JANUARY 20, 2022

Why We Need To Rethink Leather in Fashion

Between real leather or synthetic leather, which one is the eco-friendly choice? It’s a tough but important question to ask.

Fashion and shoes - real leather or synthetic vegan leather - which one is eco-friendly leather

VEERAH Lucy vegan slip-on mules, sustainably made from USDA-certified bio-based apple leather

Many of us have become conscious about making ethical choices as consumers. For style enthusiasts, that means taking into consideration the factors that went into producing a fashion item before adding it to cart. Are these sustainable shoes? Is this handbag eco-friendly? Is that jacket colored with natural dyes? And perhaps one of the biggest fashion dilemmas right now is on the topic of leather versus vegan leather.

Leather, of course, comes from animal skins and hides, while vegan leather—also known as synthetic leather—doesn’t make use of any animal-derived materials. And for years, designers, fashion journalists, and advocates from both ends have grappled with this dilemma: between leather and synthetic leather, which one is the more eco-friendly choice?

Take a pair of designer womens shoes. Fans of leather would argue that the real thing would make for more sustainable shoes because it’s biodegradable, i.e. breaks down at the end of its natural life.

Another way that some justify leather is that it’s a byproduct of the meat industry: so long as there are people who eat meat, and animals are killed to meet that demand, we might as well make use of the other parts of these animals.

There’s also the argument that leather is more durable and lasts longer than faux leather, so that you could keep wearing it instead of having to shop for replacements after just a couple of seasons. So in this sense, it would seem that a pair made of leather would seem the eco-friendly choice over vegan leather shoes.

But is it?

It’s not really answerable with a “yes” or “no,” but we can put in perspective a few impressions about leather and vegan leather.

#VEERAHwarrior Talita Trygsland of Mercy for Animals

Vegan activist Talita Trysgland pairs VEERAH Mulan pumps with reversible straps

“LEATHER IS BIODEGRADABLE.”

Yes, natural and unprocessed animal skin or hide is biodegradable. But, to turn that raw material into the leather pieces being sold in stores, it has to go through a process called tanning. In a tannery, the raw skins or hides are cleaned of blood, dirt, and other residue, and then prepped with chemicals to make it more resistant to bacteria and fungi.

90% of the world’s leather has since gone through a process known as chrome-tanning, to make it softer, waterproof, and more receptive to dyes. This changes the leather’s chemical composition. In other words, most of today’s leather isn’t actually biodegradable at all.

Regardless what kind, tanning requires the use of huge quantities of water. With many parts of the world severely lacking access to clean and potable water, this poses not just an environmental but an ethical issue. 

#VEERAHwarrior Talita Trygsland of Mercy for Animals

Celebrity stylist Jennifer Fein rocks her Hedy boots in Midnight Black

“Leather is simply a byproduct of the meat industry.”

Leather is usually made from the skins of bovines and pigs, whose meats are typically consumed. But let’s not forget that leather is also made from other animals like ostrich, crocodiles and alligators, snakes, elephants, and kangaroos, and these types of leather are considered exotic luxury items that are valued higher. The same goes for calfskin and lambskin, whose skin are more valuable than their meat.

For leather to be considered simply a byproduct—a waste-reducing, incidental process—the way it’s produced “closes the loop.” An ideal example would be cattle raised on a farm primarily for their meat, whose fat is used for fuel or other products, whose other parts are used as feeds or fertilizers for vegetable production, which in turn is used to feed the animals on that farm.

The global leather goods market is forecast to reach $128.61 billion by 2022. If animals are being raised and killed for their skin to be turned into leather, then it’s actually a co-product of the unsustainable meat industry, not a byproduct.

Brazilian pop sensation Anitta rocks VEERAH Venus vegan sandals at the Latin Grammy. Photo by John Parra/Getty Images

“Leather lasts longer so you won’t need to buy as often.”

This is where it truly pays to be an informed consumer. When we think of leather, some of us probably think “natural,” or maybe the words “investment piece” come to mind. It may seem like leather is the eco-friendly choice, but the leather industry is actually more wasteful and harmful for the environment than most people probably imagine.

Data by Collective Fashion Justice paints a staggering picture: based on the water footprint of raising cattle for leather, it takes about as much water as 198 showers to produce an average pair of cow leather. For an average pair of leather boots? It’s 322 showers. That’s six to 10 months of showering for a pair of leather shoes or boots!

They also made computations based on the recommended two liters of water we should drink per day: a pair of leather shoes uses enough water for a person to drink for 10.4 years, and 17 years for a pair of leather boots.

Tons of studies have also been made regarding the toxic hazards of the leather industry because chrome-tanning uses chromium, formaldehyde, and arsenic. This has been established to have toxic effects on the health of tannery workers and on the environment, especially in developing countries where environmental-protection standards are often flouted.

#VEERAHwarrior Talita Trygsland of Mercy for Animals

Actress Heyley Law in Frida Blue Ap-peel pumps. Photo by Matt Doyle for CROOKES

“Synthetic leather is plastic-based, so not eco-friendly either.”

Synthetic leather or vegan leather used to be widely called another name: pleather. That’s because in its early days, it was mostly made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is harmful to the environment. So while no animals were killed in order to make them, concerns were raised about the fact that synthetic leather impacts the environment, too.

But according to the Higg material sustainability index, even synthetic PU leather production requires 14 times less water than cow skin leather. Similarly, Kering’s “Environment Profit & Loss” sustainability report in 2018 states that the impact of vegan leather production is a third lower than real leather.

Plus, synthetic leather has come a long way since! In their search for cruelty-free, ethical, and sustainable ways to produce vegan leather, eco-friendly fashion brands have been innovating with plant-based leather, using byproducts as raw materials.

Business founder and philanthropist Francesca Vuillemin in Vicky flats

Eco-friendly leather alternatives

VEERAH makes designer womens shoes from Appeel, apple leather that’s made of apple peels—a true byproduct of the apple juice industry.

Piñatex is made of fiber from the waste leaves of harvested pineapples in the Philippines. Fleather is vegan leather made of leftover temple flowers in India. Then there’s Desserto, vegan leather made of nopal cactus leaves in Mexico. Other sources include cork, corn, and cereal crops, with manufacturers looking to move away from petroleum-based and replace it with bio-based and recycled materials.

Curious how this can be done? VEERAH shoes, for example, are made not only of apple peel skin leather, but other natural materials that minimize harm to the environment and are always cruelty-free and PVC-free. This includes the use of algae to make insoles that are highly breathable and antimicrobial, 100% organic cotton for lining, and non-toxic vegan leather that uses 92-95% less water. This applies to packaging as well—the shoes’ dust bag is made of recycled PET bottles, the box and stuffing paper are made from post-consumer material, down to the soy ink being used in lieu of the traditional petroleum-based ink. But if you look at a pair without knowing any of this, you can’t even tell.

And what’s better than designer womens shoes? Designer womens shoes that happen to be made of vegan leather!

These innovations are only the beginning as more and more brands heed the call towards ethical fashion. Synthetic leather may not be the perfect solution, but it’s a better one, and continuing to get better.