For most of us, it won’t take long to think of leather goods we use and rely on daily; boots, sandals, belts, watch bands, bags, or even your desk chair. But, concerningly the processes of transforming raw materials into animal and vegan leathers have significant implications for both people and the global environment.

What Is Vegan Leather? And Is ‘Vegan’ Leather A Sustainable Material?

While vegan leather does not directly exploit animals, its creation is often far from sustainable.

‘Vegan Leather’, sometimes referred to as ‘faux leather’, ‘leatherette’ or ‘pleather’, has popped up in footwear and accessory ranges for a while now, posing as a low-cost, ethical substitute to traditional animal-leather. Many brands do an excellent job of ‘greenwashing’ by marketing through many names, but never call it what it is—fossil fuel-based plastic. Like all plastics, the production and disposal of plastic leather is environmentally damaging and can be harmful to human health.

Plastic leather is non-biodegradable, contributes to micro-plastic pollution, and often ends up in landfill. Plastic leather is less durable than animal leather. It cannot stretch or ‘give’ like animal leather does, nor can it brave UV exposure or other harsh weather to the same degree. With proper care animal leather can last around 10-50 years, while plastic leather will rarely last longer than one to five years.

What’s Wrong With Animal Leather?

Animal Leather’s Impact On The Environment

Cattle farming (and that of other livestock used for leather) can be hugely damaging to the environment, creating a mammoth carbon footprint through land clearing, feeding and methane emissions. Bio diverse land, crucial for maintaining healthy ecosystems and mitigating climate change, is being cleared by the hectare to make space for cattle farming. It’s the single largest driver of rainforest deforestation globally.

Animal Leather Uses Harmful Chemicals

Ninety per cent of ‘tanning’ uses toxic chemicals including chromium, formaldehyde, arsenic, and acetone, which significantly heighten risk of illnesses, particularly cancer, amongst tannery workers. Furthermore, toxic wastewater is found to contaminate waterways, flowing beyond the tannery locale. Cow leather also uses 14 times more water to produce than plastic leather. The amount of water required to make one pair of cow leather shoes would allow a human to drink for almost 10 and a half years.4

A better, nontoxic alternative does exist. Tanning can be done with natural, plant derived chemicals. However, this is more expensive, time consuming and requires more specialised skills- making it a less attractive option for manufacturers concerned by their bottom line.

Labour Exploitation In Animal Leather Companies

In addition to the environmental impacts, there are also implications for the people in the leather supply chain. High risks of labour exploitation exist in the production of raw materials, including animal agriculture. Often, these processes are outsourced to external producers in countries with weak labour laws. In 2021, forced labour was found in cattle ranches in Bolivia, Brazil, Niger, Paraguay, and South Sudan.

Animal Leather And The Meat Industry

To complicate things further, there’s discussion around whether animal leather is simply a by-product of the meat industry, or if this is a guise to excuse the use of leather (and rearing of animals). Assuming that animal hides are otherwise discarded, the carbon emissions and land usage of leather itself are negligible.

A better way to examine this relationship is to see leather as a co-product of the meat industry. Both leather and meat are multi-billion-dollar industries. Certainly, if leather demand was to drop, this wouldn’t impact the production of livestock alone, which would continue for the purpose of meat consumption. So, it’s important to understand this complex interrelationship when examining the impacts of animal leather. Because the reality remains, while society maintains high levels of meat consumption, there will be high volumes of animal hides available which may otherwise be discarded.

A Better Vegan Alternative In Plant-Leather?

Fortunately, emerging technologies are enabling the production of new leather from natural derivatives—not plastic! Some use mushrooms (MusKin) or pineapples (Pinatex). While plant-leather is currently more expensive and less widely accessible than plastic-leather, growing consumer interest could change that!

By using vegetable tanned leather many plant leathers are biodegradable and can be more easily disposed of at the end of their life. But look out for coating resins used in some plant leathers (such as Pinatex), that end up rendering it non-biodegradable.

So, Where Does This Leave Shoppers?

Ultimately, the choice between animal, plastic, or plant leather is personal. For some it may be non-negotiable to avoid fashion that uses animal product. Others may feel strongly about minimising the use of toxic chemicals or investing in fashion items that will last decades.

Whatever your priorities, here are some of the best ways to minimise your environmental and social impact.

  1. Look into how products you already own can be best cared for to keep them looking and feeling great, reducing the need for new.
  2. When looking for leather products, see if you can source second hand items and give them another life.
  3. If buying new, consider the brand you’re giving your money to and if you want to support their production practices. Our 2022 Ethical Fashion Report makes this easy, assessing nearly 600 fashion brands on both social and environmental practices.