Vegan Versus Real Leather: What's The Better Option?

Luxury brands have been incorporating vegan leather in their products—but what does that do for the planet, and is real leather actually bad? 

More consumers are developing a keener awareness of their impact on the planet, increasing the demand for sustainable practices. In response, brands are turning to production processes and materials that leave a smaller carbon footprint; the use of vegan leather or other substitutes is among these significant changes.

READ ALSO: Natural Versus Synthetic: Unveiling The Scented Debate

Photo by Marcell Viragh via Unsplash
Photo by Marcell Viragh via Unsplash

Many brands today freely use the term “vegan leather” to refer to any imitation leather that isn’t made from animal skins. However, as you may have noticed, that’s a very broad category. What exactly comprises vegan leather, and is it as environmentally-friendly as it’s touted to be?

The argument of vegan leather being a better alternative to real leather is a longstanding one in the fashion industry and wider community. There’s no definitive answer to it, as each side comes with its own nuances. In other words, nothing is black and white; vegan leather isn’t purely “good” and real leather isn’t entirely “bad,” as it all depends on their origins and production processes. 

The Drawbacks of Real Leather

In order to understand the appeal of vegan leather, one must familiarize themselves with the negative aspects of genuine leather production that discourage certain consumers from purchasing and using the material.

The tradition of using animal skins can be traced back to thousands of years and a multitude of cultures. There are as many types of leather as there are colors; but to simplify, the Cambridge Dictionary defines the material as “animal skin treated in order to preserve it, and used to make shoes, bags, clothes, equipment.” Leather can be made of stingray, crocodile, lamb, snake, ostrich, and even kangaroo skin; but the most common type is leather produced from cows. 

Leather tanning in the 1800s
Leather tanning in the 1800s/Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The defining characteristic of leather already carries the implication that an animal must die. In the case of cows, it can be argued that the material is simply a byproduct—scraps of hide that would’ve otherwise been thrown away once meat was acquired. Nevertheless, to those who don’t want to kill and consume animals in any way, this is a big deal-breaker. 

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez via Unsplash
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez via Unsplash

Real leather production can also leave a large carbon footprint due to its resource-intensive process. This is most apparent with cattle: raising them in large numbers requires plenty of land for grazing. Cows also produce copious amounts of methane that contribute to greenhouse gasses. 

Leather tanneries resort to using harmful substances such as azo-dyes, nickel, and chrome VI to speed up the tanning process. This can endanger the health of workers and pollute nearby water supplies. 

A tannery in Marrakesh, Morroco
A tannery in Marrakesh, Morroco/Photo by Donar Reiskoffer via Wikimedia Commons

The Appeal of the Unreal

Believe it or not, faux leather has been around since the 19th century. When countries rationed real leather in World War I, Germany invented an alternative called “presstoff.” It used layered pieces of treated paper pulp to form an imitation material. Amazingly, it worked for many objects except shoes (since it wasn’t very durable).

A belt made from "presstoff"
A belt made from “presstoff”/Photo from the Leather Repair Company website

Then, leather made from synthetic materials like plastics—namely polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU)—came into the picture somewhere in the 1960s

PU leather
PU leather/Photo from the Garrett Leather website

In 2016, people began lumping these materials under the term “vegan leather,” according to Google Trends data. Despite the name change, the term applies to the same loose categories: leather derived from synthetic materials (PVC and PU), and leather sourced from more natural materials (like plants or plant-based fibers). 

This seems to be the perfect answer to those who don’t want to kill animals and cause environmental damage. However, things aren’t so clean-cut and simple.

At the end of the day, PVC and PU are types of plastic. Producing them requires harmful chemicals and anything composed of these materials is non-biodegradable; so, that vegan leather made from PVC and PU isn’t as sustainable as certain brands want you to think. 

However, society certainly shouldn’t give up the faux alternative, as it still has great potential. Vegan leather composed of natural materials may be a good starting point. An article by Harper’s Bazaar reveals that the impact of vegan leather production can be a third lower than that of real leather, as per a 2018 sustainability report from The Environmental Profit & Loss. 

Vegan Leather Can Be Better

Some of the world’s most prestigious luxury brands are proving that vegan leather can, indeed, be a fantastic and more sustainable alternative to the real deal. Hermès, for example, collaborated with the California-based MycoWorks to create leather from mushrooms. Turns out that the filaments found in fungi can actually emulate the strength and durability of cow skin. Hence, the French luxury brand decided to try it out on an eco-friendly version of its Victoria travel bag. 

The eco-friendly Victoria travel bag from Hermès
The eco-friendly Victoria travel bag from Hermès/Photo from the MycoWorks website

Meanwhile, Tommy Hilfiger produced sneakers made from leather-like recycled apple peel fibers. HUGO BOSS also launched a line of shoes composed of Piñatex ®—a type of vegan leather made from, you guessed it, pineapple leaf fibers. 

HUGO BOSS' Piñatex® sneakers
HUGO BOSS’ Piñatex® sneakers/Photo from the HUGO BOSS website

Fish Fashion

Pescetarians might find fish-skin leather to be a good alternative, too. Acquiring the skin also takes up less resources and barely produces as much greenhouse gasses as raising cattle. 

Luxury brands like Christian Dior, Prada, Louis Vuitton, and Salvatore Ferregamo have already been using this material for their products. Atlantic Leather—an Iceland-based company that creates fish leather—has been supplying the skin to these high-end brands for their collections and fashion shows. 

A spread of beautiful fish leather
A spread of beautiful fish leather/Photo from the Atlantic Leather Facebook

Atlantic Leather spent years perfecting its fish leather-making technique to completely remove any unpleasant smells. The material is even stronger than cow leather due to its cross fibers (as the former’s fibers only go in one direction). 

Making Space For More Sustainable, Genuine Leather

This isn’t to say that real leather should be boycotted or that you can’t enjoy it. In fact, halting leather production may contribute to more cow skin being thrown away, especially in countries that still consume a lot of beef. According to The New York Times, at least 5 million hides went to landfills in the United States back in 2020. 

One should also consider the longevity of real cow leather. If properly cared for, the material can last for decades. Compare this with PVC or PU leather, which easily flakes, peels, falls apart, and is certainly more likely to end up in a landfill. 

Photo by Konstantin Evdokimov via Unsplash
Photo by Konstantin Evdokimov via Unsplash

So what will society do with all this leather? Experts suggest that the best step forward is to change the traditional tanning process. Purchasing products from tanneries with a clear supply chain and better resource consumption is a good way to start. You can also search for vegetable-tanned leather products made with natural tannins, as they’re biodegradable, safe, and less hazardous to create. 

Photo by Álvaro Serrano via Unsplash
Photo by Álvaro Serrano via Unsplash

At the end of the day, the sustainability of your leather will depend on its composition and production process. It’s always best not to take the word “vegan” at face value. The first step to responsible consumption is to research on what brands are really making a difference through their processes. Hopefully this guide has helped shed some light on the matter, so you can make decisions that truly count—both to you and the planet.

Banner photo by Konstantin Evdokimov via Unsplash.

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