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Why buying vegan leather isn’t as sustainable as you might think

Not all vegan leather is equal or environmentally friendly

Veganism is extremely popular nowadays, both for ethical reasons and to reduce our carbon footprint. In fact, a study from the University of Oxford showed a plant-based diet reduces emissions from food by 73 per cent.

Vegans do not consume any meat or dairy products, and many also try not to buy or wear any animal products – like leather – either.

Enter vegan leather. 

Products made from vegan leather usually look like leather but, unlike the real thing, they are not made from the tanning of animal skin. 

The most common leathers come from cattle, sheep, goats, and horses but vegan leather is most often made from synthetic materials, such as polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which mimics the wrinkled texture of real leather, according to PETA. 

Jackets, dresses, shoes, boots, handbags, and even car seat covers are now being made from vegan leather. BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Ferrari, and Tesla all offer vegan leather seating for their cars.

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Is vegan leather a more sustainable option?

It isn’t as sustainable as you might think it is, even if it is vegan. Leather made from synthetic materials may be cruelty-free, but they can be damaging to the environment too as they will end up in the oceans or landfill when they’re thrown out.

PU and PVC both take hundreds of years to decompose and will release toxic chemicals into the environment when they finally degrade. Plastic particles from synthetic clothes also contribute up to 35 per cent of the plastic pollution in our oceans globally.

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However, it is not only after you’re finished with your vegan leather product that it can affect the environment. While wearing or using the product, the microfibres can shed and end up in rivers, lakes, and oceans.

The United Nations estimates around 11 million tonnes of microfibres enter the oceans each year. These fibres can be dangerous for the human body as they could cause cancer, damage to the reproductive organs, and genetic problems.

Is real leather safe for the environment?

While it’s important to be aware of the impact of vegan leather made from plastic, real leather is not necessarily better for the environment.

According to the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, leather from cows is nearly three times as harmful to the environment as polyurethane-based vegan leather due to the carbon emissions stemming from animal farming.

Additionally, harsh chemicals are often used in the tanning process, as well as energy to transform the animal skin into wearable material, both of which have an impact on the environment.

girl wearing leather jacket, which may not be sustainable
Woman wearing a leather jacket. | PU and PVC can take years to decompose. (Credit: Kim Thien Pham/Unsplash)

So, what do I do?

If you’re looking to be environmentally friendly while also ensuring you are wearing cruelty-free leather clothing, there are other ways of doing so.

Many vegans now make the choice to buy second-hand leather items that have already been made in order to give them a new lease on life, as they will last longer and the emissions will remain at the same level – plus, no microfibres will be shed from them.

Which leather is sustainable?

Both vegan leather and real leather have issues. As a result, more and more people are now looking at leather from other sources that may be more sustainable. 

Leather can be made from pineapple, cork, apple peels, and cactus, which are less harmful to the environment overall in comparison to plastic and cow leather. 

This is a relatively new practice so there aren’t many brands out there who are offering these products and they can often be expensive, but this is an alternative option for those who are able to afford it and are looking for a sustainable alternative. 

Cactus leather is estimated to last around 10 years, but other forms of leather have not been tested for durability yet.

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