Vegan leather wins hands down when it comes to animal welfare, but its environmental impact has been questioned. With the animal cruelty issue aside, as a vegan brand we are continually asked the same question: vegan leather is great, but which is worse for the planet – real or faux leather?
There is a huge amount of contradictory discussion on whether vegan leather is or isn’t more eco-friendly than animal leather, so it’s tricky to figure out which is the worst offender. Of course, every manufactured product inevitably has an environmental cost, and there is a myriad of aspects to every stage of both leather and faux leather production that can cause serious harm to both people and the environment. After looking at the evidence, the better choice will become clear. So let’s investigate the science and explore the pros and cons of both materials.
Vegan leather is typically made bonding a plastic coating with a fabric backing. However, the type of plastic used varies, and this is crucially important to figuring out its environmental impact.
PVC is infamous for its environmental unfriendliness. In production, PVC produces harmful dioxins and uses highly toxic chlorine. It’s not hard to see why it has been dubbed by Greenpeace as the “single most environmentally damaging type of plastic”. Gross. PVC is also well-known for causing sweaty feet. Also gross.
Luckily, the garish days of knee high PVC platform boots in the 60s and 70s are in the past. The use of PVC in fashion and footwear is rare, and the total EU demand for PVC in 2013 decreases year on year, according to PlasticsEurope.
Today’s vegan leather is made using polyurethane (PU), and it is so much better than PVC. Unlike PVC, PU is completely breathable, so it totally avoids the issue of sweaty feet. What’s more, it is far less toxic to produce than PVC. Of course the environmental impact of production of PU is dependent upon the regulations of the country in which it is produced, but manufacturers in the EU are required to have vent controls to keep emissions as low as possible. If PVC and PU were in vegan leather Top Trumps, PU would win every time.
However, regular PU is not completely squeaky clean. The raw materials of PU comes from fossil fuels, and producing PU is not yet entirely non-toxic. Luckily, textile scientists are on the case, developing new types of vegan leather to boost its eco-friendliness. Two recent major breakthroughs in textile technology are making waves across the vegan leather industry.
The first innovation is using vegetable-based plastic, which totally reduces the hazards of making regular PU. Vegetable-based plastic is made with a by-product of plant oils and reduces many of the chemical hazards associated with making PU. This new process means PU is also more biodegradable, which is always a good thing. Secondly, a new 100% recycled PU coated in this vegetable-based plastic is now on the market, which avoids all the pitfalls of regular PU and gets top marks for sustainability. We’re thrilled to be using this new sustainable material in all our linings across Beyond Skin’s shoes. With these ground-breaking new improvements in vegan leather production, the environmental impact is constantly being reduced. So how does animal leather compare?
The leather industry has a vast and complex environmental impact, so we need to break it down to simplify the problem. The production of leather involves three different industries: animal husbandry and slaughter, tanning and product manufacturing.
Many have argued that leather is a by-product of the meat industry, but uncomfortably in the case of some animals, meat is the by-product. Kate Carter writes in the Guardian that leather from ostrich farms accounts for 80% of the value. Exotic leather from lizards, crocs, snakes and sharks, are often farmed or hunted specifically for their skin. As leather doesn’t need to be refrigerated and has high profit margins when sold as clothing, it’s the most valuable part of the cow. Leather is a lucrative co-product of meat, and therefore shares responsibility for the environmental impact of animal agriculture.
As the meat and leather industries are intwined, all the issues of animal agriculture are part of leather production, and animal agriculture is no friend to the environment. According to the UN, animal agriculture is responsible for a staggering 18% of greenhouse gas emissions (which is more than all transport emissions combined). As climate change is the most important environmental issue we’ve ever faced, the emissions from animal agriculture need to be addressed.
Plus, clearing room for animals to graze and for land to grow animal feed also involves mass deforestation, often in vulnerable regions. A whopping 33% of arable land is dedicated to producing feed crop. Rearing livestock currently accounts for an alarming 30% of the land surface of our planet. 70% of previous Amazon forest is now used for pastures or growing feed crop. Deforestation causes loss of habitat for millions of species, ruins the quality of the soil beneath and drives climate change, as trees absorb greenhouse gases. Not cool.
Another issue of animal agriculture is its drain on our water. Farming of livestock uses up a hefty amount, not only for the animals to drink, but for the irrigation of feed crop. Animal agriculture is one of the largest sources of water pollution, which comes from animal waste, antibiotics, hormones and fertilisers and pesticides used for growing feed crop. According to the Centres for Disease Control, food and water contaminated with livestock manure has led to 76 million Americans becoming infected with associated illnesses. All in all, the global environmental issues around animal agriculture are huge.
But that’s not all. Many don’t realise that an animal hide needs to be treated in order to prevent it from naturally decomposing. According to Scientific American, the tanning of leather is one of the top 10 pollution problems in the world, directly affecting a shocking 1.8 million people – a pretty epic stat! Hides are tanned using a cocktail of dangerous chemicals, which produce gallons of waste with a high concentration of pollutants.
It seems there is no way to safely tan leather, either. Of the three methods chromium, aldehyde and vegetable tanning, according to the BLG Technology Centre “none of the three tanning technologies offers a full environmental advantage over the others when considering all the key criteria that characterise the impact on the environment. Many assume that vegetable tanned leather should have a preferred environmental profile, but evidence does not support this”. The most popular way of tanning leather is using chromium, used to tan more than 80% of all leather produced.
Chromium tanning poses a monumentally serious risk to the environment and human health. Pure Earth estimates that 16 million people are at risk for exposure to chromium globally, with an estimated burden of disease of 3 million years lost due to ill-health, disability or early death. The liquid and solid waste from tanneries is often dumped untreated in rivers and is a huge environmental threat. This is particularly common in countries that do not have adequate environmental protection standards, which is also where the majority of the world’s leather is produced, in countries such as India, Bangladesh and China.
And this chromium-polluted water has devastating effects. Bangladesh’s Ministry of Environment says that tanneries collectively dump 22,000 cubic litres of toxic waste into rivers each day, that are often key water supplies for the local residents, causing respiratory problems, infections, infertility and birth defects in local residents. The Buriganga river in Hazaribagh, Dhaka, pictured below, has been classified as dead, because the pollution from the many tanneries have killed the fish and plant life.
The facts highlight that leather is a significant drain on the world’s resources, not to mention the questionable methods of animal slaughter in developing countries with little or no regulations. As an industry it seems to have a poor level of responsibility for its damaging environmental impact and the repercussions, as information around leather production and traceability is conveniently suppressed. The environmental impact and worker conditions is information that is not often available on the labels of fashion items, or even on brand websites, so much of this damage is going unnoticed. And as leather will always be tied to animal agriculture, it will always have a heavy environmental footprint.
In comparison, vegan leather requires no grain to be watered and harvested for feed; no animals to be reared and then slaughtered; it is not a major contributor to water pollution, requiring only the land of the factory used to produce it. Synthetic materials have also come a very long way since PVC, and manufacturers are always upping their game, innovating ways to improve sustainability. As vegan leather will always be tied to textile technology, it will always be reducing its environmental footprint.
Ultimately, it is up to the consumer to make informed choices about what they buy. And after looking at the evidence, when compared with high quality vegan leather, animal leather seems archaic. It seems only a matter of time before everyone chooses cruelty-free, eco-friendly, sustainable vegan alternatives, proudly labelled “Genuinely Not Leather”.