vegans continue the crusade and take aim at meat and leather. 

I don’t know where these people find their definition of “ethical.” But the question of real leather vs various artificial leathers? That poses environmental questions that deserve a careful look. 

As with plastic shopping bags vs cotton, the questions are surprisingly complicated. Production of materials raises one set of environmental issues. Eventual disposal raises different ones. It’s not only a question of real leather vs faux leather (plastic leather). New plant-based leather substitutes, known as vegan leather, appear to pose fewer risks, but they’re too new to have made much of a dent in the marketplace yet.

Environmental issues around real leather

genuine leather jacket

Jason Lam via Flickr

To make leather, first slaughter an animal and skin it. For some people, that makes it completely unacceptable. But every part of the animal gets used for something. Nothing gets wasted. 

Environmental issues have more to do with the life of the animal than with its death. It requires considerable farmland to grow their food. Factory farming uses lots of petrochemicals for fertilizers and pesticides. Much of our farmland was once forests. Although most of those were cleared long before modern industrial agriculture came along, critics have raised deforestation as another issue.  

The animals themselves defecate. Too often, the manure simply gets pushed into lagoons, where it stinks for miles around. They also breathe and fart. In the process, they release a lot of methane into the air—a potent greenhouse gas.

It appears that adoption of regenerative farming can go a long way toward solving these problems. 

Turning animal skin into leather requires tanning. Most commonly, the tannery soaks the skins in  a bath of chromium salts, which are highly toxic. Most developed countries have strict environmental standards for the process. Improperly managed tanneries contribute to water pollution and put their employees at risk of serious diseases. 

Chrome tanning has only been around since the middle of the 19th century. It’s faster and cheaper than the vegetable tanning processes used for centuries before its invention. Vegetable tanning raises fewer environmental issues, but it doesn’t produce leather as soft or as consistent in color as chrome tanning. 

Genuine leather is sturdier than the various artificial leathers. Therefore, it lasts much longer. Still, it wears out eventually. It’s biodegradable, sort of. With chrome-tanning, some chrome remains in the leather. There’s not enough left to make it hazardous to the end-user, but it complicates disposal. 

Environmental issues around faux leather

faux leather jacket
Faux leather jacket / Wikipedia Commons

I’m not saying “vegan” leather here, because some vegans make a distinction between older artificial leathers and some newer ones. The very first faux leather originated n 1920 at the U.S. Rubber plant in Naugatuck, Connecticut. It was a vinyl-coated fabric with the brand name Naugahyde. Others have followed, made either from polyvinyl chloride or polyurethane.

Plastics are made from oil. I will not take the space to describe the environmental impact of exploration for oil fields, extracting it from the ground, or transporting crude oil. Oil is not sustainable.

You may have polyvinyl chloride plumbing pipes in your house. Polyurethane can be just as rigid. So to become leather-like substances, it’s necessary to soften these plastics—using various toxic substances. Nonetheless, vegans will say with enthusiasm that making these faux leathers is environmentally friendlier than making genuine leather. 

The problems come at the other end. These plastic substitutes are not as sturdy as real leather. They are much less expensive, which can make owners value them less. In other words, people are less likely to take good care of something that doesn’t seem valuable. And since it doesn’t last as long under the best of circumstances, faux leather products get discarded and replaced sooner than comparable leather products.

A leather jacket or handbag might last a lifetime. It might even become an heirloom. How many faux leather pieces would someone buy, wear out, throw out, and replace while the leather piece still retains its value?

And since they’re made of plastic, faux leathers raise some of the same environmental issues as plastic bags or water bottles. They won’t end up as litter along the side of the road or make their way out to sea, but they’ll never biodegrade or cease to be plastic, either.  

Newer vegan leathers

vegan leather from cactus

Desserto brand vegan leather from cactus fiber / Screen shot from YouTube

Not all vegans regard faux leather as vegan leather. In recent years, some manufacturers have introduced lab-grown leather alternatives made from plants. These include recycled coffee beans and plants, banana leaves, apple pulp waste, grape wastes from wine making, pineapple wastes, cactus, etc.

By any definition, these are all vegan leather. They have the great advantage of turning these residues from a waste disposal problem to raw materials for useful products.

That’s not all. It is possible to make vegan leather from mycelium,  the root-like structures of mushrooms and other fungi. I have even read of leather substitutes made from rocks.

These technologies are so new that it remains to be seen if any manufacturer can scale them up for large-scale production. It also remains to be seen how sturdy they will be, how long they will last in the environment, and whether enough consumers will find them attractive. It will be difficult to get any of them to compete with plastic leathers.

Most of these vegan leathers still require combining plant fibers with polyurethane. None are yet completely biodegradable. Product developers are looking for ways to replace the plastic. 

Don’t hold your breath looking for anything to be perfect. There will inevitably be some environmental impact of making, using, and disposing of vegan leather products.

On the other hand, they already rescue agricultural wastes from landfills and bodies of water. They don’t require the harsh chemicals needed either to tan real leather or make and soften plastics for faux leather.  They deserve to succeed. 

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Sources:

Faux leather vs vegan leather / Sara Philips, Leafy Souls
Is vegan leather a more sustainable option? The answer is complicated / Leah Thomas, The Good Trade
The leather debate: is vegan leather a sustainable alternative to the real thing? / Ellie Pithers, Vogue. April 24, 2019
These companies are making vegan leather out of plants instead of plastic / Sophie Hirsh, GreenMatters. March 6, 2020