LEATHER VS. FAUX (VEGAN/SYNTHETIC) LEATHER
Why should one buy repurposed or upcycled leather?
As noted in a previous blog, upcycling (the recycling or repurposing of an existing item into something more usuable or functional) has many benefits. It limits the amount of waste going into landfills; it limits the demand for ‘new’ leather; and it has an element of exclusivity because the items produced are often one of a kind.
Leather is one of the oldest materials used by humans for clothing and it remains an important material, particularly for footwear and accessories. Leather is typically sourced from the hides of bovine animals (cows), as well as sheep and goats. Hides can also be sourced from other species such as ostrich, crocodile, snake and even salmon.
3.8 billion animals are used for leather each year. That’s one animal for every two people on the planet.
Leather is animal hide that is cleaned of hair, treated (or ‘tanned’) to preserve it and then finished with a specific colour, embossing or feel. Manufacturers then turn this into footwear – the primary use – as well as clothing, fashion accessories, interiors and car upholstery.
Animal skin is made into a piece of leather by removing water molecules from the collagen of the skin, (which is the protein that the skin consists of). However, drawing collagen out the skin can cause the skin to dry out and become inflexible, essentially making it unusable. Since ancient times, people have been soaking the skins in natural tannins (oak bark, chestnut, and other plant material) to dehydrate and preserve the leather, which replaces the water molecules and binds with the collagen, keeping it soft and pliable. This process often takes months, making what is known as vegetable tanned leather very expensive (and exclusive).
Chemical tanning (the most used method) is the most toxic phase in leather processing, with 90 per cent of production using chromium. Hides are doused in drums of water, chromium salts and tanning liquor to stop them decomposing and to give a supple, colour-fast leather. It produces a slush of chemicals and gases, including carcinogenic chromium (IV). This is so noxious that strict regulations governing it have forced the closure of tanneries in the US and Europe. In developing countries, the untreated effluent, potentially laced with chromium, lead, arsenic and acids, often flows direct into local waterways.
Tannery workers – including children as young as 10 in some countries – risk severe side- effects from exposure to these toxic substances. Acute effects include irritation to the mouth, airways and eyes; skin reactions; digestive problems, kidney or liver damage; long-term cancer and reproductive problems.
However, production of leather uses less water than the manufacture of denim.
More than half of the world’s supply of leather raw material comes from developing countries. China is the dominant buyer and processor of this raw material – in keeping with its rank as the world’s dominant shoe producer by volume.
In 2014/15, the global trade in raw leather was worth around $30 billion and the leather goods sector is estimated to grow by an average of around 4 per cent to 2019.
High environmental costs
As currently practised, leather production is linked to some serious sustainability issues, not least as a by-product of the meat industry. Extensive rearing of livestock has severe environmental impacts such as deforestation, water and land overuse, and gas emissions. Clearing of the Amazon for cattle ranching, including for leather, is contributing to climate change. As long as there is a global demand for meat, leather will continue to be produced.
The Alternative - Synthetic materials?
The most commonly used materials for synthetic leathers are polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU), which are plastic based materials. Another term for fake leather is “pleather” which comes from the term plastic leather.
These two commonly used synthetic materials in particular have raised questions about the safety and dangers of vegan leather to the environment. Very few vegan leathers are made from natural materials although it is possible to find more eco friendly products made from materials like cork, kelp and even pineapple leaves.
Synthetic leather is produced with different chemicals and a totally different industrial process to real leather. Bonding together a plastic coating to a fabric backing is the most common way to make faux leather; the types of plastic used in these coatings vary and this is what defines whether or not it is eco friendly.
Although PVC is in much less use than it was in the 1960’s and 70’s, it can still be found in the composition of some vegan leather. PVC releases dioxins, which are potentially dangerous in confined spaces and especially dangerous if burnt. It also uses plasticisers such as phthalates to make it flexible. Depending on the type of phthalate used, they’re extremely toxic. It has been described by Greenpeace as the “single most environmentally damaging type of plastic”.
Petrochemical origins and impacts
Synthetic fibres are made through a chemical reaction involving coal, petroleum (from crude oil), air and water.
In 2015, more than 330 million barrels of oil were used to make polyester and other synthetic textiles – the equivalent of more than 21,000 Olympic swimming pools1.
Synthetic fibre production has a lower environmental impact than natural fibres production in terms of water usage and wastewater. However, the energy required to produce polyester (125 MJ of energy per kilogram produced) and the greenhouse gas emitted (14.2 kg of CO 2 per kilogram produced) make it a high-impact process. In 2015, polyester produced for clothing emitted 282 billion kg of CO 2 – nearly three times more than for cotton.
Pollution is also a problem. Factories producing synthetic fibres without wastewater treatment systems can release potentially dangerous substances including antimony, cobalt, manganese salts, sodium bromide and titanium dioxide into the environment, particularly waterways. As an oil-based plastic, polyester does not biodegrade like natural fibres. Rather it stays in landfill for several decades at least – and potentially for hundreds of years. When washed, fibres from synthetic textiles and clothing are shed and enter waterways and oceans as microplastic fibres, according to recent studies. Fish, shellfish and other aquatic creatures ingest the microplastics, which accumulate, concentrating toxins up the food chain. These can enter human food chains and pass into the wider environment.
Limitations of recycling
Very few fashion items (clothing & accessories)– less than 1 per cent of collected textiles – are recycled back into clothing or textile use. Each time plastic is reheated for recycling it degrades, so it cannot be recycled indefinitely (though researchers and start-up businesses are developing solutions to this). The high-temperature plastic recycling process can also release a carcinogenic antimony compound into the atmosphere.
Vegan or real leather?
The main concern for most people when deciding between vegan and real leather is the impact it has on animals and the environment. However, whilst the term vegan leather might imply an environmentally friendly product, this is not always the case.
Faux leather is known as vegan leather because the material used is never from animal skins but although this is a huge benefit for animal activists, the manufacture of synthetic leather is not beneficial to the environment or humans due to the toxins in the plastics used to make them. The manufacture and disposal of PVC-based synthetics produce hazardous dioxins, which can cause developmental and reproductive issues and even cause cancer. The synthetics used in vegan leathers also don’t fully biodegrade, although they can be broken down to a degree, they can also release toxic particles.
Quality and longevity
Quality and durability are also important things to consider when comparing vegan and real leather. Vegan leather is often a lot thinner than real leather, and very light weight, which makes it easier to work with. However, it also makes it less durable than real leather. Conversely, a real, good quality leather, can last decades when cared for. Vegan leather does not last for years. There is potentially a much higher environmental impact of replacing a faux leather handbag 4-6 times in the same time period one would replace a real leather handbag. Synthetic leathers also wear out very unattractively whereas real leather ages over time and forms a patina, which is considered to add character to leather.
So the ‘jury’ is still out on the leather vs. vegan debate. I return you to the opening. The benefits of acquiring an upcycled leather bag, counter the criticisms of the manufacture of leather because the damage the original leather item had on the environment has already been made. Essentially an upcycled leather bag potentially spreads the environmental effects over decades. Additionally, outdated leather garments would normally find their way into landfills. Upcycling of them diverts them.