By Adam Bender
Ah, leather. It’s everywhere. In shoes, in belts, in car seats, bags, wallets, journals, and jackets. For most of human history, if you wanted leather, you only had one option – animal leather. But in the past few decades a number of leather alternatives have come to market. These are often cheaper, and all of them advertise a lower environmental impact. Is that really true? And what is a sustainable shopper to do about all these options?
Probably the most common leathery material is, well, leather. It’s tough, flexible, and it’s damn stylish. It can develop a beautiful patina, and leather goods can often be status symbols. But leather is also expensive, and it’s doing significant harm to the environment. For starters, we have to look at where leather comes from.
Often leather is referred to as a “byproduct” of meat production, but this is oversimplifying somewhat. The implication of the word “byproduct” is that leather is simply a waste product, and thus by buying it you’re not supporting the meat farm it came from.
However, this is not usually the case. For example, Northern Co-operative Meat Company reported a substantial loss in 2018 after a steep decline in the demand for hides. For this company, and for many others, leather is more accurately referred to as a “co-product,” i.e. something that while not their main product, is profitable and important to business.
Leather can make up a substantial portion of a farm’s revenue, and by purchasing leather new, you’re also tacitly supporting animal agriculture while contributing to environmental degradation. The livestock industry is responsible for approximately 15% of human emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
But even setting that aside, the tanning process – the chemical treatment that turns hides into leather – is for the most part highly toxic. There are multiple methods of tanning leather, some far less toxic than others, but chromium tanning is far and away the most popular method. Chromium tanning is notorious for leaching toxic compounds into the water, including sulfides, solid wastes, fats, pesticides and of course the chromium itself. It’s nasty stuff, and the tanning process can also harm workers via the toxic VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that are given off during the chemical treatment. Old tanning sites usually require significant cleanup before being usable again.
The main competing tanning method is vegetable tanning, which you will often see advertised at boutique leather shops. Vegetable tanning is certainly less harmful than chromium tanning, but there are good reasons why it can’t replace it. For starters, vegetable tanned leather doesn’t have the same material properties; it’s much less flexible and more prone to cracking with temperature changes. But more importantly, it takes substantially longer to produce.
Chromium tanned leather can go from hide to finished product in under a week, sometimes in less than three days. But vegetable tanned leather takes multiple weeks to finish. In the time it takes to finish one vegetable tanned hide, you could finish ten or more chromium hides! Unless chromium tanning is outright banned, vegetable tanning has no chance of fully replacing it in the industry.
For those of you with a thrifty inclination, secondhand leather can route around a good amount of these problems. By buying secondhand, no more money goes back into the leather or agriculture industry – it just circulates around the secondary market. That might not appeal to everyone though, so what are the alternatives?
Well, pleather might be a good start, right? Alcantara, Naugahyde, Rexine, Ultrasuede – you can hardly shake a stick without bumping into someone’s trademark for artificial leather. On the surface, they seem like an ideal replacement. No animals are involved. It requires less maintenance/babying, and it’s cheaper (sometimes a lot cheaper). It’s less prone to cracking, it’s more resistant to scratches, and in general it’s harder to tear. Sounds great!
But unfortunately, that’s not the whole picture. Put simply, most “vegan leather” or “pleather” is really just plastic. In the past it was largely made of PVC, but now it’s more commonly polyurethane (that’s what the “PU” stands for in “PU Leather”). And while the environmental impact of animal leather is still worse, pleather isn’t really a drastic improvement. It’s only a third better than the real thing; and given how bad the real thing is for the environment, that’s not much of an improvement.
Polyurethane or PVC based leather alternatives also tend to break down relatively quickly compared to animal leather – high quality, well-maintained leather can last upwards of 20 years without degrading, whereas most of the plastic-based leathers will start to deteriorate after a handful of years. This is because UV damage and mechanical wear will start to break down the plastics in the material, and the finish layer will start to flake off as the bonding degrades. Not ideal.
Here we arrive at the newest and most promising materials. But they’re not exactly cheap, when they’re even available for purchase.
For example, there is MycoWorks, a company specializing in mushroom-based leather alternatives. But the products that are made with MycoWorks materials are so far pretty high-end, and thus expensive. For example, this hat using their materials is a whopping $1,725. Not what I’d call accessible to the average shopper.
Or take this cactus leather journal by Endless Stationery. It’s actually more expensive than their standard leather journals. And it’s constantly sold out. So what’s going on here? Why are these materials so expensive?
The answer is simple: economies of scale. The companies producing these plant-based materials are still small, and their production processes haven’t been refined. So the cost per square meter of these materials is still astronomically high for the most part. If demand goes up, and sales continue to grow, these companies will be able to scale their production facilities, and costs will drop accordingly. But for now these are still niche products, and that means generally higher costs and lower inventory.
As for environmental impact, these get a way higher score on average than either normal or plastic leathers do. Desserto reports drastically lower energy demands, water use, and carbon emissions than either animal or PU leather. In general, the more plant-based the material is, the better it is for the environment.
What should you actually buy if you want to shop sustainably?
There’s a lot of options in front of you when it comes to leather, but here’s the gist:
- If you can afford the plant-based materials, you should probably go for those.
- If you can’t, then you can weigh your options between thrifted leather and plastic leathers.
- Avoid buying brand-new animal leather wherever possible.
Of course, it’s always worth remembering that the most sustainable leather bag is the one you already have. But if you need something new, just try to keep those bullet points in mind and you’re well on your way to making sustainable choices.