how sustainable is vegan leather?

When you put the word ‘vegan’ in front of something people automatically think that it’s sustainable, environmentally friendly and a better option than the real thing.

That’s not always the case which can be seen with leather.

Vegan leather is not a new concept at all, it’s just the modern term for faux leather or pleather as it was known when I was younger. For some reason I thought they were different things… but clearly not…

A couple of years ago I did a post all about the leather debate (which you can read HERE) because it’s definitely a controversial one. A lot of people nowadays don’t buy leather for ethical reasons because it is an animal product however some may argue that we should buy it for as long as the meat industry is around because it’s a by-product of that. So by not buying it, that skin would just go to waste if that makes sense.

In that post I talked about the solution which is buying seondhand leather and I stand by that now because it’s the most ethical option if you are wanting leather clothing.

But there are some people who may not want to buy anything secondhand so the only other option would be to buy vegan leather which is actually just as bad for the environment as actual leather. Now I’m not here to judge anyone for their shopping choices, it’s totally up to you what you buy. I’m just here relaying the facts.

The term ‘vegan leather’ is a recently new one as living a vegan lifestyle has become a lot more popular in recent years and people are including their wardrobes in this as well.

For those who didn’t know, faux leather is made of plastic, hence the term pleather. I don’t think I need to go into the negative affects of plastic because I have mentioned them many times before (I did a post about it here). The most common materials used are polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU), and the most common way to make the leather is to bond the plastic coating to a fabric coating which is done using chemicals. The manufacturing of these are not beneficial to the environment because of the toxins in the plastic, they release hazardous dioxins.

Because it’s made of plastic it also means it doesn’t biodegrade. So once you’ve worn it enough and it’s at the end of it’s life beyond repair, it will most likely end up in landfill where it will sit amongst all those other plastic products that have been around for decades.

Now is this making you question whether vegan leather is better than real leather?

Obviously it has the advantage of not containing any animal products but it’s contributing to the never ending war on plastic. Therefore it becomes a personal decision about what type of leather you would like to buy.

Plastic versus animal suffering

Real leather does actually have some benefits in that it is much better quality so can last for decades and it ages over time. I have 3 brand new pairs of Dr Martens which I know are gonna last me a long time, I also have a couple of vintage, second hand leather jackets which are quite old but still in great condition. Leather gets softer as it ages which can give garments a very nice quality.

On the other hand vegan leather is often thinner and much lighter which therefore makes it much less durable. They’re also not that breathable and can be uncomfortable to wear. But the massive advantage is that it’s so much cheaper and that’s because you are getting what you are paying for. I only own one vegan leather thing which is this belt and as much as I love it, it doesn’t feel as good quality as my secondhand real leather belt that I have. I can already see so much wear on it after wearing it not that many times, but I hope it lasts me a while.

Due to it’s reduced quality it means that you have to keep replacing it, so some say that the environmental impact of replacing a fake leather product multiple times is arguably more damaging than buying one real leather item. It means that more will be sent to landfill, not biodegrading.

However real leather still has it’s affects on the environment because rearing the animals produces greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation often occurs to make the space for them. There’s also the chemicals used in the tanneries to treat the leather. This is often done in developing countries where the wastewater ends up in rivers and lakes because of less control regarding waste disposal. As you can imagine this can lead to many problems.

Basically what I am getting at here, is that both are bad for the environment. They’re just as bad as each other in my opinion.

However there may be a solution to this in the works.

I have mentioned Stella McCartney before because the label is really leading the way in sustainability within high end brands. They don’t use any animal products in their pieces and have a statement saying that they are aware of the negative affects of using vegan leather in their products which is why they are working on lab grown leather. This is a new thing that is still in the works, I don’t think it’s made available to the public yet but I can imagine it will be expensive.

Alternatively there are vegan leather options available that are made from natural resources. Basically they’re made from biodegradable resources such as: cork, wood, mushroom, leaves, pineapple, coconuts and many more items. This is a solution to the plastic and animal suffering problem. I can’t actually find a lot of information of them which suggests they’re not as widespread or common. But hopefully in the future they’ll be loads around and they can replace that horrible PVC stuff.

I think the obvious overriding solution to all this is buying secondhand leather because it displaces the loss of life to animals, environmental destruction and worker exploitation!

I would love to know where you stand on the leather debate and your opinion on vegan leather after reading this!?

Here’s some articles on the sustainability of vegan leather if you’re interested:
Is vegan leather really more sustainable than the real thing?
Natural leather or vegan leather: what is more sustainable?
Is vegan leather actually sustainable?
Is vegan leather a sustainable alternative to the real thing?


previous plastic related posts

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