While ‘alternative leathers’ continue to attract huge investments, some designers are speaking out about the overlooked credentials of traditional leather. As plant and mushroom-based leathers gain favor, the inclusion of synthetic polymers in many of these ‘leather alternatives’ has prompted the question: how sustainable is ‘vegan’ leather? And do these alternatives have lower environmental impacts than their animal forebears?
Designer Anya Hindmarch, owner of the handbag brand bearing her name, is dubious. She says: “There are some very interesting and innovative products coming to the market, and we will look at [any material] that makes sense. [However], my research into the subject proves to me that leather, farmed in a regenerative way which is then tanned and finished in a responsible way, is often the most sensible solution when a byproduct of the meat industry.”
Bill Amberg, leather-based interiors and furniture designer, takes a stricter view on what constitutes ‘leather’: “I don’t believe there is such a thing as plant-based leather. There are non-woven textiles which are very good, and in fact, we use them here at our studio. But in terms of replacing animal leather, they are not strong enough, repairable, or durable enough. They also don’t have enough character, and they’re too expensive. The two materials are entirely different.”
So what is the difference between animal and plant ‘leather’? And why has ‘vegan’ become shorthand for ‘sustainable’?
I’ll answer the second question first. Vegan, in the context of ‘leather,’ is a marketing term rather than a descriptor of ingredients. Unfortunately, veganism and its synonymy to plants have spilled over from food to fashion, whereby anything labeled ‘vegan’ is thought to be made of plants rather than not made of animals. However, the latter is the truth, and has resulted in many plastic ‘leather’ (or ‘pleather’) being labeled ‘vegan.’
In the case of ‘plant’ leathers made from food waste like pineapple leaves or coconut husks, the material cannot function with the required strength, durability, and color fastness required of leather unless it is mixed with synthetic polymers (plastic) to enhance or provide these properties. So, in reality, plant ‘leather’ is typically plant and plastic ‘leather’.
Regarding animal leather, collagen is the ‘super’ protein in hides and skins, providing tremendous strength and durability. It is also true, though, that animal hides and skins are tanned using several chemicals (that vary in toxicity). The final leather is often coated in a thin layer of synthetic polymer to enhance water resistance and durability.
It’s on the basis conveyed above that analysis of ‘leathers’ should be made, say experts in the leather industry, along with end-users like Anya Hindmarch and Bill Amberg. So, for example, does it make sense to replace an animal byproduct (hides and skins, which would scarcely exist if the meat industry didn’t) with a plastic alternative? The #LeatherTruthfully campaign, which Hindmarch and Amberg are supporting, asks this question.
Leather Naturally created the campaign in response to what they describe as: “the leather industry witnessing a growing dialogue of misinformation about leather-making and the truth about leather alternatives.”
“This narrative was often being unchallenged and re-shared by some media platforms and high profile spokespersons, sometimes in the pursuit of promoting leather alternatives” they added. They went further, stating: “Here are some examples of this misleading perspective” citing articles from Vogue Business and The Guardian. Another question the campaign raises is: Do consumers know how leather is made and its sustainability credentials?
A consumer sentiment survey conducted by Atomic Research on behalf of Leather UK (a leather trade group) and Leather Naturally showed that of 2000 UK survey respondents, only 24% were aware that hides and skins were a byproduct of the food industry that would otherwise go to waste. 50% think that animals are raised specifically to make leather. Regarding the term ‘vegan leather,’ 74% found it ‘confusing’ and were unaware of its composition or that vegan leather could be plastic. Leather UK says this demonstrates a lack of education and engagement by the leather industry with consumers and obfuscation of facts by those marketing ‘vegan’ leather products.
During an interview with Dr. Jurgen Christner, a chemicals expert of 35 years developing formulations and technologies to reduce tanning impacts and increase leather performance at TFL, he explained the leather industry as “split .”The divide is between the modernized tanning facilities (that he estimates global brands source around 80-90% of their leather from) and the small tanneries operating without safe chemical, waste, and worker conditions. These small operators, he says, are the ones whose images are often used as demonstrative of the leather industry, singling out local tanneries in countries like Morocco, Bangladesh, and India as hubs of toxic leather production.
These toxic tanneries exist despite strict local regulations against the chemistry and processes they use, in India and Bangladesh in particular, according to Christner, but “the local regulations are not enforced.” To his knowledge, such leather is primarily traded in the domestic market or exported to neighboring countries with less strict import restrictions than the EU and US.
Why are these tanneries lagging on modernization, I asked? This is a critical question, because of the human and environmental health implications and the broader assumption of these toxic processes as the ‘leather tanning norm .’ Dr. Christner’s explanation comes as a surprise: “It’s because [these small tanneries] are trying to compete on price with synthetic ‘leather'” he says, and toxic chemical ‘shortcuts’ are cheaper. Furthermore, attempting to compete with ‘synthetic leather’ has a paradoxical eventual outcome; the cheap and marketable ‘vegan’ ‘leather’ flooded the market in 2017-2018, leading to tens of millions of cow hides being buried in landfill in 2017-18 because they couldn’t compete on price, according to Dr. Christner.
He says TFL were about to calculate the volume of hides destroyed because of a direct correlation between a sharp decrease in tanning chemicals purchased from them attributable to a specific quantity of hides.
I also spoke to Dr. Luis Zugno, Global Innovation Manager at Buckman Chemical and one of the industry’s foremost independent educators on leather production. He believes that leather should be reimagined creatively and combined with other materials rather than discarded in favour of plastic or lesser performing ‘alternative leathers’. He said a more creative approach to problem-solving around leather impacts is needed, and there is much room for impact reduction.
“Why aren’t we using half the thickness of leather and bonding it to other materials or fabrics to create [enhanced] composites?” he asks. His suggestion harnesses the as-yet unmatched performance of collagen-based animal leathers with lower-impact woven or knitted textiles. Impact reduction demands are being placed on all incumbent materials used in the fashion industry as climate change and resource costs increase. Brands are also keen to differentiate themselves as using ‘sustainable’ materials. However, Dr. Zugno reckons that modernization does not mean doing away with a readily available and high-performing waste byproduct without optimizing it first and exploiting its benefits.
So overall, there is a more nuanced and at times nefarious side to the ‘sustainable’ leather debate. Right now, byproduct hides are not valued as a long-lasting premium material in the face of quickening fashion. The marketability of ‘vegan’ leather and misinformation around its composition has meant that plastic is gaining favor over animal leather, despite limited comparative impact assessment that considers how ‘pleather’ once it hits landfills. As with any material sourcing decision, the environmental consequences are neither binary nor universal. The question is therefore not ‘is this vegan or is this animal leather’ but rather, what is this ‘leather made of, and how was it produced? If these are questions you are grappling with, you might find my explanation of the benefits and limitations of plant and mycelium ‘leathers’ helpful; along with this detailed breakdown of animal leather production.