Is Vegan Leather Always Better?

Written by
Emily Cai
Materials Specialist at On

Must read

Sep 8, 2023

The surge of veganism is driving global adoption of vegan leathers and materials. A 2021 paper cited that the vegan community increased by 500% between 2014 and 2017 in the United States, with parallel trends across Europe. Beyond dietary choices, this movement has reshaped consumer preferences, including clothing and lifestyle decisions. Many contemporary fashion brands embrace vegan materials as part of their sustainability initiatives, addressing consumers’ personal health and animal wellness concerns. It is worth noting that while the term “vegan leather” suggests sustainability, it encompasses a wide range of materials, from those derived from fossil fuels to plant-based sources.

Though these fossil-fuel-based leathers may not contain animal products, they rely heavily on non-renewable resources and often cannot be recycled.

What makes a product vegan?

Vegan products do not use any animal-derived components. This goes beyond substituting animal leather or silk for a synthetic alternative. According to the British Retail Consortium’s voluntary guidelines, the adhesives, dyes, primers, and other unsuspected substances used in manufacturing may also contain animal byproducts. Companies must review all added substances to ensure a vegan product. Vegan certifications, such as BeVeg, work to certify vegan products by ISO standards.

According to these standards, “vegan leathers” encompass a range of plastic-based to plant-based alternatives. Thus, labels such as “faux leather,” “artificial leather,” “synthetic leather,” and “leather alternative” can all be used interchangeably to refer to “vegan leather” if no animal products are involved. Terms such as “pleather” and “biosynthetic leather” are more specific types of vegan leather, which refer to their respective raw material sources.

Impact of “vegan leathers”

How much more sustainable are these vegan substitutes when compared to traditional, animal-derived options? The answer varies depending on the specific compared material. Conventionally produced leather comes from livestock, contributing to methane emissions and rainforest deforestation. Despite this, leather’s reputation as a luxurious material and a natural byproduct of the meat industry remains intact.

While some leather derives from the meat industry, its tanning and dyeing manufacturing process exacerbates leather’s impact. For example, the tanning process uses heavy metals, putting workers and the environment at risk of toxic chemical exposure. Kering’s 2022 Environmental Profit & Loss report highlights that leather production contributes the most to their land and carbon usage. On the other hand, prior reports note that when compared to animal leather, vegan leather production can decrease impact by up to one-third.

Comparing the environmental impact of different materials is complex due to incomplete data and varying supply chains. Various vegan leather types use diverse raw materials, from plastics to plants. Variables such as the release of microfibers from synthetic fibers may not be able to be fully measured. Leather tanneries located in different countries use varying water treatment systems. Therefore, these reports cannot generalize comparisons between broad groups of materials.

Fossil-fuel-derived synthetics

Plastic-based leather, or “pleather,” dates to the late 1800s when chemists discovered polyurethane. These materials began facing criticism in the 1970s environmental movement due to their negative impact on the environment. Initially, many viewed plastic-based leather as a cheaper material and not really leather at all. However, recently rebranding this material as “vegan” gives pleather an environmentally friendly image.

Typically, synthetic leather production adheres a polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) film to a polyester or nylon backer. These materials have greatly improved and closely resemble the hand feel and texture of real leather. Though these fossil-fuel-based leathers may not contain animal products, they rely heavily on non-renewable resources and often cannot be recycled. Lastly, synthetic materials are estimated to release about 500,000 tonnes of microfibers into the ocean from domestic washing annually.

Even as vegan leather popularity increases, the demand for beef leaves excess unused hides. According to the U.S. Hide, Skin, and Leather Association, about 5 million hides, or about 15 percent of all available, went to landfill in 2020. Considering these factors, it remains unclear whether these fossil-fuel derived leathers have a different environmental impact from animal leather.

Bio-derived leathers

A fresh category of vegan leather is biosynthetic or bio-derived leather. These next-generation materials draw from diverse bio-derived inputs such as plants, microbes, and mycelium. Variations in inputs, bio-content, and production methods all shape their differing sustainability impacts.

These materials aim to combine the strengths of animal leather and fossil-fuel-based leather. Biosynthetic leathers eliminate the reliance on animal slaughter and fossil-fuel extraction for raw material. Many of these materials avoid the same toxic chemicals used in tanning hides or making synthetic fibers. Finally, some even degrade in industrial composting facilities over time, providing a safe disposal method.

In the realm of sustainable materials, biomaterials have the potential to bridge the sustainability gap between animal leather and synthetic materials derived from fossil fuels. While their positive environmental impact is promising, we must acknowledge that these materials will take time to develop. Now more than ever, it is crucial to support the development of these materials as they evolve from innovative to mainstream sustainability.