Just like outdoor fabrics, vegan leather has gotten a bad rap over the years. It is often thought of as a cheap imitation that feels like plastic and won't wear well over time. Thankfully, this is no longer the case. In fact, the technology to make vegan leather has become so good at imitation that even the most prudent eyes have a hard time determining the difference between real and faux. Many of these new iterations of alternative leathers are indoor/outdoor and kid-friendly too. But is vegan leather better for the environment? The answer is a bit complicated.
The Pros and Cons of Real Leather
While real leather is a natural material, harsh chemicals are often used to preserve the hide from degrading over time in a process called tanning. The most common finishing process is chrome tanning where leather is placed in a chromium salt bath for preservation. This is a speedier tanning option, but is highly toxic to both the natural ecosystems where the chemicals are disposed and to the workers involved. Vegetable tanning is a far less noxious process using ancient methods to soak a hide in naturally occurring vegetable tannins found in things like tree barks and leaves. However, while this is kinder to the environment, it takes at least twice as long to finish and colors are more limited than with other methods.
Real leather also has other issues to consider. It is a byproduct of the meat industry, making it on one hand a closed loop that would otherwise make the hides a wasteful consequence without the leather industry. Real leather is also one of the most durable natural materials around, its longevity outlasting many other products, like faux leather and fabric.
Which to Choose?
Real leather contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and raises issues about animal cruelty and water usage. If you are trying to be mindful with your leather purchases, opt for vegetable-tanned hides made from the byproduct of the meat industry. Moore and Giles is planning to launch a 100% traceable leather later this year called Seven Hills, which is completely made in the U.S. Cows sourced from small farms across the country are sent to an abattoir in Lynchburg that supplies grass fed beef to fine restaurants across the Southeast and their leather is tanned at a generations-old, family-run tannery in Missouri. Moore and Giles recognizes the importance of sustainability in the market and has also created a new process that uses the byproducts of the olive oil industry to tan hides as a substitute for harsh chemicals.
The Pros and Cons of Vegan Leather
If you want to skip real leather altogether, is vegan leather really a better substitute? Vegan leather, also know as pleather, faux leather, or artificial leather, thus far, is not a perfect option in the long-term.
Vegan leather was first invented in the late 18th century. One if its earliest iterations was a German product made of layered and treated paper pulp, called Presstoff, which was used in WWII. Continued use of this faux leather made the layers delaminate and break apart. Since then, the technology used in vegan leather has grown tremendously and now the most common material used to make it is plastic.
Most vegan leather today is made of PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) or PU (Polyurethane), essentially a plastic coating applied to a fabric backing and stamped to give the appearance of leather. PVC is the older and more widely used form of vegan leather. It is considered in environmental circles to be one of the most damaging plastics available on the market, as it made with fossil fuels and releases toxic fumes such as phthalates, dioxins, and BPA throughout its very long lifespan. While the more realistic and expensive option, PU, is considered far less harsh on the environment than real leather or even PVC, petroleum jelly is used in production, and it does not biodegrade faster than any other plastics polluting our ocean.
Other Leather Alternatives
Vegan leather is considered overall more environmentally friendly than real leather when considering the overall impact of deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions from animal rearing, and the harmful chemical used in processing. However, current leather alternatives will sit in a landfill for hundreds of years without a good way (as of yet) to recycle them. Even Stella Mccartney, a fashion designer on the forefront of using sustainable production processes, admits that vegan leather is not a perfect substitute.
There are other possible options in the future that will hopefully replace plastic as a leading alternative. Pollack has pushed the boundaries by creating a line of silicone based vegan leathers called Cowboy and aptly, Silicone Valley. The process to create these faux leathers requires no solvents, does not produce VOCs, and most importantly, has the versatility of being an indoor/outdoor option. These iterations are compliant with many environmental reporting standards including LEAD, HPD (Health Product Declaration) and Healthier Hospitals. Other companies have also been experimenting with compacting natural waste materials from processing cork, hemp, apples, pineapple leaves, coconut, and vegetable oils into a biodegradable material that looks like leather.
As any material in the fashion or interior design industry, leather and leather alternatives have their own drawbacks and positives in their long-term effects on the environment. Sustainability doesn't necessarily mean checking the box that you used faux leather rather than real, but rather understanding the materials and where they came from to make informed buying decisions.
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