While there are a lot of things that are controversial in the sustainability space, nothing, it appears, sparks quite as much controversy as vegan leather, or any type of leather in general. 

As you’ll see from this post, there are pros and cons to both options and unfortunately, there’s not really a clear-cut sustainable option. 

I speak a lot about privilege in sustainable fashion and, as in most cases, the privilege of choice in leathers (or lack thereof) complicates an already highly personal decision and naturally, makes one wonder, why bother with animal-based or vegan leather at all? 

The truth of the matter is that leather is a staple of our society and isn’t likely to go away any time soon, so it’s important to consider all of the options out there in order to make the best choice for us. 

In this post you’ll find information on both animal-based and vegan leather, including cost, durability, care guidelines and manufacturing information, to (hopefully) make that choice a little easier. 

Animal-Based Leather

How is Animal Leather Produced?

Apart from cows, leather can interestingly enough, be made from a variety of animals from crocodiles and snakes to goats, stingrays and even pigs. 

The process for leather production is pretty universal across various animals. 

Check out this fascinating read on how animal leather is produced here.

One much contested aspect of animal leather production that should be noted, is whether or not leather is a by-product of the meat industry. 

PETA states more than a billion cows, pigs, goats, sheep, alligators, ostriches, kangaroos and even dogs and cats are cruelly slaughtered for their skins every year

Is Animal-Based Leather Environmentally Friendly?

The answer unfortunately is not clear-cut and is based on which tanning process used: vegetable tanning or chrome tanning. 

With chrome tanning, hides are placed in acidic baths which stop the decomposition process. 

Due to the cocktail of chemicals involved in the process, the leather is not biodegradable. 

Additionally, according to Balincourt, toxic wastewater is susceptible to seeping out into waterways, polluting the water and causing soil degradation to the surrounding land.

Vegetable tanning, on the other hand, uses natural tannin (a molecule that bonds easily with proteins and will draw liquids out), such as tree bark to complete the process. 

In this way, while the use of vegetable tanning means the leather is biodegradable, the process uses more water and tanning agents than chrome tanning (Carryology).

Regardless of whether you choose to purchase a vegetable tanned animal-based leather or a chrome tanned one, I think it’s important to prioritize garment care to ensure your purchase lasts as long as possible. 

This is also important if you’re considering purchasing animal-based leather second-hand, to keep the garment looking it’s best. 

Here are some tips:

For vegetable tanned leather, as stated by Stitch and Hide:

  • Use a conditioner to spot clean or remove stains, or to protect the product from general wear and tear
  • Remove dust or dirt with a clean dry cloth 
  • Stuff the product with newspaper before placing in a cotton dust bag and store in a cool, dry place 

As outlined by Cosmopolitan, to refresh chrome tanned leather and keep it in tip top shape:

  • Create a foam with cleaning solution and massage into bag and leave to dry
  • Apply a protection cream and leave to dry, buffing off any excess. 

This process should be repeated every 2 to 3 months if using everyday or every 6 months to 9 months for occasional use.

You can read the full article for tips on how to remove stains, odors, etc. here.

Main Takeaway

If you’re looking to purchase an animal-leather product, look into the manufacturer’s tanning process to determine if they use vegetable or chrome tanning. 

Most brands that use a vegetable tanning process will advertise this, so you should be able to easily find this information either-in the product description of on the brand’s about page. 

Vegan Leather

What is Vegan Leather?

Items made from vegan leather have a leather-like appearance but are not made from any animal products. 

What is Vegan Leather Made Out Of?

Vegan leather is most commonly made from polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic polymers. 

It can also be made from more natural items such as mushrooms, cork, cactus, pineapple… even paper!

How is Vegan Leather Produced?

Below are some common types of vegan leather, an explanation of how they’re produced and information on their durability and proper care. 

PU or PVC Vegan Leather

According to Heddels, polyurethane or polyvinyl chloride based vegan leather is made by applying the chosen plastic polymer to a base material like cotton, polyester or nylon. The product is then treated to replicate the grain-like look of animal leather. 

Durability: While not as durable as animal-based leather, this type of leather is fairly durable and can last quite a while with proper care.

Care: PU or PVC vegan leather goods should be washed very sparingly to avoid cracking. To remove dirt, use dish soap, warm water and a soft bristle brush and then gently scrub, air dry and follow up with a PVC moisturizer to help remedy moisture loss, according to Hunker.

