Is Vegan Leather A More Sustainable Option? The Answer Is Complicated

Looking Into The Sustainability Of
Vegan Leather Vs. Animal Leather

Leather has a controversial history in the apparel industry and brings up a lot of questions concerning sustainability. Should we do away with it altogether or find a compromise somewhere in the middle? When we examine just the environmental impact and ask if leather or vegan leather is better, it’s complicated.

There are several factors to consider when evaluating both options: animal welfare, waste, greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, and more to provide a fair analysis of leather and its alternatives. Below, I’ll tackle some of these questions to provide clarity into both industries. 


Animal Leather

While global meat consumption will likely decrease, it’s hard to imagine a near future where the meat industry no longer exists entirely. If there is a meat industry, an argument can be made that it’s wasteful not to have a leather industry as leather is a by-product of it. Otherwise, animal hide would likely wind up in landfills. 

The meat industry in its current state is far from sustainable or ethical as a whole. It’s one of the largest pollution sources of greenhouse gases and animals are often confined to terrible conditions. Globally, the meat-industry accounts for 14.5% to 18% of all human-created greenhouse gases emitted each year, which should be considered when debating leather’s sustainability. While there are ranchers doing their best to farm ethically and sustainably, this will have to increase a lot to mitigate the environmental footprint of animal agriculture.

Leather can be considered a slow-fashion material because of its ability to withstand wear and tear and last in your closet for longer than less quality materials

In order to create leather, it has to be tanned so the hide doesn’t rot. The most common method is chrome tanning and requires the hide be placed in a chromium salt bath—which is highly toxic. When the remaining toxic water is disposed of, it can wreak havoc on aquatic ecosystems and even negatively impact human health. A better nontoxic option is vegetable tanning, an ancient practice that uses naturally-derived plant chemicals to purify the hide; however, this is less common. 

Some of the benefits of leather are that it’s durable, long-lasting, and biodegradable, while common vegan alternatives (detailed below) usually are not. Leather can be considered a slow-fashion material because of its ability to withstand wear and tear and last in your closet for longer than less quality materials. Its biodegradability will allow it to break down sooner once discarded, without releasing many harmful chemicals into the soil. 


Takeaways
| When it comes to animal leather, vegetable-tanned options created as a byproduct of meat production has the least impact—especially when sourced from sustainable ranches. Buying this particular type of leather reduces the amount of waste from the meat industry, and using vegetable tanning reduces the toxic chemicals released into the environment. 


Vegan Leather

With animal welfare and the environment up for question with traditional leather, vegan leather is on the rise. In fact, the vegan leather industry is predicted to be worth $85 billion by 2025. Animal rights organizations, like PETA, have taken the stance that no animal byproducts should be used in manufacturing clothing and accessories. You can avoid these animal welfare concerns entirely by opting against real leather, just like people opt against fur. However, there are some major environmental concerns to consider with these alternatives.

Synthetic fibers from clothing are the biggest source of microplastic pollution in the ocean.

Unfortunately, the most common leather alternative is a petroleum-based plastic that come with the same environmental problems as other synthetic materials. This material is called polyvinyl chloride, (PVC), which is made with fossil fuels—and it’s not biodegradable. Synthetic fibers from clothing are the biggest source of microplastic pollution in the ocean and more than 70 million barrels of oil are used to make polyester every year. 

When you consider the negative environmental impact of extracting fossil fuels, using chemicals, non-natural dyes, and excessive amounts of water to create a non-biodegradable plastic leather the environmental friendliness of the majority of faux leather is concerning. 

Non Petroleum-Based Vegan Leather

Scientists are using innovative solutions to create plastic-free vegan options from mushrooms, kombucha-cultures, and even pineapples.

So, how can you avoid animal byproducts and plastic-leather alternatives? Thankfully, scientists are using innovative solutions to create plastic-free vegan options from mushrooms, kombucha-cultures, and even pineapples. You can read about a few of these vegan options here.

These plastic-free vegan alternatives may still use some petroleum-based products to hold the fibers together, but it’s significantly less than that used in PVC leather. One of the most popular innovations is Piñatex, a pineapple leather currently used in brands such as Hugo Boss, Po-Zu, Votch, and Nae


Takeaways
| The most common leather alternatives on the market currently are made from plastics and require fossil fuel extraction, water waste, and sometimes toxic dyes; however, animals aren’t used or directly harmed in the process. If you’re opting for vegan leather, try plant-based fibers when you can to reduce your environmental impact.


All in all, when it comes to sustainability things are never perfectly black and white. Even the most environmentally-conscious manufacturing processes will still have an environmental impact. Think about your personal values and what matters the most to you when considering what you buy.

If animal-derived products or animal agriculture are a hard no for you, vegan leather might be an option for you even if it’s a plastic alternative. If you’re passionate about reducing plastics and fossil fuel use, real leather or plant-based leathers might be for you. Either way, the ultimate goal is to buy fewer new items.

Just know whatever informed decision you make is entirely up to you, and being conscious of the environment when you buy is a step in the right direction!


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Leah Thomas is a contributing writer at The Good Trade with a passion for wellness, inclusion and the environment. She works on the communications team at Patagonia and is a sustainable living blogger at Green Girl Leah. You can connect with her on Instagram @GreenGirlLeah