There can be some confusion when it comes to vegan leather.
In this guide, we provide an overview of what vegan leather is, how it might compare to other types of leather, and whether it might be ethical, sustainable and eco friendly overall.
Summary – Is Vegan Leather Ethical, Sustainable & Eco Friendly?
Vegan leather is another phrase used to describe faux leather or fake leather – essentially a leather substitute that doesn’t use animal products.
We’ve already put together this guide which delves into whether faux leather is sustainable, eco friendly and animal friendly.
What we summarized is that vegan leather has trade offs as a leather substitute …
Yes, it is animal friendly compared to conventional leather as animal skin isn’t being used.
A report also indicates that synthetic leather has a lesser environmental impact compared to cow leather when considering chemistry, resource depletion, eutrophication, global warming, and water scarcity. This might have something to do with not having to grow animal feed, or deal with the resources and waste involved in raising livestock (and also the heavy metals involved in leather tanneries at the production stage)
It even has some beneficial textile traits and characteristics such as being inexpensive, durable, lightweight, and able to be modified to a certain extent.
But, the most common forms of vegan leather right now, in particular polyurethane, are essentially a plastic coating on a fabric backing (and that fabric can commonly be made of polyester). Both plastic and polyester come from petrochemical feedstock – mainly oil. As we know, oil is non renewable, and involves mining. The process of making either polyurethane, or another plastic coating such as PVC, has it’s own issues with dioxins and organic pollutants in the production process.
There’s also the issue that plastic and polyester are both materials that aren’t naturally biodegradable, and can take a long time to decompose. They may both also be difficult to recycle.
Bio based faux leathers are being developed, such as cork leather, or barkcloth, glazed cotton, waxed cotton, and paper. If bio based leathers are used more widely 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?
Non animal products.
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.
Vegan Leather vs Real Leather – A Comparison
You can read this guide where we compare faux leather to real leather.
A very brief summary of some things to consider with these different types of leather from vocativ.com 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