Are vegan leathers sustainable and environmentally friendly?
As a vegan, when it comes to wearing leather your choices are – wear synthetic or don’t wear it at all. My question is – is vegan leather an ethical sustainable option? The answer is complicated but I’m going to lay out what I’ve found so you can then make your own choices moving forward.
Vegan or faux leather can be produced from all sorts of materials such as cork, bark cloth, waxed cotton, paper, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) polyurethane, recycled rubber, coolstone ‘leather’, apple leather ( happy-genie.com), muskin – mushroom leather, the list goes on.
Faux leather is usually made from a fabric base which is then chemically treated with wax, dye and polyurethane for the colour and texture. The other mainstream option is PVC. PVC has been the main go to leather substitute for years. Most commonly used in the construction industry for all sorts of things from window frames to piping.
Andrew Dent, Vice president of Library and Research Material at Material Connexion, a material consultancy firm from NYC, says “there have been concerns over the last decade about PVC because of its production challenges and because they release dioxins, potentially harmful and hazardous chemicals if burnt.”
Dioxins are harmful to humans and can cause cancer, reproductive and immune system problems. They are bioaccumulative so come into contact with us in our food, the fats in meats as well as fish too. The harmful substances are known as phthalates. Polyvinyl chloride –polyvinyl – PVC is the worlds third most commonly manufactured synthetic plastic polymer after polyethylene and prolypropylene.
Roughly 40 million tonnes a year are produced.
But are faux leathers a better alternative to real leather?
Vegans have to weigh up their ethical concerns. Their main reason for becoming vegan was because they favour animal life above all else. And so leather is definitely out for them.
Even if it is a sustainable bi product that is also bio-degradable?
The majority of leather used in the world is a bi-product from our meat and diary industries. No cows die just for their leather. And if the hydes weren’t used it would be a highly wasteful industry bi-product. The thing is, if animal welfare is not at the top of your list for becoming a vegan then, you as a vegan have a lot of other factors to weigh up.
When you take a look at the tanning procedures used in mass leather production, which generally have not been environmentally friendly in the past. The chemicals used in mainstream tanning include formaldehyde and coal-tar derivatives for coatings and finishes that have a cyanide base.
All seems very extreme when there are some sustainable and ethical leather tanning choices out there.
With sustainability becoming ever more necessary in our lives. The leather industry has to have other alternatives.
One of those is vegetable tanned leather. It is the most environmentally friendly real leather that is available on the market today. Instead of chemicals it’s treated with natural and organic tannins, which have been extracted from trees and vegetable matter. These are then infused into the grain of the hyde. Chestnut tannin is used widely, creating rich deep earthy tones of tan and brown.
Vegetable tanning is a process that dates back centuries and is by far the most authentic way of dyeing and curing leather.
In the tanning processes traditional methods are still used to this day. This form of Artisan leather production is extremely energy efficient. A much slower form of production – vegetable tanning uses the elements instead. The business takes place in wooden barrels. Hydes are hung up and left to dry naturally without forcing the job with machinery, they just get left to cure in the air. No synthetic substances are involved in treating this leather and due to the processes undertaken, its beauty develops in the patina over time. Its exposure to the atmosphere is all part of the leathers journey and makes it completely unique to its owner.
In and amongst these processes there are waste products created, but in Italy specifically where leather tanning is world renowned, the waste material is recovered. Fibres that are removed are recycled up into farm fertilisers and waste from the depuration process is recycled into the construction industry and made into bricks.
I think after looking at both options overall vegetable tanned leather gets the environmentally friendly edge due to its sustainability and ability to biodegrade.
The PVCs and polyurethane leathers aren’t going to last nearly as long from a durability view point as leather. Real leather actually looks better with age and wear. PVC and faux leathers begin to look tired and broken and don’t look attractive as they age. Leather can be recycled even upcycled and given new purpose.
An innovative example of this can be seen in the designs of Caroline Strecker @ragofcults where she repurposes vintage equestrian leather and saddlery into beautifully crafted shoulder bags and accessories.
Looking for sustainable options is a discussion that can and will go on til the end of time.
Yes, leather is mainly created from the meat and diary industry, which in itself has its own major sustainability issues. Of which we should be cutting down our own meat consumption in order for there to be room for all of us on this planet to survive. But, will that happen? I’m not so sure….
Some people will never even consider cutting down their meat consumption, even with all the sustainability and ethical arguments and reasons out there. However, making the best out of an unsustainable situation –
Can / should we use the leather bi products in ethical ways?
The goal of all sustainability is to create a closed-loop-type-system. And with leather, depending on how it is cured and finished, mother nature has more or less done that for us.
The fake leathers out there will not break down and biodegrade into the soil, and it would be a struggle to repurpose it once it has deteriorated. Plus the options for re-manufacturing it into something else, such as vinyl awnings, would involve a molecular breakdown and remake.
So really after looking at both options in a broad manner I think the main thing to draw is that we all need to to start knowing and understanding our product life cycles. Then we can make informed choices about what we are buying. We live in a crazy age of mad consumerism. A cycle that seems to be spinning ever faster. If we all can think and consider how our products across our daily lives are made. Hopefully we can start making better choices in our purchases.
Buy less choose well, make it last a lifetime.
This blog post began because I was looking for vegan handle options to use on my tote bags. I currently use vegetable tanned leather for its beauty and durability. But I felt I wanted to look at more options. I was horrified how un-environmentally friendly some of the faux leathers were and so I thought I’d do a bit of digging. The best option I think I can offer as an alternative to leather will be for me to create the handles from the denim and canvas I already use for the designs. Maybe not as strong as leather but an alternative. I will keep exploring more materials available.
There are some incredibly new vegetable fibres out there that are getting developed right now, check out this list of the top 15 most eco friendly leathers, even apple leather! https://eluxemagazine.com/fashion/5-truly-eco-friendly-vegan-leathers/
I hope this post has given you something to consider next time your buying any leather or faux leather products.