Vegan leather is a material that mimics leather but is created from artificial or plant products instead of animal skins. It is most often made from two different plastic polymers; polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) – they are most commonly used due to their wrinkled texture which helps to give the effect of real leather, according to PETA. As well as these synthetic materials, vegan leather can also be made from more natural resources, including pineapple leaves, cork, apple peels, and recycled plastic.
Despite the raw materials sounding nothing like what goes into real leather products, vegan leather has come on leaps and bounds over the past few decades, meaning that well-made vegan-leather products can often be mistaken for the real thing.
When assessing the sustainability credentials of vegan leather, we need to look at its raw properties and how it’s made – not all vegan leather is created equal. As we've stated, some vegan leather is made from plant-based materials, while others are created from artificial products. The inclusion of these artificial products can be where sustainability issues arise.
However, despite vegan alternatives being thought to have a lower impact on the environment than the real thing, it does have clear drawbacks, particularly when it’s made from plastic. Clothing made from plastic can pose a threat during and after its lifespan because it could end up in water or landfill. This takes years to degrade and releases toxic chemicals into the environment, which is unsustainable.
On one hand, real leather can be a harmful material to work with because of the tanning process. To make the animal skin wearable, this means using lots of energy and chemicals to transform the skin into the leather material we’re used to. The use of heavy metals in the tanning and dyeing process has been a major concern in leather manufacturing, putting at risk the environment through chemicals leaking into water streams, the workers and also the wearer themselves. If the chemicals find their way into the water, it causes an excessive richness of nutrients that sparks the growth of algae and animal death due to the lack of oxygen in the waters. In extreme cases, workers in the tanneries are exposed to serious health risks such as lung cancer and leukaemia. As well as dangerous chemicals, producing real leather also damages environments through deforestation.
That is why, we use vegetable tanned leather. The Italian artisan tradition of vegetable tanning has been handed down from generation to generation. Not only does vegetable-tanned leather does not contain any toxic substance (such as azo-dyes, nickel, PCP or chrome VI) many tanneries reclaim hides from the food industry to prevent waste, which in turn encourages a recycled closed-loop system.
With all of this in mind, whilst buying vegan leather means you’re avoiding using animal products, its replacement can sometimes be plastic-based, which is harmful to the environment and takes years to degrade. By opting for real leather, it’s not the actual animal skin that’s bad for the environment as this is a natural product. However, the chemicals used in the tanning process remains harmful and the fact that the leather industry is contributing to deforestation, so it is better to choose leathers that have been vegetable tanned.