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Vegan Leather: Is It Sustainable?

Vegan ‘leather’ is usually a ‘faux’ material, produced to feel like the real thing. Depending on how that leather is made, you’ll find that some vegan leathers are sustainable, and some vegan leathers are definitely not sustainable.

Just because a “leather” is vegan, it does not always mean that it is great for the environment. In fact, a plastic-based leather can be quite the opposite, and just as ecologically damaging as animal leather.

On the other hand, there are vegan leathers which are starting to make their way into the mass market which are plant based and are often formed from post-consumer waste, helping to reduce heavy resource depletion and landfill.

What is vegan leather?

There are many vegan leather options which can be more ecologically sustainable than animal hides like these
There are many vegan leather options which can be more ecologically sustainable than animal hides like these

Vegan leather is any cruelty-free leather that serves as a textile alternative to animal-derived leather, which does not involve the specific breeding, killing and discarding of animals in order to produce the textile.

Vegan leathers – especially if they are plant-based – use far less water intensive than animal leathers, which is a great place to begin when it comes to sourcing sustainable materials.

According to Fluence Corp,  It is estimated that one head of cattle requires 1,890,000 Litres of fresh water to raise; 5.5% of which can be attributed to leather– which in turn means that the water footprint for just one cow’s hide is 103,950 litres of water – enough to make just three jackets. That is a huge amount of carbon and water wastage for three items of clothing. Not to mention that the tanning process for animal hides often contains toxic chemicals.

As mentioned earlier, some cruelty-free leathers are instead, from plastic. These do not have the best environmental credentials, and will often create indestructible chemical waste. These sorts of faux leather are polyurethane coatings, PVC ‘leatherette’ and some polyesters that are strongly treated to become dense and flexible.

But when we talk about sustainable leathers as well as vegan leathers, plastic-based artificial leather simply aren’t the answer either.

So where can we look for sustainable vegan leather?

We’re currently in the midst of a boom in the development and creation of sustainable vegan leathers, so there’s an ever expanding range to choose from, many of which are created using waste materials from the food and agricultural industries.

Some examples of vegan leather which are all plant based:

Piñatex, made from pineapple leaves, is probably the most well known plant-based leather
Piñatex, made from pineapple leaves, is probably the most well known plant-based leather

Is faux leather sustainable?

If your faux leather is plant-sourced, and does not require heavy chemical processing, then it should be sustainable.

By and large, yes. Straight off the bat: faux leather derived from bio-engineering and post-consumer waste, and in a locally sourced and closed-loop way is yes, sustainable.

As you may be able to tell, there is progress to be made in boosting the knowledge and understanding of sustainable leather materials, and vegan leather materials. Answering definitively, “is faux leather sustainable?” – well, this depends, and your approach to this might be more philosophical than practical. By shopping around for sustainable materials, you are helping to drive up the demand and change consumer behaviours, or at least, that’s what happens in theory. For example, materials derived from post-plantation waste materials such as pineapple leather (in the case of Pinatex) and coconut leather (in the case of Malai leather) might not be the most sustainable if you are not local, and necessitate creating both an air mile and road mile carbon footprint to have the materials shipped to you.

So the perfect example might be plant-based leathers which are also locally made. A great scenario for sustainability: say you’re living in Vietnam or own a fashion production house there: you’re looking to produce faux leather goods – great! Locally, you have access to TÔMTEX, a locally made faux leather (or ‘bio leather’) made from post-consumer coffee grounds and chitin, a binding agent made from seafood waste. However, the use of chitin might not be cruelty-free enough for your liking, but it is a type of sustainably sourced and manufactured faux-leather.

What about second-hand cow's leather?

Second hand cow’s leather is sustainable as long as it is being saved from landfill or waste, or is being recycled into a freshly usable product. By at least ensuring that this material and energy used doesn’t end up in landfill, the “forever leather” reputation of animal leather should ensure that the product lasts a lifetime. This was originally how animal leather products were originally designed to be: long lasting, passed down the family as heirlooms, and ‘eternally used’. However, this long before the advent of fast fashion and intensive animal farming.

Where can we find the balance?

Choose an ethical and sustainable option whenever you can. If you can't always afford this, that's okay

The tipping point where ethical consumerism falls to just plain old ravage-and-die consumerism can often be closer than is originally imagined. For example, while the increased consumer demand for plant-based protein is reducing caged and intensive animal farming – the deforestation required to produce intensive soya crops without restorative agriculture, might be defeating the point.

Therefore, the most sustainable faux leathers that you can source should ideally originate, be manufactured and shipped close to home and better – from your own country or at least your continent. Resources such as water and land use need to be as low as possible.

Post-consumer food waste is a great place to start when it comes to faux leather. As you’ve probably guessed, getting every element right is a tall order, which is why driving up the demand for sustainable materials like faux leathers, cruelty-free leathers and plant leathers in the first-place, is arguably the first way to make the change.

You can also make the first steps in finding that balance by working with sustainable haberdashery tools, like handcrafted sewing shears and scissors. Head over the the haberdashery store page for more.