There can be some confusion when it comes to vegan leather, what is it, and whether it’s actually a better option than other types of leather.
In this guide, we provide an overview of what vegan leather is, and whether it’s ethical, sustainable and eco friendly.
Summary – Is Vegan Leather Ethical, Sustainable & Eco Friendly?
Real leather uses the hide and skins of bovine livestock that are usually raised for meat and milk anyway – so it can be a secondary by-product (animals aren’t usually used just to make leather, but in some cases they are).
The big problems with real leather are the indirect problems caused by animal agriculture, and the leather tanning process.
On the other hand, real leather can last a long time (so you get a more sustainable use out of the product), it can biodegrade and it can generally be re-used or recycled.
There are ranches and farms that could be classified as sustainable farms, and natural leather tanning refineries – but, these are more rare.
Vegan leather/faux leather does not use animals to manufacture the leather.
However, the trade off you make is that the polyurethane or PVC used to make the vegan leather has it’s own environmental pollution problems (with plasticizers etc), faux leather takes far longer to break down and biodegrade, it can release micro- plastics when it breaks down, and making faux leather from petro chemicals is not sustainable or renewable.
If bio based or other types of more eco friendly or renewable faux leathers become available in the future – this would start tipping the ethical rating in faux leather’s favor a lot more.
With any leather product, or product in general, you might ask yourself overall how it’s made, how long you can use it before you need to replace it, and then, what will happen when you need to dispose of it.
What Is Vegan Leather, & What Is It Made Of?
Vegan leather is leather that does not come from animal product i.e. it is not leather from animal skin and hides.
Vegan leather is faux/synthetic leather.
The two most common types of faux leather are PVC faux leather, and the most popular/widely used – polyurethane faux leather (plastic leather).
Faux leather can also be made from other materials such as cork, barkcloth, glazed cotton, waxed cotton, and paper.
Faux leather is usually adhered to a fabric backing, such as polyester.
Is Vegan Leather Ethical, Sustainable & Eco Friendly?
Vegan leather is faux leather – and we’ve already written a guide on how animal friendly, sustainable and eco friendly it is.
Vegan Leather vs Real Leather – Which Is More Ethical?
Some additional pros and cons, and things to consider in each type of leather product are:
Some of the environmental problems with vegan leather are:
- Polyurethane Vegan Leather – the main concern with polyurethane-based synthetic leather is that solvents are used. The production process involves painting polyurethane in liquid form onto a fabric backing. Making polyurethane into a liquid requires a solvent, and those can be highly toxic … newer waterborne coatings are better environmentally … [but] the type of polyurethane used in a piece of clothing is only one part of the environmental equation. Its impact will also depend on the quality of the supply, the way it’s put onto fabric, and the sorts of chemistry used in every step of the manufacturing process. With so many steps, there is plenty of opportunity for bad things to happen.
- PVC Vegan Leather – production challenges and because they release dioxins, potentially hazardous chemicals, if burnt. Increasing the worries are substances known as phthalates … which is a plasticizer that can leach out … and depending on the type of phthalate used, can be toxic
- Faux leather technology is advancing to help make it more customisable and sustainable
- Most real leather (animal skin and hides) comes from cattle and livestock that are raised for their meat and milk – so the animals aren’t raised specifically for leather production. Some argue real leather is a beneficial by-product of livestock and more sustainable in this regard
- Raising animal livestock has indirect environmental issues to consider like deforestation, fertilizer use, pesticide use, greenhouse gas emissions from animals and other types of pollution
- The chemicals used in real leather tanning production includes formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, and some finishes that are cyanide base. These chemicals are some of the most environmentally damaging amongst all industries
- Real leather may have an edge in sustainability because it can last longer than faux leather, and usually be recycled (whereas it’s hard to recycle faux leather – it might be able to be repurposed – but that is limiting).
- An animal hide or skin [might] break down easier and quicker than a synthetic petrochemical based faux leather