Leather Sustainability – Is Vegan Always Better?

By Alice Healy.

Sustainability and veganism are terms often treated synonymously; what is vegan must be sustainable and what is sustainable must be vegan. This correlation does have a relatively solid basis, given the environmental benefits a plant-based diet provides, yet the idea that all aspects of veganism are inherently better for the environment should be questioned, especially when it comes to fabric. 

The relatively recent surge in ‘vegan’ fabrics, especially ‘vegan leather,’ appears to demonstrate an awareness of the drawbacks of traditional animal derived fabrics. Leather, for example, comes at the cost of an animal’s life – an animal which, throughout its life, consumed resources and produced carbon and methane emissions. Leather is thus seen as inherently unsustainable, given that it supports an industry (animal agriculture) which is one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions. Also, the modern tanning process of leather generally involves chemicals such as chromium, which (in countries where environmental legislation is lacking) is often dumped into the environment surrounding factories. Though leather tanning does not always necessitate chromium usage, for mass production it is the most effective and cheapest way to produce affordable leather.

It is this incessant quest for bargain prices which appears to drive unsustainable practices, a quest ‘vegan’ fabric is not innocent of. The term ‘vegan’ is frequently co-opted by fast fashion companies as a greenwashing tactic, which rebrands synthetic material as a greener option; after all, the synonymity between veganism and sustainability proves useful in generating a certain positive view of a product. Vegan leather, for instance, is generally just polyurethane; though this can be made from fruit or vegetable scraps (such as the recently popularised pinatex – pineapple leather), it is often merely plastic. Though no animal is directly harmed in the production process of synthetic leather, it is a fabric which creates microplastics when breaking down; thus, vegan leather will likely worsen the issues of microplastic pollution and the consequent marine-life consumption of plastic.  

Furthermore, due to synthetic leather generally being poorer quality and having a much shorter wear-period, it can be more economically viable to purchase good quality leather shoes as opposed to poorer quality synthetic shoes, which will need to be repeatedly replaced. Though biodegradable vegan leather options are promising, and will hopefully become the norm, they are not commercially viable at this point. On the other hand, conventional leather involves not only the unnecessary slaughter of an innocent animal, but a commercial tanning process which is often just as environmentally damaging as synthetic fibres. As the Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report has communicated, cow’s leather has the greatest environmental impact per kg of material; whilst synthetic leather is lower quality and likely damaging to marine life, it does not bolster the highly destructive meat and dairy industries or have as great of a direct environmental impact upon production. 

Taken from 2017 Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report

So, given the issues of both synthetic and conventional leather, how does one choose a sustainable way forward? Supporting biodegradable ‘vegan’ fabrics is ideal, but not a financially feasible option for many. Buying animal leather comes with ethical and environmental costs, but will likely last longer than a synthetic leather counterpart. Though many vegans would take issue with wearing a dead animal’s skin (leather is, fundamentally, a euphemistic label), wearing second-hand leather is probably the best option regarding sustainability, as your money as a consumer is not funding the manufacture of more products. 

Ultimately, reducing the amount we consume is at the heart of sustainability. Shopping second-hand, using and repairing what we have, and even reconsidering the way we consume goods can all be useful pointers in guiding us to decide what products are right for us. Being conscious that certain words don’t unquestionably equate to sustainability is important, as if we stay critical of the products and companies we fund we can instil a culture of environmental accountability, something which is all too lacking in our current consumer climate. Making a perfectly ethical and sustainable purchase is, if not impossible, very difficult, so remaining open minded and empathetic to the choices of others is perhaps the most important aspect of the sustainability movement. 

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