Education, Fashion, Sustainability

Is vegan leather just as bad as leather?

It depends on how it’s made.

words by: Natasha Marsh
Apr 22, 2021

For the past decade brands have been seeking more eco-friendly options to fur and leather. Fashion has been able to get around fur quite seamlessly but leather has been another puzzle to solve. Leather is hard to avoid, it’s found in most apparel, shoes, and accessories, and the most popular alternative, vegan leather, is actually plastic.


The fact of the matter is, leather is a by-product of animals, and if you are against fur, you should be against leather as well.  Leather comes from animals, it has to be tanned and processed in order to become soft. Majority of the tanners use chromium and other chemicals that end up getting discarded as liquid, sludge or waste.


The downside of leather

According to a study at the University of Oxford, adapting a vegan lifestyle could lower an individual’s carbon footprint by 73%. It is the biggest way to reduce environmental impact. A handful of vegans believe that if you feel this way about food, you should carry the same approach to clothes, particularly with leather.


The leather industry worldwide is responsible for the deforestation, climate change, and poor irrigation systems. Deforestation happens from excessive land use, overfeeding of crops, grazing and greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture. It’s because of these reasons and many more that designers have looked for alternative, healthier versions of leather.


What exactly is vegan leather?

In short, vegan leather is a material that mimics leather, created by artificial or plant products instead of animal skins. More commonly, vegan leather is made out of two popular plastics: polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). For plant purposes, vegan leather can be made of pineapple leaves, cork, apple peels, cactus, and recycled plastics. Companies like H&M have also tried to use cactus leather.


When derived from plastic, however, vegan leather utilizes harsh chemicals to speed up the tanning process. These chemicals then put the environment at risk with leaving water streams. Once the chemicals enter the water, there can be a rapid growth of algae and animal death from the lack of oxygen in the water. On the employee front, tannery workers have been known to develop cancer.


We should mention, there are brands that adhere to specific regulations and codes of ethics for tanneries which include using vegetable tanning as opposed to chemicals, and treating workers fairly. Products treated with vegetable dye is biodegradable, making it a conscious choice.


So is vegan leather bad?

Yes and no. The amazing thing about vegan leather is not only is it eco-friendly but it looks, bends and smells just like real leather. However, if it is made of plastic, it could be risky. Plastic could end up in water or a landfill, releasing toxins in the air and taking years to degrade. The fact of the matter is, 13 million tons of synthetic fiber enter our oceans annually.


So although brands might claim to have vegan leather, it would be worth your while to investigate their source: plastic or plant. Greenwashing, or when brands throw on buzzwords to look more environmentally friendly, is big in the vegan leather world right now. Do your research and know what you are spending your money on.


Photos via Adriano Di Marti