Let’s look at some of the assumptions surrounding leather, and see how it really compares to even the most unsustainable alternative to it
If you’re vegan, and you mention that your shoes aren’t made from ‘real leather’, you’ve probably had someone tell you you’re doing something bad, because you’re basically wearing ‘plastic’, and at least leather is natural and better for the environment.
So let’s look at some of the assumptions surrounding leather, and see how it really compares to even the most unsustainable alternative to it.
Claim: Leather is just a by-product
Everyone knows an animal has to die in order for people to wear their skin. However, there are misconceptions around the finer details of this.
Contrary to popular belief, leather is not just a ‘by-product’ of the meat industry used to reduce waste. An animal’s skin is sold to make money, just like an animal’s flesh is. In fact, you can find ‘co-product’ industry pricing reports by Meat and Livestock Australia and other similar industry organizations.
Claim: Leather is a natural material
While skin may be natural (just like any body part), in order for skin to become leather, something that would naturally decompose quickly must be put through an unnatural process. If skin were not ‘tanned’, leather shoes would begin rotting as you wear them.
Claim: Leather is less polluting than synthetics
While there are legitimate concerns that come with producing synthetics, as they are not natural, leather tanneries are one of the most dangerous facilities involved in fashion.
Leather tanneries use all kinds of chemicals known to be harmful to both the planet and human health such as formaldehyde, arsenic lead and chromium. The Ministry of Environment in Bangladesh, home to a large percentage of the world’s tanneries, estimated that nearly 22,000 cubic metres of untreated and highly toxic liquid waste flows through different canals and into the Buriganga River every day.
Claim: Vegetable tanned leather is sustainable
While vegetable-tanned leather does not involve so many of the toxic chemicals used in conventional leather tanning, it is not off the eco-hook.
Even before the tanning process begins, the production of leather is unsustainable. Ruminant animals like cattle emit methane and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere when they breathe, burp and fart – this is called enteric fermentation.
In Australia, 71 percent of all agricultural methane emissions come from this. 40 percent of these come from cattle exploited for dairy, and 30 percent come from cattle raised for beef. These animals when are skinned for extra profit. This is just one reason leather, even without conventional tanning, is unsustainable.
Claim: Leather is better for the environment than synthetics
Findings shared in the Global Fashion Agenda showed that cow skin leather is more environmentally impactful than not only synthetic leather, but also every other measured material, far worse than the common polyurethane synthetic leather, and every other virgin synthetic material.
Claim: The only options are leather or petroleum based synthetics
Constantly new innovative vegan leather alternatives are being created! There are PUs made with water based coatings rather than oil, and Pus that are cereal oil based rather than petroleum or ‘plastic’-based.
There are totally plant-based alternatives like leather alternatives made from pineapple leaves, apple skin, mulberry leaves, mushrooms and cork. There are plenty of alternatives outside of both leather and traditional synthetic leather.