Leather is an excellent product material for anything from wallets to shoes. But for vegans, it presents an interesting dilemma: is synthetic leather the better option? Synthetic leather, also known as vegan leather, is commonly chosen as an alternative to real leather. However, the reality is that vegan leather is not as straightforward as it seems.
The biggest difference between real leather and vegan leather is, of course, that real leather is made from animal products while vegan leather isn’t. But what exactly is vegan leather made from? The answer is that there are many options; vegan leather is typically made from materials such as glazed cotton, cork, barkcloth, paper, or waxed cotton. The two most popular ingredients, however, are polyurethane and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
PVC was most commonly used by Naugahyde, which is one of the premium pioneer brands in the coated fabrics industry. PVC was most brands’ first choice for vegan leather material, but it has recently decreased in popularity. According to Andrew Dent, the Vice President of Library and Research Materials at Material ConneXion, PVC has raised concerns in the last few years. These concerns include both challenges regarding the production of PVC as well as the fact that PVC releases dioxins when burnt, which can be potentially hazardous.
PVC also requires plasticizers such as phthalates in order to be flexible, as PVC is typically an inflexible plastic. Phthalates raise concern because they can potentially leach out when exposed to sunlight over time or if you suck on a toy with PVC in it. This has led to certain phthalates being banned and others coming under review. Because all PVC-based fabrics contain phthalates, they are all potentially toxic. The toxicity level depends on what type of phthalate is used in the PVC.
And polyurethane, the main alternative to PVC, isn’t much better. Because it involves a complicated chemical process to produce, products containing polyurethane tend to be more expensive. They are also less likely to be consistent, which means two products may vary widely in terms of quality and performance.
There’s also the potential environmental damage caused by polyurethane, as potentially toxic solvents are needed to turn polyurethane into a liquid. This liquid polyurethane is then painted onto a fabric backing to make vegan leather. Although they’ve recently developed versions of polyurethane with a waterborne coating, there are other environmental factors to consider. The quality of the supply, how it’s applied to the fabric, and the chemical process through which it’s manufactured all determine the impact polyurethane can have on the environment.
With the potential environmental damage caused by the process of making vegan leather, the question of whether or not it’s better than real leather becomes a lot more complicated. When it comes to animal ethics, real leather is always going to result in the loss of animal life. Therefore, vegans are not going to be able to consider using real leather regardless of the downsides of vegan leather.
But for non-vegans, there are many considerations to make. Obviously the idea of killing a cow to turn it into a leather handbag seems upsetting. The reality is, however, that most of the hides used to make leather come from cattle that are raised to make beef and milk. This means that repurposing their hides is a way to use every part of the animal and reduce waste. And while animal cruelty and deforestation remain two real concerns with the cattle industry, it does make leather production slightly more environmentally friendly than one might consider.
One downside of real leather production, though, is the tanning process. Tanning typically involves the use of toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, and cyanide-based finishes. This makes tanning a dangerous process for leather tanners and may impact their health. In fact, a study of the tanning region Chiampo Valley in northern Italy showed that over 30 solvents were released into the air from the tanning factories in the area.
With the complicated environmental reality on both sides, real leather gains the advantage by being the more sustainable option. Real leather lasts much longer than vegan leather, and when it does wear out, it wears out in a much better way. Worn out leather can sometimes look and feel better than new leather, which increases its life more than vegan leather. When vegan leather starts to wear out, it does not maintain an aesthetically pleasing look, which makes it much less sustainable.
Real leather is nature’s way of creating a cycle of sustainability. Animal carcasses decay and feed plants, continuing the cycle of life in a natural way. That makes real leather a normal part of the circle of life. When it comes to vegan leather, however, you’re taking something natural and chemically altering it to become unnatural. This will keep it from being recycled, and make it much more likely to add to the already overflowing landfills. And if vegan leather is recycled, it’s usually repurposed into something equally artificial.
There are also the practical differences between real and vegan leather to consider. Vegan leather is often described as having a “fishy” smell. It also doesn’t form a patina like real leather does when it ages, and it’s a lot less breathable. However, it is often a lot thinner than real leather and more lightweight, making it easier to work with.
Therefore, a better question than whether or not you should buy real or vegan leather is whether you should buy leather at all. If you look at the reality of our capitalist society and the lifespan of the product you’re contemplating purchasing, you’ll be better able to answer this question. Consider what you’re looking to buy, how long it will last, and what will happen to it after you get rid of it. The answer to these questions will shed more light on the sustainability of leather and whether or not choosing real or vegan leather is the better option.