It seems obvious that real leather made from cows is bad for the environment, but what about the synthetic alternative? Fear not leather lovers, we’ve got you covered.
If you’re looking to reduce your impact on the planet, or your animal product intake, then clothing could be a good place to start.
We all know by now that the fashion industry is a rather large drain on resources as well as a huge contributor towards both climate change and pollution, but the path towards a sustainable wardrobe is far from easy.
However, if you are looking to create a more climate-friendly wardrobe, leather just might be the first material to get the (sustainably made) boot.
So, why is it still everywhere and so socially acceptable to wear? From your first school shoes to your favourite handbag, “real leather” is still advertised as a product’s virtue when in reality you’re strapping a dead animal to your feet and calling it fashion.
What seems even stranger is that the fashion industry almost entirely turned their back on fur years ago, so why is it okay to kill some animals for the perfect look while other furrier friends are off limits?
The answer for many seems to be that there isn’t a widely available sustainable alternative to leather products, but is that strictly true and is leather actually any better than its plastic imposters? As always, the answer isn’t so clear cut.
Again, we’re all aware that cattle farming isn’t great for the planet with their land and water use and production of methane — a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than CO2 over 20 years. It’s also worth mentioning that leather is NOT a byproduct of the food industry, so you’re not helping clear away cow skin that would otherwise go to waste.
So, what about the most popular leather alternative on the market, made from polyurethane (or PU leather) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC)? Is it any better for the planet?
Being plastic, these materials are derived from fossil fuels — a big no-no for the health of the planet and definitely not an industry you want to be endorsing with your spending power.
However, according to the Higg Materials Sustainability Index (Higg MSI), a tool designed to test the sustainability of different materials, faux leather still produces 15.9kg of CO2e per square metre, compared to real leather’s 17kg.
The real issue with faux leather, though, definitively lies in its disposal. Being made of plastic, it would take hundreds of years to break down and releasing yet more plastic into our planet’s ecosystems is something we should be avoiding. Recycling this kind of material isn’t much better either thanks to the chemicals it takes to break it down.
Unfortunately, real leather doesn’t exactly trump faux leather when it comes to disposal either. You might have thought that your leather jacket would eventually decompose, and while it mostly will in about 50 years under the right conditions, it’s not an entirely eco-friendly process either.
To turn a cow hide into wearable leather, it has to be treated with chemicals that make it durable and also alter the makeup of the leather fibres. These products can include 250 different chemicals, such as poisonous chromium, arsenic and cyanide — you really don’t want to be releasing those into the waterways and wildlife.
The change to the leather fibres also makes it much more difficult for enzymes to break down the material and when it does finally break down, the chemicals just mentioned are free to head out into the world.
As you can see, neither product is without its flaws.
Is there a more sustainable alternative?
Just like the food industry, the fashion industry is now looking towards plant-based alternatives. These come in the form of pineapple, mushroom and even cactus to name just a few.
We’re starting to see these materials pop up among premium labels — like Hermes who have released a mushroom leather handbag — but we’re sure to see them appear in highstreet brands too as the products become more widely available.
Piñatex, made from pineapple leaves, is currently one of the firm favourites. The pineapple leaves are usually a waste product from the food industry, so you actually are preventing waste with this product, unlike real leather.
There are still drawbacks, however, as the products are currently coated in a petroleum-based substance to ensure durability, which is of course, not biodegradable. They are actively looking into alternatives that are safe for natural disposal, though.
Some other alternative plant-based leathers to look out for include Frutmat, made from apple skins, and Muskins made from Phellinus ellipsoideus mushroom, a fungus that attacks trees in subtropical regions, so harvesting prevents deforestation and makes cool shoes.
These products are pretty new to the market and seem to answer the need for something that requires less water, land and releases less CO2 but also is biodegradable when the product comes to the end of its life. It’s hard to say at this point whether the products will take off, but they offer the potential to wipe both animal- and plastic-derived leather from the market if they can work on a large scale.
It’s surely a win for fashion and the planet.
As always, there is a small caveat — it’s worth mentioning that if you opt for these products, many still contain small amounts of plastic for durability and waterproofing, so check the label if you’re looking to avoid this.
Even so, is vegan leather really better for the planet? Well yes, if it’s made from plants and not plastics, just like vegan food.
One final piece of advice
Like with any new product, the most plant-friendly path is not to buy it — the most sustainable product is the one that was never made in the first place. We know it’s not always possible to avoid buying new, but perhaps this article will make you think twice about new leather, whether it’s plastic, plant-based, or the real deal.