The Greenwashing of Vegan Leather

Let’s talk vegan leather, I sometimes get asked if I ever work with vegan leather and the simple answer is no. The complicated answer is no because not only is it typically less durable it is also typically worse for the environment. I know what you thinking: but Emily that doesn’t make sense, everybody knows that vegan leather is better! To this, I say just because everybody knows something doesn’t make it true. Before I explain my beef with vegan leather (pun intended) we need to talk about the other types of leather.

While the leather industry itself can be problematic mainly due to fast fashion and its widespread use, not all leather is created the same. Let me explain, the most popular kind of leather is called Chrome tanned or oil-tanned leather. This is what most soft bags, wallets, and jackets are made of, luxury car upholstery is also made using this kind of leather. Even your luxury bags will use chrome-tanned leather. Its popularity stems from its vibrant colors and durability. It tends to be about 3-4 times cheaper than veg-tanned leather and it will not patina, this means that the chrome-tanned bag you buy today, if well taken care of, will look the same in 10 years. It also only takes weeks to create as opposed to its veg counterpart which takes months to complete. As per its name, chrome-tanned leather uses Chromium Salts to speed up the tanning process mostly Chromium (III) and chrome alum.  These chemicals get mixed in the water that is used and if not properly disposed of can cause irreparable damage to both the surrounding areas and their wildlife (think oil spill).

The second most popular kind of leather is Veg tan leather. This is the kind of leather you find for horse tack, saddles, most high-quality sheaths, and holsters as well as some wallets. This is the quintessential leather we all know and love. It patinas over time and has that beautiful leather smell. It is the most durable of the leathers and consequently takes the longest time to make. The process takes months to complete and it utilizes the tannins and oils from specific plants and trees to cure and color. This means It is a little more restricted in color variations straight from the tanners and is often dyed different colors after the fact. It remains one of the cleanest kinds of leather, however, all leather requires an incredible amount of water; and despite veg tan using natural compounds, it can still have a serious effect on the surrounding environment. Mainly the waterways if the waste water is not properly disposed of.

The next type of leather I want to talk about is “genuine leather”. If you see this on a tag for an item drop it and run! To understand what genuine leather is you need to have an idea of the structure of leather, as you can see from this photo I have shamelessly stolen from Google, leather has a few different layers, the first is called the grain, which is the part you can feel, touch and see, its what gives the leather its reputation. Between the top grain and the flesh is a layer called the corium, this is where the bulk of the fibers are, it’s what gives the leather its strength and structure (chrome tanning breaks down some of these fibers to make it more supple).

Genuine leather basically takes this middle layer, throws it into a blender with some glue, and then presses it into a sheet. If you are lucky, they will then add the thinnest sheet of top grain they can split but usually, it is just coated with layers of PVC to give it the leather look and feel. It is the cheapest of all the leathers (literally using the scraps from other kinds of leather) it cannot be waterproofed and is the weakest of all leathers as well. Not only do all the previous environmental concerns apply to “genuine leather” but both the glue and the PVC coating used are usually petroleum products and their environmental effects of them should also be included in your assessment when you are considering “green” leather.

Moving on to vegan leather which is defined as an alternative or substitute that mimics Leather but is not made from animal skin. The most common would be PU Leather or Pleather. It is usually made in two parts, the first being a fiber or fabric base mostly polyester. It is then coated with either a leather-like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or a polyurethane (PU). These are plastics. They do not last and cannot be waterproofed the process of creating these faux leather coating almost always come with a significant environmental cost… AND the off-gassing from the PVC and PU coating can be hazardous to your health. Both of these coatings require plasticizers to be flexible PVC coating generally uses phthalate. The process of creating them generates carcinogenic byproducts; and even after its made into PVC it continues to release toxic fumes linked to neurological, respiratory, and reproductive health issues. While PU Leather is technically better, it is still plastic and as with PVC coatings, it will continue to shed microplastics and off-gas fumes.

In both cases, these are not biodegradable. They sit in landfills for years and can rarely be reused or repurposed due to their weak nature and the fact that once it starts to peel there is generally no saving it. While the practice of making and using Pleather is frustrating, the most abhorrent faux leather product is the so-called vegan leather.

Vegan leather is the worst case of greenwashing ever. When you purchase a pleather/faux Leather good it is generally understood that you are essentially buying plastic. The greenwashing of the vegan leather industry gives the average consumer the misconception of it is “good” leather for the environment. When the reality is that it is not any better and can often be worse. Where pleather uses a fabric base, vegan and other natural faux leathers will use a plant base fiber as the base (such as apples, mango, pineapple, etc)

Yes, you read that right. Vegan leather uses a plant fiber base and then coats it with plastic. Meaning all the previous warnings and downsides to pleather still apply to vegan leather. They are not bridgeable and have an enormous environmental impact. Plant-based vegan leather requires an enormous amount of water to separate the vegetable flesh from the fibers. Not to mention the potential negative effects it can have on your health. The only exception to this is Mushroom leather.

The best kind of leather environmentally speaking is brain-tanned leather. It is not usually available commercially as it is a game leather typically created in small batches at home by hunters or tanners specializing in this tanning method. It utilizes traditional Native American tanning methods that help to use more parts of the harvested animal. While color variations vary from beige to dark beige they can be dyed after the fact. The process uses animal brains and urine or Lye water which is traditionally created using campfire ash and water. It is then cured and colored using smoke. This process created a beautiful creamy soft leather that can be used to make garments and soft bags.

  • Purchase quality leather goods that can last many lifetimes
  • Buy from you creators you know and request Veg-tanned or (brain tanned if they offer it) leather over other kinds
  • Look for tags that say full-grain leather rather than genuine leather.
  • Buy second-hand leather goods when you can
  • Find a maker who can and will repurpose leather (I am happy to take an old leather good, take it apart, and reuse the leather to create a different project)
  • Opt for leather or waxed Canvas when you can over-plasticized/synthetic fabrics when looking for durability.

Despite all of this, the leather Industry is one of the oldest sustainable industries. Utilizing a byproduct of the food industry and creating a natural biodegradable item. Leather is an incredibly durable material that can be molded, carved, and stitched all while holding most of its structural integrity. This means that there is less real leather in landfills than there is Vegan leather. And the little bit of real leather which does make it to a landfill will biodegrade in a few years whereas the vegan leather currently in the landfills will still be there when my grandchildren have kids.

And contrary to popular belief, quality leather does not use the hides of mistreated animals. Mites, ticks, malnutrition, and scars all reduce the quality and integrity of the finished leather. Meaning that a happy, healthy and humanely slaughtered animal will make the best hides and consequently the highest quality leather goods.

So to make a long story shorter. I have never and will never use Vegan leather. The greenwashing of vegan leather is something that I find absolutely disgusting and I refuse to perpetuate the myth that true leather is bad. While not all leather is created equally in general full-grain leather goods have a smaller environmental impact and will last you longer. Meaning you don’t need to spend your hard-earned cash more than once to get a beautiful custom leather good that will last you generations. I am also happy to reuse the leather from old or sentimental leather goods when I can to create something amazing with meaning.