Leather has been used in products from bags to shoes to tents since 5000 B.C. often being re-purposed as a by-product of eating meat. The farming of cattle has been identified as one of the largest contributors to global CO2 emissions and many people concerned by this have started to turn away from animal products. But what are the alternatives? Many of them pose just as many environmental concerns or are simply not available. We aren’t promising a definite answer but this guide will hopefully help you to make a more informed choice the next time you buy.
With the average shoe taking around half a metre, making just the raw leather for a pair creates 10kg of CO2 and equivalents. According to the Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies calculator that's enough to charge 1,275 smartphones. Leather accounts for around 10% of the profitable material produced by each cow so it's production provides a pretty significant motivation for farming more cattle. The United Nations have identified the rapid growth of herds of cattle as one of the biggest threats the climate; whether you want to encourage this growth by buying leather has to be a big consideration.
It's not just the emissions from agriculture that need to be considered. In order to stop the leather from decomposing it must be tanned, a process that for around 80% of it includes chrome. Chromium salts are highly persistent chemicals and can be carcinogenic. Poisoning from Chromium was the basis for the largest medical settlement lawsuit in US history; although not tanning related it demonstrates how destructive this chemical can be.
There are alternatives to this chemical tanning process that many environmentally conscious companies are choosing to invest in. Vegetable-tanning is the only truly chromium free method which uses naturally occurring tannic acids found in some plant species like oak trees. It is a much longer process which can make it more expensive but it has qualities unlike those of any other leathers. The natural finish ages dependent on what you use it for so each piece becomes unique as you wear it.
Synthetic Leather Alternatives
As part of the Pulse of the Fashion Industry report, synthetic leather was deemed to have only a third of the environmental impact of cow leather. But what does this actually mean? Clearly there are some negatives to plastic based ‘vegan’ alternatives, including that some of them aren’t actually vegan at all!
One of the most common leather alternatives is Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC). The fabric is resistant to oil, sunlight, weather and is flame resistant. It also requires less petrol products so is much cheaper to make. However, it is made by reacting petroleum products with chlorine, a gas that can be harmful to workers if released during production alongside solvents and other toxic waste. Its polluting potential has led Greenpeace to call for a complete stop to its production.
Polyurethane (PU) is considered a more environmentally friendly alternative as, given the right circumstances, it can degrade. The production process also doesn’t involve the same quantity of toxic chemicals as PVC and its breathability makes its performance in clothing more similar to cow leather. PU isn’t as durable, though and therefore doesn’t last as long, which means over time more of it will have to be produced.
In reality, the conditions required to degrade PU are pretty specific. Both of these plastic alternatives, then, will inevitably end up as microplastics that work their way into waterways and food sources to the point that we consume around 50,000 of these particles each year. Thanks to a recent abundance of heartbreaking documentaries, we are all very aware of the impact plastic has on the ocean so potentially adding more isn't something we want.
Plant Based Leathers
Other, plant-based leather alternatives do exist. Pinatex, a material made from the leftover leaves produced by growing pineapples, is one that has been recently been gaining popularity. Made from waste material, Pinatex uses little water and no harmful chemicals so could be ideal. Even Hugo Boss have created a collection with this leather alternative. It is still relatively scarce, however, and is often used for short run campaigns by companies seeking to improve their green credentials. This is true of many plant based leather alternatives such as mushroom leather and composite coffee waste materials.
Until these alternatives are more widely available they do not provide a particularly realistic option for most of us. Whether you choose leather or synthetic is a decision often influenced by personal beliefs but hopefully this exploration of the available options will help you to make an informed decision.