So-called vegan leather is quickly gaining traction as a popular alternative to regular animal hides. What one needs to be aware of though is that vegan leather in most cases is a synthetic material made of plastic that doesn’t breath well, isn’t biodegradable at all, and can be much more harmful to the environment than traditional animal leather. Learn all about vegan leather and other types of artificial leathers in this article, and how it compares to natural animal leather.

 

Vegan leather, leatherette, faux leather, imitation leather, pleather, PU leather, vinyl leather – it’s all the same thing, different types of artificial leathers which in most cases are made of plastic. Many people in the world seek a more sustainable lifestyle, which obviously is a very positive thing. One part in this is looking for vegan products, which can have positive climate effect in some cases, but in some cases it’s the other way around. Vegan leather is a clear example of the latter. 10-20 years ago the same type of leather was sold as synthetic leather and was mainly used for cheaper footwear and products, most people avoided it mainly due to the lack of breathability made these shoes much warmer and uncomfortable to wear. Only strong brands that could sell on brand name used it also in more expensive shoes, for example sport brands like Adidas and Nike, and also in children’s shoes it was common since kids don’t complain too much on warm shoes, they just wear what parents put on their feet. The reason brands liked to use synthetic leather was down to one single thing – price. Synthetic leather is much cheaper than real leather, especially compared to good quality real animal leather. And that was the way it was perceived, as a cheap alternative.

Steps to make synthetic polyurethane leather:
1. A plain fabric base
2. On this a polyurethane coating is applied
3. Next a color coat is added
4. Finally a textured finish. Picture: Wikipedia

Enter the previous decade an increasing awareness on climate change and our environmental impact emerge, especially in recent years. Global warming finally is seen as a real issue by many around the world, and one way to reduce environmental impact is to eat less or no meat. Following this, vegan labelled products became associated with sustainability, and producers of these products quickly followed along. The raising demand for vegan leathers have already affected the animal leather industry, read more in this article, and will likely continue to do so. Now, there’s plenty of cases where it’s a fact that vegan products are more sustainable than animal-based alternatives, but as I’ve said there’s also plenty of cases where they are not. Yet by marketing things a certain way many people are fooled to believe otherwise.

The new vegan leather version of Adidas Superstar II sneaker. Funny enough, it’s the same synthetic plastic based leather that most versions of Superstar II has been made of for decades. Picture: Cisalfa Sport

Vegan leather shoes, made with synthetic plastic leather. Picture: Nemanti

Artificial leather is not a new thing. One of the first types was developed in Germany in the beginning of the 1900’s, and was called Presstoff. It was actually a highly sustainable product, made form specially layered, compressed paper pulp. It couldn’t be used for footwear since flex and moist destroyed it, but was popular for other products. Another early artificial leather was Rexine, which was cloth covered by cellulose nitrate which had the main con of being highly flammable. These early types were soon to be replaced by cheaper, easier-made plastic-based artificial leathers. In the midst of the 1900’s plastic took over the world, and there were few areas humans couldn’t find a place to use it.

Old pistol holster made of Prestoff leather. Picture: Wikipedia

PVC or PU-based leathers are cheap and easy to make. They can be relatively durable, but in general doesn’t breath at all, since it’s not porous.

Since then a number of different types of artificial leathers with various types of plastic covers have been developed. Can’t go through all different types here, but a very common one is where a base made of polyester is covered with polyurethane, PU. Another type has synthetic or natural textile as base which is covered with polyvinyl chloride, PVC. There’s a number of problems with these types of leathers, even if they are vegan and don’t come from animals, they are in many cases much worse for the environment. Most of the plastic used for synthetic vegan leathers today has, as with most plastics around, its molecules derive from petroleum, crude oil, which is highly harmful in a lot of regards for the environment. And even in those cases it’s renewable plastic it takes hundreds of years for nature to degrade it. On top of that, in many of the synthetic leathers which needs to be pliable, plasticisers like phthalates or other hazardous substances are used, which can be dangerous both for humans and nature. For example, Greenpeace rates PVC as the most environmentally damaging plastic there is.

A lot of retailers of products that market their stuff as vegan leathers hide the fact that they are actually more harmful to the environment than natural real leather, which is highly problematic, especially since many who seek vegan alternatives do it to spare the environment. If you’re after vegan alternatives, you have to make sure you get good products. For artificial leathers, there’s alternatives around that are better and some really good ones, for example materials made from pineapple, mushrooms, bananas, etc. These only stand for a fraction of all artificial leather used today though, and unfortunately several of them still use various plastics and/or petroleum-based resins, but hopefully these will continue to be developed and replace more of the plastic leathers. As I’ve also written about before in this article, there’s biofabricated leathers grown in laboratories being developed as well, which will have all the great properties of natural leather yet very environmentally friendly and without any animals being involved.

Leather made of fibres from pineapple leaves, called Pinatex, which is one of the more common new types of vegan leathers. Unfortunately it needs to be mixed with thermoplastic and petroleum-based resins, meaning it’s not biodegradeable and not an especially sustainable alternative, even if it’s marketed as such. Picture: ReFlow Project

A number of different types of mushroom based leathers are currently being developed, and is one of the fully organic, biodegradeable vegan leather alternatives that seem to have best chance at being a highly sustainable vegan alternative. Picture: CNN

Cause it’s the properties that still makes real leather an alternative that is hard to beat, and which is a big reason that basically no artificial leather has come close in popularity to natural leather (despite the fact that, as mentioned, real leather is more expensive than synthetic leather, otherwise low prices are always a main driver for any industry). Real leather is (or at least can be) beautiful, breathable, flexible, pliable, durable, develops a lovely patina, can be revived from a terrible state to looking almost new, and so on. Artificial leathers have managed to bring in some of these properties, but none all and not to the same degree.

So, does this mean that real natural leather is A OK in all regards compared to artificial synthetic vegan alternatives? Not at all. There’s its own set of problems here. Bad animal husbandry and the environmental impact the cattle industry has is a given ones due to the topic of vegan leather, although as most probably know leather is only a bi-product from the food industry, it’s still part of this. Others are the highly environmentally hazardous development of chrome tanned leather that takes place in some areas, as I’ve written about many times on Shoegazing, mainly in Asia and South America (although this is also changing in a more positive direction, read for example this article). And if the leather is chrome tanned it’s not technically biodegradable in the sense that you can just leave a pair of shoes in the wild and have it taken care of by nature, chromium is toxic especially if burned since then the less harmful trivalent chromium used tanning leather transforms to the more harmful hexivalent chromium, however vegetable tanned leather can basically be fully biodegradable.

The Vass for Shoegazing Sarek boot in vegetable tanned leather from the Swedish tannery Tärnsjö.

Worth noting though is that most of these issues does not have to be issues, and especially when we buy good quality expensive shoes, we partly pay to not have them or at least to a limited extent (plus of course a bunch of other sustainable aspects, as the durability, possibility to repair and resole, made in factories with good working conditions, and so on). Basically all quality shoes are made of leathers from European hides, and here animal husbandry are relatively good (can be better though, and EU regulations hopefully leads that way, read more here), and the best quality hides in general comes from animal that have lived a relatively good life. The regulations in Europe on tanning is very strict, for example all chrome tanneries have fully closed systems where nothing is disposed out to nature. So, as long as one takes care of the shoes when disposed, no chromium will come out in nature (here’s another thing that can be improved, waste management and recycling of leather products. Small steps are taken here and there, but much, much more can be done).

Bottom line is that we all need to be conscious consumers, and the ones buying vegan leathers and similarly marketed products perhaps even more so, as things stand today.