Is Vegan Leather Sustainable? Here’s Everything You Need To Know

A lot of people choose vegan leather above natural leather from animals. But do we actually know if vegan leather is sustainable? Its name comes from the fact that it has no animal origin. However, we should look into more elements for its sustainability, such as greenhouse gas emissions, animal welfare, waste or water usage.

Leather is probably one of the oldest fabrics used by humans and is now a multi-billion dollar global industry in fast fashion. The material is made from animal skin which is then cleaned and treated (or tanned) to preserve it and then finished to a specific colour, embossing or feel. The next step is to use it to make footwear (59% of the industry’s goods), clothing, accessories, interiors and car upholstery.

leather

Most leather comes from bovine animals, mainly cows, but also sheep, and goats. Other skins, such as snakes, alligators, crocodiles, kangaroos, ostriches, deer and fish, are used on a much smaller scale for luxury goods. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates that around 3.8 billion cows and other bovine animals are used in leather production each year. That is about one animal for every two people on the planet.

Veganism is not a fad. According to the Guardian, a record 500,000 people, of whom 125,000 were based in the UK, took the 2021 Veganuary pledge to eat only plant-based food in January. More and more people are becoming aware of the health consequences of consuming animal products, as well as the ethical and environmental impact of animal farming.

Synthetic leather is the result of decades of evolution from leatherette. Under the growing demand for leather at lower prices, it has become an ally for luxury and high-street fashion brands. Although this option does not come from animals, many question the reliability of whether it is a sustainable product. It is produced from petroleum relatives, where polluting and chemicals are also used in its processing. But above all, given its plastic component, it takes much longer to biodegrade.

What is the problem?

Synthetic fibres are the largest source of microplastic pollution in the ocean. Often leather alternatives are made from fossil fuels, which are not biodegradable and are also bad for your health. We are always looking for sustainable fashion, but sometimes it’s complicated to know if we are buying a product that positively affects it.

Many choose not to use animal leather. Not only because of the origin but also because it takes 25 to 50 years to decompose. Synthetic leather made from plastic also has some environmental impact. When the plastic eventually starts to degrade, it breaks down into harmful microplastics. However, there are new innovative fabrics coming through that are kind to our planet.

Here is a round-up of fabrics used for vegan leather.

Leather Alternatives

  • Plastic

The most popular types of plastic used to make this leather are polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU). These plastic leathers are the most common in popular clothing shops, and this material is not biodegradable.

There is also the option of making leather products from recycled plastic or buying second-hand garments to reduce the environmental impact.

It is an innovative plant-based leather made from the waste pineapple leaf fibres produced in the harvesting process. To make Piñatex leather, the fibres from the pineapple waste are cut into layers and processed as a textile. The textile can be created with different thicknesses and processed in different ways – even leather-like textures. It takes the leaves of approximately 16 pine cones to produce one square metre of fabric.

It is currently under development at the Royal College of Art in London. This pineapple fibre material offers an ecological, sustainable, and real alternative to animal leather.

  • Frumat/Pellemela/Apple Leather Skin

Also from fruit, but this time from the waste peels and cores of the apple juice industry. Created in Northern Italy, where there is a large production of apples and therefore a large amount of waste. The result is a cellulose-based material with a wide variety of textures, thicknesses, embossing and laser printing. This allows it to be used throughout the industry and produced on demand, and easily customised. By using locally sourced apple skins and cores, Frumat offers a versatile, high-performance alternative to leather and paper with a low environmental impact. Our brand Luxtra London has a broad collection of apple leather products that you can even personalise with your initials.

  • Cork leather

Made from cork oak in Portugal, cork leather is an environmentally friendly alternative to animal leather. The cork is collected in a way that does not harm the tree and is processed by simply boiling it. Then, it is flattened into sheets, and they can add some vegetable-based dyes. Because of its mechanical strength and flexibility, it is ideal for making vegan wallets and purses. As well as bracelets, backpacks, vegan footwear, handbags and many other leather goods accessories, etc.

This vegan leather is a sustainable material, resistant to humidity and free of animal cruelty.

This material is 100% natural and is made from a mixture of waste coconut oil, vegetable oil, hemp and cork. Natural Fibre Welding uses Mirum technology for a leather alternative made only from natural and biodegradable polymers (without further details) and processed with a lower carbon footprint compared to leather. Mirum achieves leather-like quality without polyurethane or other petrochemicals.

This material originates from a fungus known as Phellinus ellipsoids. It is processed in a very similar way to animal leather but without chemicals. Scientists have identified that Muskin does not promote bacterial growth and has a strong ability to absorb moisture and then release it. These characteristics make it ideal for insoles, shoes or watch straps. In addition, this material is water-resistant and does not produce bacteria.

  • Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria & Yeast (SCOBY)

Popularly it is related to Kombucha (brew), an ancient drink that originated 2000 years ago. But this mixture is used to create plastic, paper or leather alternatives. When this mass of bacteria dries, it becomes a leather-like material to make clothes and shoes. The fibre is 100 percent biodegradable, a significant benefit to the fashion industry.

Vegetable tanning uses bark, wood, berries, roots and leaves to colour and preserve leather and therefore avoids the use and disposal of toxic chemicals harmful to the health of workers and the environment.

These are the facts and consumer choices we have today. The truth is that leather and its alternatives still have a lot to offer in fashion design. The obvious advantage of vegan leather is that it has no animal origin. However, sometimes its components make it an enemy in the fight against plastic, for some maybe worse than natural leather.

As we can see, choosing the best vegan leather is not easy. There is no right or wrong answer. It is good to acknowledge every option and which fabrics are kind to the environment as a first step. We believe it’s about taking small steps to reduce our impact and finding sustainable fashion alternatives where we can.

If you’d like to discover the vegan leather options available at Wearth, click here.