here's what you need to know about vegan leather vs. real leather

Alternative materials aren't always more sustainable.

by Laura Pitcher
24 October 2019, 8:53pm

As the Amazon rainforest burns and leather is named as a key culprit (with a 2016 report linking 80 percent of deforestation in the country to cattle grazing), it’s no wonder that many of us are swapping our cowhide bags for vegan leather. In fact, the synthetic leather market (currently valued at $25 billion) is projected to reach $45 billion by 2025. But with the term “vegan leather” often meaning plastic, are these alternatives actually going to help save us from the impending doom that is our climate crisis?

The real verses faux debate encompasses many environmental variables, including comparing the carbon emission from cattle farming with the fact that plastic alternatives are often made from fossil fuels. When factoring in the notoriously toxic effects of leather tanning and the end-of-life issue of plastic products breaking down and producing harmful microplastics that pollute our ocean, it’s clear there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

Since the animal agriculture industry makes up around 18 percent of the world’s global carbon emissions, the case for leather often heavily relies on leather as a byproduct of the meat industry. Already, with high demand for beef and low demand for the hides, there are a large amount of cowhides making their way to landfills, creating even more carbon emissions. For this reason, 32-year-old sustainable fashion expert Alden Wicker wears leather instead of the vegan alternatives.

“The most sustainable thing you can do as a fashion consumer is buy less and buy better,” she explains. “I’ve given vegan alternatives a fair shake, but I find they flake, crack, and fall apart within a year of moderate use. My leather items last forever and are so much more comfortable.” Alden’s main concern with vegan leather alternatives are the synthetic materials that they often contain, like PU (polyurethane) or PVC (polyvinyl chloride).

The argument for wearing leather to prevent waste from high meat demand, however, does not stand true for calfskin and lambskin, with skin much more valuable than their meat. The meat is currently the byproduct for calves, not the skin, and veal consumption is dropping. Because of this, many brands actually own farms to ensure they have access to this type of luxury leather.

While exotic leathers such as crocodile have long been slammed by the likes of PETA for animal cruelty, a group of conservationists recently wrote an op-ed for Business of Fashion advocating for the careful use of reptiles for skins to continue to provide income for indigenous communities and to conserve certain environments. Alden explains that she also aligns herself “with traditional and indigenous artisanship, which relies on leather”. “I have no interest in telling artisan groups that they need to switch from local leathers to purchasing synthetics,” she says.

For Belgian designer Mats Rombaut, founder of Parisian-based sustainable footwear label Rombaut, using leather in his shoe designs was no longer an option after becoming aware of the impact of animal agriculture on the environment and on the animals themselves. As one of the first designers in the alternative market, he’s spent the last six years doing “a lot of trial and error” to find the most sustainable alternatives.

Because Mats is vegan, he faces the moral dilemma that many interested in the issue also face and has to factor in animal cruelty when evaluating what is truly sustainable. He’s often surprised that there isn’t more of a sense of urgency to solve the carbon and pollution issues from the animal agriculture industry and wants to provide sustainable alternatives to those looking to steer clear of leather. “I think it’s important to choose companies that have been doing research for a long time and had the genuine intention to make a change, not because it suddenly became cool and a great PR strategy,” he explains. “It’s like going to McDonalds for a salad. I prefer not to do that if I have other options.”

Mats has recently started using Piñatex, sustainable textile made from pineapple leaf fibers (with a PU-derived coating on it for durability). He has also looked into other natural alternatives such as “mushroom leather” but says that most are under development and are not market-ready yet. “There are different qualities in both synthetic and natural materials, and especially for footwear you need very resistant, long-lasting fabrics,” he explains. “This durability is also a necessity for sustainability.” Options such as lab-grown leather are also in the works but it’s clear there’s a long way to go before natural alternatives become more affordable and, eventually, the norm.

With the meat industry surpassing the oil industry as “the world’s biggest polluter,” it’s clear that an environmental ideal scenario would be for everyone to cut down or completely back on both meat and leather. But a boycott seems unlikely, even considering that there was a 600 percent increase in people identifying as “vegan” from 2014 to 2017. With this in mind, those comfortable with wearing leather can argue for the sustainability of wearing cowhide for as long as it is a byproduct of the meat industry. Calfskin and lambskin, however, do not fit into this argument and should be avoided at all cost.

But there’s also a strong case for those wanting to boycott the entire industry altogether and turn to only vegan alternatives. For those uncomfortable with wearing leather, more natural alternatives such as Piñatex seem to be the most sustainable alternative until there are some significant advances making lab-grown leather affordable. I myself have long fit into this category but, after learning about the importance of exotic skins for income in indigenous communities, would feel more inclined to make the exception only when it supports those specific communities.

Then there’s vintage leather. “Upcycled, recycled and vintage leather is the way to go,” says Alden. With a recent report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation projecting that the fashion industry will use more than a quarter of the world’s annual carbon budget by 2050, it’s hard to justify purchasing new products (leather or otherwise). Investing in used items will always the most impactful way to lower your environmental footprint while still enabling you to wear that leather purse without the eco-guilt.