Have you ever heard people talking about how “vegan leather is made out of plastic, and is therefore unsustainable?” Just because vegan leather is made out of plastic (which is not always the case), doesn’t mean that comparatively, it is less sustainable than real leather.
In the US, 159 million animals are slaughtered every year to make leather. Some argue that leather garment production helps minimize waste because the animal hides used would otherwise end up in landfills —or at least this is what we’re told. Even if leather garment production does minimize waste in some capacity, the animal agriculture/meat industry is the farthest thing from being sustainable, and is by no means ethical. It’s actually one of the largest producers of greenhouse gases worldwide, as it accounts for roughly 14.5 percent of all human-created greenhouse gases emitted each year—and more than two-thirds come from cattle.
Playing off leather production as a by-product of the meat industry is concerning because it may simply be an excuse for a thriving, destructive industry. The global leather goods market is projected to top $128 billion by next year, and while the hides may come from animals already being killed for meat consumption, waste reduction is far from the goal. In this way, leather is actually a co-product of an already unsustainable industry.
In addition to the environmental impact from animal agriculture itself, turning animal hide into leather also requires an intensive and harmful tanning process. Chrome tanning is most common, requiring the hide to be bathed in a highly toxic chromium salt bath. These toxic chemicals runoff into the water system, harming aquatic and other ecosystems, and can negatively impact human health as well. Even though genuine leather is very durable, long-lasting, and biodegradable (although, tanning methods make biodegradation more difficult), it’s life-cycle impact is still far from being categorized as sustainable.
In terms of vegan leather, it is becoming more popular with concerns for animal welfare and environmental impacts on the rise. The vegan leather industry is predicted to be worth $89 billion by 2025. Just like with real leather, there are environmental some concerns to consider with vegan these alternatives.
The most common vegan leathers, are made of most common leather alternative is petroleum-based plastic, called polyvinyl chloride (PVC). This production process can also be really harmful to human health and this type of vegan leather is not biodegradable at all. Synthetic fibers from clothing are the biggest source of microplastic pollution in the ocean, and petroleum-based vegan leathers can definitely contribute to this.
When you consider the negative environmental impact of extracting fossil fuels and using chemicals, non-natural dyes, and excessive amounts of water needed to create a non-biodegradable plastic leather, the environmental impact of vegan leather may appear to be not much less than real leather. However, seeing as how the vegan leather industry is still rapidly evolving, new plant-based vegan leathers are becoming increasingly popular, as they reduce the environmental impacts of vegan leather substantially.
New plant-based vegan leathers can be made from a variety of materials from pineapple leaves, mushrooms, fruit waste, vegetable oil, and natural rubber. While these plant-based leathers sometimes use petroleum-based products to hold the fibers together, it’s significantly less than what is used in PVC vegan leather. Overall, plant-based leathers have the potential for 98% carbon reduction compared to traditional leather, making them the ultimate choice for the environmentally and animal-welfare conscious.
When it comes to sustainability in fashion industry, even the most eco-conscious manufacturing processes have an environmental impact. It is always critical to integrate your own personal values when deciding how and where to spend your money.
If animal agriculture is something you stand firmly against, then definitely consider purchasing vegan leather over genuine, even if it’s a plastic alternative. If you’re also passionate about reducing your own plastic and fossil fuel consumption, plant-based leather is definitely the way to go, if you’re going to buying “leather” at all. If you want to steer clear of all this leather business, then consider sticking to plant-based fibers like (recycled) cotton, linen, and hemp!
Ultimately, reducing overall consumption and buying fewer new items by seeking quality secondhand clothing, wearable for years to come can reduce your own environmental impact even more (#anticonsumerism all the way). Always work toward #progressoverperfection in any decision you make and always be as informed as possible when choosing what brands you buy from.