Take a time machine back to the Paleolithic Period, and you might spot early humans sporting animal hides—the precursor to modern leather. Tanned skins remain popular 400,000 years later, but now they’re mass produced. In 2020 alone, the nonprofit Textile Exchange estimates the international-leather industry produced 12.5 million tons of product—and claimed 1.4 billion animal lives in the process.
This toll, mixed with numerous environmental issues, spawned replacement products. But how can shoppers tell if these “vegan” substitutes are truly more sustainable?
Activist and author Emma Håkansson is the founding director of Collective Fashion Justice (CFJ), an Australian nonprofit advocating for fashion justice. Håkansson calls large scale investment in vegan leather “an enormous win.” Still, there are miles to go before most alternatives satisfy what they call “total ethics:” “Does [the product prioritize] the life and wellbeing of all animals; humans and non-humans; as well as the planet, before profit?”
Learn how to identify the best products for people and the planet.
Myth: Animal skins are a waste-saving byproduct of the beef/cattle industry.
Animal agriculture and the leather industry may be locked in an iron-tight embrace, but they are distinct entities with separate profit goals.
The nonprofit Slow Factory inverts the “byproduct myth” by referring to Brazilian cowhides as a “co-product” of beef. The profits from leather encourage even more industrial agriculture of cows for meat and leather, which wreaks havoc on the Amazon. (Slow Factory’s website visualizes the impact.) Leather, then, isn’t an innocently claimed resource, but rather it accelerates environmental abuse and poses harm to life.
Damage can continue during the tanning process, too. For example, the film The Toxic Price of Leather spotlights Kanpur, India—a leather-making hotspot largely servicing Western nations. There, local tanning factories plague communities with toxic, untreated water and serious ailments, producer Sean Gallagher told The Guardian.
Myth: “Pleather” is a suitable substitute for genuine leather.
Hop back into the time machine and tear toward the 1960s, when pleather was born. The material still has its perks, like generally cheaper prices and animal-free sourcing. But pleather isn’t all rosy, predominantly considering it’s, well, plastic.
For every plus of pleather, there seems to be a downside. According to the Global Fashion Agenda, a nonprofit centered on sustainability in fashion, synthetic-leather production releases less than half the greenhouse gas genuine leather does. But the hazardous chemicals used to create pleather can adversely impact laborers—as well as the people sporting the products.
And while CFJ shares that recycled materials can be used to generate polyurethane (PU) pleather, synthetic leather is extremely slow to break down—lagging far behind genuine leather. When it does biodegrade, Harper’s Bazaar reports, hazardous chemicals leak into the ecosystem.
So, if genuine leather and pleather both pose problems, what’s the solution? Luckily, some products skirt the ethical issues of real leather and the toxicity of plastic.
Fact: Leather's brightest future is bio-based and plastic-free.
“The most important leather alternative innovations coming out are those working to become more circular—easily recyclable and biodegradable,” says Håkansson. Experimentation is booming, with brands forging products with the help of natural materials spanning from fungi and fruit to bamboo and bark.
Although these options are not purely fossil-fuel based, many still rely upon a percentage of plastic to bind bio-sourced materials, stunting their overall decomposability. Only a handful of brands—makers of fully bio-based vegan leathers—bypass plastic completely, leading the way toward decomposition potential.
Unfortunately, some companies tout how green they are while burying the exact contents of their products, especially manufacturers of hybrid vegan leathers. “It is important to question how much of the main, advertised ingredient a material really contains,” write Dr. Ashley Holding and Paula Lorenz, cofounders of the media source The Circular Laboratory. If this proves difficult to decipher, go with another material.
Fact: There’s cause for hope.
Is imagining a future without genuine or fossil-fuel-derived leather realistic? Håkansson chooses to think so. She points to a quote featured in the industry magazine Fashion United.
“Selling leather products, although highly profitable, will soon be as outdated as smoking on TV,” said the founder of Ganni, a brand set to ditch leather by 2023. They recently partnered with Vegea, whose hybrid material leverages scrapped grape skins.
The path to sustainable leather is convoluted, and large-scale impact will require increased access. Of course, there’s always the opportunity to skip (p)leather and pick other materials, like linen and organic cotton. But, if leather remains a preferred textile, Håkansson has advice for you:
“The best thing we can all do is buy far less and ask questions before we do. Do we really need and love that item? Will we care for it for years to come?”
When it comes to vegan leather, a bit of consideration goes a long way.