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Animal-Based vs. Petroleum-Based: The Leather Dilemma

The market for vegan leather seems to be, well, booming. As a dietary vegan, I’m pretty pleased about this. But as a plastic-avoider, I’m torn (most vegan leathers are made from plastic). Given a choice between real and vegan leather, which is more ethical, and which is more sustainable?

I’d be skeptical of anyone who claimed to have one right answer to this question simply because there are so many angles to consider -- how raw materials are sourced, what chemicals are used, what measures are taken to prevent pollution, working conditions in factories, wages for workers, longevity of the final product, and disposal are just a few of the many factors at play. And most of these will vary from factory to factory, and from company to company. At the very least, we can educate ourselves and make a decision about whether either, neither, or both real and vegan leathers align with our values.

Why is this relevant to an aspiring zero waster? Because the environmental damages (including waste) resulting from animal agriculture are not to be ignored. And because avoiding plastics (especially virgin plastics) in your everyday life shouldn't stop at your closet. Refusing leather, real or faux, may seem like the obvious solution, but let's not skip ahead. We're all about highlighting the facts and letting you decide for yourself.

At the risk of having to forsake my favorite shoe brand, it’s time to get educated…

The Scoop on Leather

Leather making involves three stages: (1) prepping, (2) tanning, and (3) crusting.

  1. The prepping stage includes a series of processes to clean and rehydrate the leather, along with a chemical treatment to prepare it for tanning.
  2. The tanning stage involves treating the leather with a chemical for the purpose of stabilizing it, so that it is both flexible and resilient to becoming putrid. That chemical is usually chromium, a naturally occurring element (oh hey, periodic table). Other methods of tanning include vegetable tanning and brain tanning (using animal brains). The hides are soaked in this “tanning liquor” until penetrated.
  3. The final stage is crusting. During crusting the hide will be thinned (a machine is used to shave fibers off the leather), re-tanned, and lubricated. This is also the stage when leather will be dyed.

Many companies claim that their leather is a by-product of the meat industry, meaning that the hides come from cows that were raised and slaughtered for meat. In this instance, it’s possible that a lack of demand for leather products would lead to unused cow hides being thrown out or burned. Not all leather is sourced as a by-product, and if your leather is sourced from a cow that was raised and slaughtered for that purpose, it’s certainly a pretty climate-damaging good.

Watch this video to learn more about how leather is made.

Environmental Impact of Leather

Leather’s greatest environmental offense is pollution. In each of steps 1 through 3, sludge waste and toxic gas are produced. We mentioned that chromium is the most commonly used tanning technique -- waste containing chromium is considered hazardous by the EPA.

Of course, if your leather is not a by-product, the environmental impacts of animal agriculture should also be considered, including deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and water pollution.

Ethical Implications of Leather

There are parts of the world that are notorious for harmful leather sourcing and processing practices. Bangladesh has famously housed toxic tanneries, where workers and communities are exposed to significant health risks resulting from the chemicals used in tanning. Chinese leather has been known to contain dog and cat skins. The source of your leather can be an indicator of potential ethical violations, but it doesn’t necessarily tell the whole or true story.

Toxic tanneries have been in the news in recent years. Many of the tanneries around the world employ vulnerable workers who are forced into toxic working conditions. Workers in toxic tanneries face risks of skin and respiratory diseases, chemical burns, and cancer.

If your leather is not a by-product, you should also be prepared to answer the question of whether the death of an animal is justified for the sake of your leather good.

Longevity and Disposal of Real Leather

Did you know that there are different grades of real leather and that genuine leather is actually the lowest quality? The highest quality option is called full-grain, and if properly cared for, it will last a lifetime.

Real leather takes about 25 to 40 years to biodegrade.9

The Scoop on Vegan Leather

With a few exceptions, vegan leather is generally made with plastic. Even some of our favorite eco-friendly vegan leather brands like Matt and Nat use polyurethane (PU) and polyvinylchloride (PVC) to make their goods. There are some brands using waste products and natural materials like cork and pineapple leaves for faux leathers, but these still require a bonding material to stick fibers together, and that’s usually plastic-based. That means that all of the negative environmental implications of our non-renewable petroleum-based products apply to your faux leather jacket as well.

Two common methods for manufacturing artificial leather include: (1) applying a polyurethane coating to a polyester base layer (usually PET), and (2) applying a PVC coating to a fabric base layer.

Watch this video to learn more about how artificial leather is made.

Environmental Impact of Vegan Leather

The main environmental concern around vegan leather is the use of non-renewable, petroleum-based plastics. PVC is a special concern, as its production requires and produces toxins like phtalates, dioxins, and Vinyl Chloride -- a chemical classified by the EPA as a Group A human carcinogen.

Ethical Implications of Vegan Leather

All of the potentially negative ethical implications of fashion -- pollution, poor labor standards, waste -- will also apply for vegan leather, depending on the country of origin, factory, and company. However, vegan leather hasn't been scrutinized for environmental and health risks to the same degree as real leather.

Longevity and Disposal of Vegan Leather

Artificial leather has a lifespan of about 1/3rd that of real leather.10 

While we haven't found an exact number for vegan leather, other petroleum-based products take anywhere from 30 to 1,000+ years to break down.9 However, plastic is not biodegradable, and even after it breaks down, it will release microplastics into the environment.

The Takeaway

If you're opting to skip real and faux leather altogether, great job! If you're comfortable continuing to buy either, or both, you can take steps to make sure you are buying the most sustainable versions. We always recommend checking out the second-hand market first. And before you buy a product new, try reaching out to the vendor to ask the following questions (feel free to copy-paste these in your next inquiry to a real or vegan leather goods company!):

Questions to Ask Before You Buy Real Leather

  1. From where is your leather sourced?
  2. Is your leather a by-product of the meat industry?
  3. How do you ensure that there are no non-cow animal (i.e., cat, dog, ...) hides in your leather?
  4. What type of tanning process do you use (i.e., vegetable, chrome, brain, …)?
  5. How are workers protected from exposure to chemicals used in tanning?
  6. Are workers paid fair wages?
  7. What are you doing to prevent pollution and how do you monitor the effectiveness of your efforts?
  8. What is the proper care procedure for this product, and if cared for properly, how long will it last?
  9. How do you recommend disposing of this product at the end of its useful life?

Questions to Ask Before You Buy Vegan Leather

  1. From where are your products sourced?
  2. What materials are used to make your vegan leathers?
  3. Do you use recycled materials or virgin raw materials only?
  4. Are workers paid fair wages?
  5. What are you doing to prevent pollution and how do you monitor the effectiveness of your efforts?
  6. What is the proper care procedure for this product, and if cared for properly, how long will it last?
  7. How do you recommend disposing of this product at the end of its useful life?

If you know of any sustainable real or vegan leather brands, share them! And if you've asked a company any of the above questions, share their answers! Let's all help each other make sustainable purchases!

 

References: 1| Leather Production Process - Wikipedia, 2| Chromium - Wikipedia, 3| Is Leather Truly a Byproduct of the Meat Industry? – Ecocult, 4| Toxic Tanneries – Human Rights Watch, 5|Environmental Hazards of Leather - PETA, 6| Is ‘Vegan Leather’ a Sustainable Alternative to Animal Leather? – ABC News, 7| Vinyl Chloride - EPA, 8| Artificial Leather - Wikipedia, 9| Here's the Truth About Genuine Leather - Business Insider, 9| Measuring Biodegradability - Science Learning Hub, 10| How to Tell the Difference Between Faux Leather and Real Leather - Ebay

 

 

 

 

 

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