Vegan leather is not unquestionably better for the environment than animal leather. It is by definition a material that doesn't originate from animals, which, of course, is a great thing because they don’t need to be harmed in the process. But just because a product or material is vegan doesn't mean that it’s naturally sustainable. Let’s stop for a moment and take a closer look at the environmental consequences of vegan leather.
As we pointed out in our previous blogpost, bovine leather production comes with a heavy baggage and a huge ecological footprint, spiced with some very toxic chemicals. Therefore it might seem like an obvious choice to switch to vegan alternatives but they also have their own tolls. That’s why learning about the composition of these materials is important, especially if we make the change for environmental reasons.
Vegan or synthetic leather most of the time is made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane (PU). Both are fossil fuel-derived components that are bound to a textile backing with the help of chemicals in order to produce a material with a leather-like surface. These materials are sometimes so convincing that one can hardly tell that they are plastic.
The production of synthetic alternatives is much faster and cheaper than traditional leather and besides obviously lacking animal-cruelty, according to a Higg Index analysis published in the Pulse Report, it also has 60-70% smaller environmental effects. At least from cradle to gate, since the Index does not consider the environmental impacts of plastic waste which is a huge miss. If a product cannot slip back to nature, we cannot just ignore the waste that is left behind.
Even though vegan leather doesn’t go through a classic tanning process - which is the most harmful part of leather-making -, it doesn’t mean that it’s free of dangerous chemicals.
PVC, which Greenpeace simply refers to as “The Poison Plastic” has harmful impacts on the environment during its whole life cycle, not just after ending up in a landfill. This chlorine-based material is considered to be the most dangerous one of all plastics. It releases toxic dioxins when it’s burnt, not to mention that the phthalates used to make it more flexible can affect humans by causing developmental and reproductive problems, or even cancer.
PU is more present in our day-to-day life and it’s slightly less harmful than PVC. However, it also releases hazardous toxins during manufacturing, and due to its high flammability, PU needs to be treated with flame retardants, almost all of which are considered harmful. Plastic doesn’t sound like the perfect alternative anymore, right?
The production of synthetic leather might be better for the environment than the production of animal leather, depending on how you look at it, but we cannot forget about the fact that plastic leather alternatives have a much shorter lifespan than traditional leather. They can be used maximum for a few years before they start to break and deteriorate. Essentially, replacing a faux leather item over and over again can arguably be worse than purchasing a leather item that lasts for a decade.
All the while, plastic items constantly shred microplastics into the air, water, and onto our skin. And as scary as it sounds, as a result, we consume about 20 kg microplastic over a lifetime according to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
When it comes to the end-of-life, PVC-based fake leather doesn’t biodegrade and it can release dangerous chemicals into the water and soil. PU-based alternatives can be recycled or broken down, but it’s a long process and using heat or chemicals to decompose it can also release toxins.
Bioplastics like polylactic acid (PLA) seem to come to the rescue with their renewable resources such as corn or sugarcane. Unlike their fossil fuel-derived counterparts, bioplastics are compostable under industrial circumstances, however it takes the same amount of time for them to biodegrade in a landfill or in the ocean as regular plastics, and they shed microplastics just the same.
One problem with bioplastics is that their production endangers the diversity of agriculture. As the need for plant-based plastic grows, the monoculture crops used for PLA might take valuable space away from food crops. Not to mention that monocultures spoil the land by overusing it for the same crops year after year, and this type of agriculture often promotes gene-modification of which effects on the ecosystem are still debatable.
And while the toxins used for and emitted by petrochemicals are well-known by now, the effects of chemicals found in bioplastics are still unknown. So despite the seemingly obvious benefits of bioplastics, there are still some unanswered questions lingering around.
Leather alternatives are available in all kinds of shapes and forms, but what they are made of matters the most.
What is alarming about plastic leather is that it can be produced cheaply and easily in a short amount of time so it’s easy to overproduce and ignore the consequences, while we only pay attention to the harm it doesn’t cause.
This doesn’t mean that faux leather has a worse effect on our lives and on our planet than bovine leather. It means that it has negative effects that we, as consumers, should be aware of and look at products with a critical eye before we let buzzwords and trademarks control our decisions. Our world is not perfect but we can turn it into a better place by making conscious decisions.
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