Believe it or not, years prior to industrial textile development and commercialization, leather products used to release and cause fewer toxic chemicals and negative environmental impacts than they do now, respectively. Today, due to mass production, natural leather is treated for enhanced durability in a lengthy process that contributes significantly to deforestation, climate change, water pollution, and deteriorating human health.
What is leather, and how is it harmful?
Leather is animal hide that is stripped of all hair, tanned to prevent it from rotting, and then finished with specific colors and feels. The main pro of animal leather is that it is durable and biodegradable, meaning that it contributes to landfills way less than synthetic fabrics or plastics do.
However, processing animal skin into leather requires huge amounts of energy and toxic materials, some of them even cyanide-based. Tanning is the most hazardous step in leather processing, with 90% of production using chromium tanning. During chrome tanning, the hide is placed in a toxic chromium salt bath. When this water is later tossed out, it can run off into local waterways causing pollution.
Tannery workers, including young children in developing countries, are exposed to these chemicals, putting them at high risk for short and long term health impacts. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people living near a tannery in Kentucky were five times more likely to suffer from negative health outcomes than the U.S. average. PETA also states that arsenic, which is another chemical found in these tanneries, is likely to cause lung cancer in people who are in constant contact with it.
Synthetic leather might be vegan, but it’s far from being a sustainable solution
According to the Good Trade, synthetic fibers from textiles are the single biggest factor behind microplastic pollution, with about 70 million barrels of oil being used to make polyester around the word annually. The global synthetic leather market was valued at $25 billion in 2019, and is estimated to reach $45 billion by 2025.
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU) are two of the most widely used synthetic plastic polymers used to make faux leather. They are especially popular with fast-fashion brands due to their low prices and similarity to genuine leather. It is easy for such companies to label themselves as “sustainable” just on the basis of synthetic leather being cruelty-free. However, both PVC and PU are made from fossil fuels and undergo intensive chemical processing so they can look and feel like leather.
PVC releases poisonous chemicals during its lifecycle that have been associated with cancer by the WHO. This is why most luxury brands only use PVC for see-through vinyl bags and footwear. PU has a slightly wider range in terms of quality, toxicity, and pricing, but along with PVC, it also takes years to completely break down and releases toxic gases and chemicals upon doing so.
Vegetable tanning and plant-based alternatives
Luxury brands have recently turned back to the ancient and organic practice of tanning leather with natural tannins extracted from plant tissues. This is known as vegetable tanning. Different parts of trees are used to color and preserve the animal skin, resulting in a more eco-friendly, biodegradable product. However, vegetable tanning is a time-consuming process that requires experienced craftsmanship.
Despite vegetable tanning reducing the use and release of harmful chemicals, it is nonetheless not vegan, and therefore not sustainable. One might argue that the cattle being raised for consumption in the food industry might as well be also used for leather, since most of these animals’ skins will become a byproduct that ends up in a landfill anyway. However, PETA has taken a stance against manufacturing leather using the byproducts of animals reared in farms.
The best solution in this scenario is to invest in and source faux animal skins from startups trying to create fibers that resemble leather using plant-based raw materials and other wastes. Even though the finished product might use some non-biodegradable glues or foils to hold it together, plant-based alternatives use less water and chemicals, and leave a smaller carbon footprint than vegan synthetic plastics.
Here are a few innovative and sustainable options with minimum environmental impacts:
MuSkin is created from the caps of mushrooms by Grade Zero. They use all-natural processing to ensure that the converted mushroom gives off a leather feel without releasing toxic byproducts. Besides being eco-friendly and cruelty free, MuSkin is water repellant and long lasting. Another mushroom-based leather is Mylo, and it’s completely biodegradable. Stella McCartney, who was one of the earliest luxury designers to speak out for sustainability, created a prototype bag out of Mylo, although it’s still waiting to hit the mass market.
Related: Read about Piñatex, a natural leather alternative made from pineapple leaves.
Zoa is made from the collagen of bio-engineered yeast. It was created by New Jersey based startup, Modern Meadow. One great thing about Zoa is that its texture, feel, color, and other characteristics can be customized to individual brands’ demands. It strongly resembles high quality, luxury leather and because it is produced in a lab, it has a low environmental impact. However, it’s still in its early years of development and not on the market yet.
Mirum is created by Natural Fiber Welding, an Illinois-based startup that uses natural materials like waste cork, hemp, and coconut and vegetable oil to form biodegradable products. The mixtures are compressed to resemble the pattern and texture of leather. They’re then finished with non-toxic chemicals and plant-based dyes that don’t require water. However, it’s not certain yet as to what extent it will feel or last like animal leather since it’s still far away from the mainstream market.
The retail industry is yet to come up with alternative leather options that are 100% vegan and have little to no impact on the environment during their entire lifecycles. As with most sustainable options, the problem with most textile alternatives remains in the different stages of the supply chain. Designing and sourcing vegan raw materials is only a short-term solution if disposal of these materials later still contributes to an imbalanced ecosystem. “Until life-cycle assessments that also consider the lifespan and disposal of vegan leather come through, it’s unclear if plant-based leathers are more eco-friendly than vegetable-tanned leather,” writes Alden Wicker in Vogue. Such challenges will remain prevalent until some of these plant-based leather startups are able to commercialize their products, make their prices more accessible, and gain a strong reputation among designers and brands.