New York Fashion Week is wrapping up, and this year, there’s been a spark of controversy. A PETA-affiliated group of animal rights activists interrupted Coach’s runway show to protest the use of animal leather in high fashion. Two activists jumped onto the runway uninvited. One held up a sign that said, “Coach: Leather Kills.” The other’s body was painted to represent a skinned animal, showing muscles and tendons, along with the same slogan. Coach, a luxury brand known best for its leather handbags has yet to comment, but the debate about real leather vs. vegan “leathers” is in full swing.
PETA opposes animal leather-based on an ethic of animal rights. But if you’re a person who consumes meat, maybe the debate about leather doesn’t seem so clear-cut. A lot of people associate the word “vegan” with sustainability, low carbon footprint, ethicality, and so on. But really, it just means that the product didn’t come from animals. And if you’re talking about environmental impact, it’s a little more complicated than “vegan is better.”
So, are vegan leather alternatives actually more sustainable than animal leather? Does switching from animal leather to alternatives actually help the environment? Or is this all just greenwashing?
For most traditional leather, the raw material is from cow hides (skins). The majority of these hides are a by-product of the meat industry. What this means in practice is that very few cows are raised specifically for their hides. Rather, the leather industry sources its raw materials from the leftovers of the meat industry. The leather industry describes it as “use it or lose it,” meaning that the hides have to go somewhere, so may as well turn them into usable products.
In today’s world, people eat a lot of meat. I mean a lot. And global meat consumption is on the rise. Beef production takes a serious toll on the environment, from methane emissions to clear-cutting for pasture land to the simple fact that a lot of water and energy goes into the cows before they’re ready to slaughter. Not to mention the emissions toll of transporting meat around the globe! As a global society and as individuals who care about the future of this world, we should absolutely be eating less meat if we want to limit environmental harm.
But the reality is that most likely, the meat industry will never just go away. There’s a good argument that if we’re going to eat beef anyway, we should use as much of the animal as possible. Thus, traditional leather.
“Vegan leather” is a blanket term meaning any leather-like material that isn’t derived from animals. The most common (and cheapest) types are derived from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU). These are both plastics derived from fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are a major driver of climate change. PVC is quite toxic, and both release dangerous chemicals during manufacturing. Neither PCV nor PU are considered sustainable.
There are plant-based leather alternatives that use raw material such as pineapple leaves, mushrooms, cork, grape leaves, teak leaves, and cactus leaves. Several of these (such as pineapple leather) use byproducts from the agricultural sector. Some of these (such as cork) can also be made from recycled products, which is great! That said, almost all of these still do contain a percentage of PU as a coating. Almost all leather alternatives contain some amount of PU.
As a global industry, leather tanning (the process by which raw hides are transformed into leather) creates some major issues. Common tanning process uses heavy metals, which can be toxic to workers, to water supplies in factory runoff, and to the end-consumer. Especially in less regulated developing countries, leather tanneries are linked to serious environmental harm.
That said, governments and the leather industry have recognized the environmental and economic imperative to become more sustainable, and so there are industry audit protocols and UN industrial development guidelines available to help regulate where leather comes from and how it is treated. There are also scientific developments in vegetable-based tanning that remove heavy metals from the process, which is a huge step in reducing harm. Not all leather is created equal, but it’s definitely possible to source more responsibly.
Vegan leathers, as we discussed above, require fossil fuels and toxic chemicals to produce as well, and really, we don’t know a lot about some of them because their processing is still proprietary. That said, the industry is evolving rapidly, and a lot of brands are highly focused on removing all traces of fossil fuel chemicals as they move forward.
One of the major appeals of leather is that it is extremely durable, sometimes even getting better as it ages and wears in. It’s something we can describe as an heirloom material, something that when taken care of can last for generations. Personally, I have a collection of leather belts my mother wore in college that I can tell will outlast me. There’s a reason that a lot of heavy-duty consumer goods like work boots still rely on leather—it lasts, especially if you use it and take care of it.
A lot of vegan leathers, especially the cheaper PU and PVC leathers, fall sorely behind in durability. All you have to do to test this is go to a thrift store and look through the used shoes. The leather shoes might be worth buying second-hand; the vegan leather shoes often are not. The plastic materials and coating tend to crack. The worst part is that as these materials break down, they can release microplastics, which can be harmful to the wearer and can contribute to the global problem of microplastics in the food chain.
In terms of environmental impact, buying one item that lasts for many years, even if that took more emissions to create, might well be a better deal than replacing an item every year and creating plastic waste. And vegan leather isn’t always even cheaper these days, so you may be paying top dollar for a product that breaks down a lot more quickly.
That said, the fashion industry is making a lot of strides, and it could be that in a few years, there’s a non-animal leather that blows traditional leather away in terms of durability. So it’s worth continuing to pay attention!
Traditionally tanned leather is not especially biodegradable because the entire point of the tanning process is to prevent the natural product from degrading. This is why leather artifacts are found in archeological digs! That said, there are companies that have recognized this problem and developed a tanning process that yields a biodegradable product.
Both PVC and PU share one big red flag: they do not biodegrade, meaning the pair of vegan leather sandals you throw in the garbage will sit in a landfill, well, forever. Even if the product appears to break down, the microplastics will linger. And since most vegan leathers both don’t last very long and contain non-biodegradable PU, the environmental toll is large.
The sad truth is that there might not be a fully sustainable option for leather or leather alternatives. All of the options on the market have drawbacks, both practically and environmentally. Ultimately, the biggest problem is the way the consumer economy is built. Especially in the US, we have been trained that clothing should be cheap and we should get new items every season. But no matter what materials you’re discussing, global fast fashion is based upon labor exploitation, environmental destruction, and a ton of waste. There is no perfectly “sustainable” material that will make up for how much we simply throw into landfills daily.
Ultimately, the choice of whether to use animal leather or alternatives is a deeply personal one. The ethics are complicated, and no matter what, consuming products will always take resources. Paying attention to the details of the materials you choose, rather than falling for green marketing terms, can help you minimize the environmental impact. And when in doubt, listen to Vivienne Westwood: “Buy less, choose well, make it last.”