Nothing quite beats the timeless and effortlessly stylish look of leather. Word on the street is that those looking to achieve the eye catching, goes-with-everything look of leather minus the negative environmental impact should elect for vegan leather alternatives. The truth is there’s much more to this real leather vs faux leather quandary.
We’re all familiar with the cow hide-y origins of real leather. But what exactly is vegan leather? It is commonly made from two different plastic polymers; polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) – they are most commonly used because of their crumpled texture which helps to give the effect of real leather, according to PETA. This kind of vegan leather is created using fossil fuels, can be detrimental to human health and is not biodegradable. A further consideration is the fact that synthetic fibers from clothing are a major contributor to microplastic ocean pollution.
Vegan leather can also be made from non-synthetic materials such as pineapple leaves, cork, apple peels, and recycled plastic. Although these innovations may still use some petroleum-based products to hold the fibers together, it’s significantly less than that used in PVC leather.
Manufacturers of real leather clothing note that, being byproduct of the meat industry, putting to use animal hides that would otherwise be discarded reduces waste. It must be noted, however, that the meat industry is responsible for a 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and two thirds of that percentage is attributed to cattle. So while leather is indeed a byproduct, it’s a byproduct of a largely unsustainable industry.
Leather also needs to be treated so it doesn’t rot. This is mostly achieved via the chrome tanning process which entails soaking the hide in a highly toxic chromium salt bath. This use of heavy metals presents the risk of polluting waterways, as well as the risk of chemical absorption to workers and wearers of the leather. This method is more time and cost effective, but tanning can also be achieved by utilizing the Italian artisan method of vegetable tanning. Leather products treated with natural vegetable tannins are biodegradable and can be easily discarded at the end of their natural life.
As with most things, a nuanced approach is called for here- things rarely come down to a rule as simple as animal products are bad and non-animal products are good. So how do we go about making these sort of decisions? I find it helpful to remind myself what my core values are- which aspects of sustainability, ethics and environment are on my heart? The truth of the matter is everyone can’t be passionate about and take action on every issue, so make a short list of the ones that naturally speak to you and use your consumer power accordingly. It’s also important to beware of greenwashing- brands that employ the power of certain buzzy words to seem more environmentally conscious than they are. There’s no substitute for doing your own research on the product and its processes.
In my own case, my heart sings for reducing the amount of plastic in the environment and offering a biodegradable alternative. To that end, I’ve made the decision to include some genuine leather in my store, vegetable treated so it breaks down. I hope this blog has been helpful in assisting you make the leather choice that sits best with you.