Image by Melie Bianco

Pineapple Leather

Pinatex, a vegan leather is made from the pineapple plant and it’s leaves after it has flowered. Since pineapples only fruit once, the leftover plant and leaves are waste product, so turning them into vegan leather gives them a second life (Earthbound Report). 

Durability: water resistant, heat resistant, breathable, similar durability to animal-based leather.

Care: wax items and leave to dry. 

Image by Maravillas

Mushroom Leather

Mushroom leather is a vegan leather made from fungus spores that are grown into a woven pattern. 

Durability: similar durability to animal-based leather.

Care: wax items before and after use. Using a sponge or soft cloth, clean with cold water to remove dirt.

According to Material District, while the materials is processed in a similar fashion as animal- based leather would be, there are no toxic chemicals used during the tanning process. 

Image by Bolt Threads

Cork Leather

Cork leather comes from the Cork Oak tree. The cork bark is extracted from the tree, boiled and then flattened and molded to the desired shape. 

Durability: water resistant, stain resistant, fire-retardant, scratch-proof

Care: clean with soap and water

A few interesting facts about cork leather, stated by How Cork:

  • Extracting the cork bark from the cork tree aids in the tree’s regeneration process and does not harm the surrounding ecosystem. 
  • Cork forests “absorb thousands of tons of CO2 on a daily basis, provide a watershed and roots that provide nutrients for the soil, produce oxygen” 
  • “cork produces no waste in its extraction, processing or production, creates no water or air pollution and does not include a tanning process”

Image by Rok Cork

Cactus Leather

Cactus leather, created by Desserto is a vegan leather made by using the mature leaves of a cactus, mashing and drying them, adding non-toxic chemicals and then attaching the mixture to a backing. 

Durability: similar durability to animal-based leather. 

Care: use a clean cloth to remove dirt, and shampoo if required

Image by Frida Rome

Is Vegan Leather Ethical?

As the name, vegan leather suggests, these types of products are created without inflicting any harm to animals, so yes vegan leather is ethical. 

Is Vegan Leather Bad for the Environment?

This is where the waters get a little murky as it depends on whether the vegan leather is made from synthetic or natural materials. 

PVC or PU based vegan leathers would not be considered environmentally friendly as “PVC requires that plasticizers like phthalates be added to make the material flexible. These materials are heavily dependent upon petroleum and can “leach” out as they break down over time, which has added to their scrutiny”. 

On the other hand, while vegan leathers made from natural materials tend to be better for the environment, some leathers, like Pinatex, use a polyurethane coating during the manufacturing process and therefore, cannot be dubbed completely sustainable. 

It is important to note that it comes down to the specific type of vegan leather as to whether it is sustainable or eco-friendly.

General claims about the sustainability of the entire vegan leather industry as a whole cannot be effectively articulated due to the variability amongst materials. 

Does Vegan Leather Last Long?

Below is a timeline outlining the average cost and average lifespan of a vegan leather product, organized by material as well as animal-based leather, for the sake of comparison. 

It should be noted that the longevity of the item, regardless of whether it is an animal- based or vegan leather, is dependent upon the type of product it is (ie. leather jacket, handbag, couch), how often it is used, proper, care, etc. As such, the figures below are simply an approximation and will vary. 

vegan leather

How Much Does Vegan Leather Cost?

Below is a chart showing the typical cost of a vegan leather handbag as well as animal-based handbags for comparison. 

It should be noted that like durability, cost of these items are dependent upon the type of material and brand. These figures are an approximation and will vary. 

vegan leather

What’s the Most Sustainable Option?

Regardless of whatever type of leather you choose, whether that be animal-based or vegan leather, the most sustainable option is to always shop your closet first to see if there’s any leather pieces that you already own that can be repurposed or revitalized. 

For repurposing ideas, check this post here

Second-hand is the next sustainable option. 

Be sure to follow the care tips outlined above to ensure you get the most out of your purchase. 

Check out this secondhand shopping guide which includes a list of online secondhand retailers. 

Finally, if purchasing new, while vegan leather is the ethical choice, the waters are a little murky, environmentally speaking as there is a lot of variance amongst vegan leathers. 

It’s important to consider the material used to make the vegan leather and it’s production process, as well as it’s impact on the surrounding environment, and the people manufacturing the item. 

Before purchasing from a vegan leather retailer, be sure to check out this guide to sustainable shopping which covers what you should be looking for to determine if a retailer is sustainable. 

Have you tried a vegan leather product yet? 

If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments. 

Until next time, 

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