A Lesser Of Two Evils: Animal Leather And Common Synthetic Vegan Leather Alternatives

Let's look at some of the assumptions surrounding leather, and see how it really compares to even the most unsustainable alternative to it?
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Woman wearing leather jacket

How does leather compare to faux leather when it comes to pollution and other issues? (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

If you're vegan, and you mention that your shoes aren't made from 'real leather', you've probably had someone tell you you're doing something bad, because you're basically wearing 'plastic', and at least leather is natural and better for the environment.

It's pretty easy to handball your guilt over to someone else. It is much less easy, and far more uncomfortable and confronting to really connect with the fact that you are wearing the skin of someone dead. It's pretty easy to make a lot of assumptions about leather too, especially when the leather industry feeds us falsehoods about the 'material'.

So let's look at some of the assumptions surrounding leather, and see how it really compares to even the most unsustainable alternative to it. ?

Claim: Leather is just a by-product

Everyone knows an animal has to die in order for people to wear their skin. However, there are misconceptions around the finer details of this.

Contrary to popular belief, leather is not just a 'by-product' of the meat industry used to reduce waste. An animal's skin is sold to make money, just like an animal's flesh is. In fact, you can find 'co-product' industry pricing reports by Meat and Livestock Australia and other similar industry organizations. ?

Claim: Leather is a natural material

While skin may be natural (just like any body part), in order for skin to become leather, something that would naturally decompose quickly must be put through an unnatural process. If skin were not 'tanned', leather shoes would begin rotting as you wear them. ?

Claim: Leather is less polluting than synthetics

While there are legitimate concerns that come with producing synthetics, as they are not natural, leather tanneries are one of the most dangerous facilities involved in fashion.

Leather tanneries use all kinds of chemicals known to be harmful to both the planet and human health such as formaldehyde, arsenic lead and chromium. The Ministry of Environment in Bangladesh, home to a large percentage of the world's tanneries, estimated that nearly 22,000 cubic meters of untreated and highly toxic liquid waste flows through different canals and into the Buriganga River every day.?

Cow hides at a leather tannery

Leather is not a harmless by-product (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

Claim: Vegetable tanned leather is sustainable

While vegetable-tanned leather does not involve so many of the toxic chemicals used in conventional leather tanning, it is not off the eco-hook.

Even before the tanning process begins, the production of leather is unsustainable. Ruminant animals like cattle emit methane and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere when they breathe, burp and fart – this is called enteric fermentation.

In Australia, 71 percent of all agricultural methane emissions come from this. 40 percent of these come from cattle exploited for dairy, and 30 percent comes from cattle raised for beef. These animals when are skinned for extra profit. This is just one reason leather, even without conventional tanning, is unsustainable. ?

Claim: Leather is better for the environment than synthetics

Findings shared in the Global Fashion Agenda showed that cow skin leather is more environmentally impactful than not only synthetic leather, but also every other measured material, far worse than the common polyurethane synthetic leather, and every other virgin synthetic material. ?

Claim: The only options are leather or petroleum based synthetics

Constantly new innovative vegan leather alternatives are being created! There are PUs made with water-based coatings rather than oil, and Pus that are cereal oil-based rather than petroleum or 'plastic'-based.

There are totally plant-based alternatives like leather alternatives made from pineapple leaves, apple skin, mulberry leaves, mushrooms, and cork. There are plenty of alternatives outside of both leather and traditional synthetic leather.