Which is more sustainable real or fake leather?

Hello readers! I hope your day is well so far. I took the past few weeks off and feel so rejuvenated. I was going through an uninspired phase and was not sure what more to share on the blog. To be honest, I have not been trying anything new in beauty as I still have some products from my Body Shop advent calendar (I know, like 3 months worth of things). In fashion, I do not have the need for anything urgent at the moment and have been focused on finance (saving) rather than spending. A little while ago I wrote “leather” on my list of topics to write about. I did a lot a ready these past weeks about the various types of leathers, their categorization and environmental impact. Today, I decided to share my findings of this very opinionated topic in the ethical and sustainable community. I understand not everyone has the same opinion and see things the same way. Which is why I ask that everyone stay open-minded and respect one and another with their comments and opinion. I did so much research and read so many articles and wanted to create a little guide for you in helping you decide which would be the best option for you and your values. It will be a very extensive post and I hope you will share widely because I put a lot of effort into this piece. As usual, please like and follow me on social media for more content. Now, without further due, I divided this piece into 2 categories: real leather and fake or “vegan” leather. I will discuss their various origins, their treatments (both animal and care), their durability, and environmental impact. There will also be an infographic at the end if you would like to save it to your Pinterest boards.

Introduction and disclaimer

I am not an expert on the subject but these are a summary of what I found and understood on the subject of leather in the fashion industry. I will list all my sources at the end if you wish to read for yourselves. I draw my conclusions and made a decision of which I prefer in line with my values. I understand we might not come to the same conclusions and that is totally fine. I will try my best to give the information without any opinion and as simple/short as possible.

Animal Leather

Made of

This is probably one of the oldest fabric used in clothing. As you can imagine, it comes from animals’skin (mostly mammals like cows and goats) raised for their meat or milk. What you may not know is that the quality and price varies upon which layer is used for the garment.  The out layer of the skin is tough with tight natural fibres. This makes it stronger and durable. The other layers of skin get looser as you get further down and thus the price, durability and quality lessen. To compensate for the looser natural fibres, it will often get mixed with polyurethane.

Treatment

The treatment of animal used for leather is a complicated analysis. It is very hard to get the information about where the leather is from, how the animal was treated and if the factories were ethical. However, there are alternative ways to shop for leather:

  • surplus leather: is scrap leather from agricultural or manufacturing production;
  • vintage leather: (also called second-hand) pre-existing clothing;
  • handcrafted/artisan leather: support local craftsmen, closer to the supply chain to get information about ethical practices;
  • local leather: eliminate the carbon impact link with transport and closer to the supply chain.
  • alternative leather: is a by-product of food, maybe fish skins like eel, salmon, sheep, ostrich, chicken or pineapple leaves.

Because it is animal skin, it needs to be treated regularly, such as cleaning and butter treatment to keep it moisturized and flexible. It can also be repaired as needed.

Durability

Animal leather is durable in the sense that it can last a very long time if it is of high quality and taken care of. It is also biodegradable in nature and can be recycled.

Environmental impact

These types of leather will need to be treated otherwise the skin putrefies and harden. The treatment is called tanning and can be done 2 ways: vegetable or chrome. The later is a modern method (as early as mid-1800) and is currently used in about 99% of the tanned leather. It is a faster method than the vegetable. It offers the possibility of vivid colours, fairly resistant to water, stains and heat while keeping costs low. As for the vegetable tanning, it is the oldest method since it has been around for thousands of years. The principle is to soak the skin in vegetable tannins (trees and plants) and the process takes about 2 months. It is generally biodegradable thus environmentally friendly. In short, the making process those have an environmental impact but the disposal of it may not have a negative impact (recycle the material or biodegradable).

Some research and progress have been made to reduce or eliminate the environmental impact of the tanning process (see research mentioned in “sources”).

Fake or “Vegan” Leather

Made

This type of leather is fully or partially man-made, which means it is made from chemicals. The two main product of faux leather is PVC and polyurethane to make faux leather goods. It can sometimes be made from cork, barkcloth, gazed cotton waxed cotton and paper, although uncommon. It is easily modified and custom made and can be used for a wide range of goods. It is not expensive to make and lighter fabric than animal leather. You may notice that this type of leather is machine washable and can be dry cleaned. There is also a leather called bi-cast made of the lowest layer of a hide and mixed in polyurethane coding.  Bonded leather is made of upcycled leather remnants (dust and scrapings – discarded leather pieces) pressed and glued together with a coat of polyurethane. 

Treatment

Since this faux leather does not come from animals, there is no real mistreatment of animal issues. On a care note, it is not easy to clean this type of leather and may have a shinier appearance. It could be possible to treat the leather to extend its usage.

Durability

It varies greatly and depends on usage, type of garment and products used. In general, it is fairly resistant to water and regular usage. It is possible, just like real leather, to treat it for a longer “life”. It is not possible to reuse or repair this type of leather. It might be possible to recycle some parts but it would require extensive research on where and how this would be possible.

Environmental impact

As you may understand, PVC and polyurethane are plastic components and have a very large as well as complex environmental impact. It impacts in the production on the leather by its making process as well as it’s disposable after usage.

There is research for biomaterial to be used to create faux leather.

Conclusion

Both have an environmental impact we need to be aware of when purchasing leather of any kind, let it be in the making process or the disposal. Real leather does have the animal rights component to consider. More and more sustainable and ethical options are emerging and offer customers possibilities to meet their values. I hope this post helps you make a decision on what type of leather to support or avoid it completely. I would be grateful if you would share this post if you liked it or comment. I would love to hear from you if I misunderstood some things, miss things or if you have information to add. As always, I wish you a very good day and hope to see you back on the blog soon. In the meantime, you can follow me on social media.

Sources

Better meets reality

Ms Bay

The Peahan

The Guardian

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