Leather vs faux leather

Faux leather (also pleather or vegan leather) is often used as an alternative to genuine leather, because of animal welfare issues. But is it also better for the environment? Some people might argue that animal leather is natural and thus more environmentally friendly. But the animal´s skin needs to be treated in a chemical process called tanning to make leather.

The amount of chemicals used is high and much of the tanning occurs in countries where legislation is poor. Many of these chemicals have not been designated a health hazard, but others are considered to be extremely dangerous and damaging to humans and the environment. While some of them are dangerous in their raw state, others may become dangerous and hazardous when they are improperly disposed of. One type of chemical used are biocides, chemicals similar to antibiotics used to suppress organisms that are harmful to human or animals health, and often they end up in waste piles and can contaminate water supplies, posing a threat to both humans and animals. Other frequently used chemicals are cyanide, sodium hydroxide (lye), and chromium. The latter, when inhaled, can cause airway irritation, airway obstruction, and lung, nasal, or sinus cancer. Dermal exposure to chromium has been demonstrated to produce irritant and allergic contact dermatitis. In places where a lot of tanning takes place, like Kanpur in India, most of the tannery water is dumped and the people drink this highly contaminated water. People working at the tanneries are exposed to these chemicals on an even higher level and on a continuous basis. A 2008 study by scientists at the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research found that tannery workers had double the risk of morbidity when compared to control groups. Another way of tanning the skin is vegetable tanning, which is a complex, lengthy process which can take up to two months to complete. It is used for special purposes of heavy leather for shoe soles, belts, etc. Vegetable tanning may sound more eco-friendly but commonly used tannins come from trees such as oak or, wattle, meaning these trees have to be cut down to harvest the chemicals. And this process requires more water than chrome tanning.

Some argue that leather is a byproduct of the meat industry, but the reality is different. Although the majority is taken from cows who are slaughtered for their meat or from dairy cows no longer producing enough milk to remain profitable, the most “luxurious” (i.e. soft and thin) material comes from new-born veal calves and sometimes even unborn calves taken prematurely from their mother’s wombs. So despite the fact that most leather comes from animals slaughtered for meat or after producing milk, farmers do not sell every single part of each animal to minimize waste but instead to maximize revenue and profit. And since the skin is the most valuable part of the cow´s body (10% of the total value), leather is an animal product just like other products and is made to meet the demand in the market and make a profit.

Cows in the leather industry, just like those in the meat and dairy industry, suffer tremendously and it’s not uncommon for an animal to be stunned incorrectly and therefore skinned alive. The majority of the world’s leather comes from India, where killing cows is officially illegal. As a result, the cows are transported or have to walk for miles to a backstreet slaughterhouse. Not only cows suffer in the production of leather. Goats, pigs, sheep, lambs, horses, deer, kangaroos, snakes, alligators and elephants are also all among the victims of the leather industry. China, the world’s leading exporter of leather, annually skins an estimated 2 million dogs and cats per year, which is then unknowingly purchased by consumers due to mislabeling and inaccurate indications of the origin. Furthermore, the cows that need to be raised use immense quantities of water and pastureland, they produce millions of tons of waste, contaminating the ground and water and they release millions of tons of methane.

Vegan leather is made with some sort of plastic, but the type of plastic used varies, and this impacts its environmental impact, but all plastics are non-biodegradable and are made of fossil fuels. Many faux leathers used to be made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or polyutherane (PU), of which PVC is the worse of the two. PVC releases dioxins, toxins that promote developmental disturbances and increase cancer risks tenfold. Many types of vegan leather also contain phthalates, which are plasticisers to make the material flexible. When it does break down, vegan leather releases these plasticisers which subsequently enter the food chain and the atmosphere, causing breathing problems, breast cancers, hormonal disruptions and birth defects. Although considered more eco-friendly, PU also contains toxins. In the production of microfiber-based synthetics (such as PU), textiles and polymers are often layered together and compressed several times through metal rollers. They are then submersed in a coagulation solution to solidify. This chemical process requires high levels of toxic substances like dimethylformamide, which has been linked to cancer and birth defects, and acetic acid, high doses of which can damage skin and eyes.

But innovation has also entered the leather industry and new leather-like materials are being made from products that would otherwise have gone to waste, such as cork, pineapple leaves and mushroom mycelium (the fungus equivalent of a root system). There is even kombucha leather, grown from the same sludgy symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast used to make the fermented drink. It seems the time is right to ditch both real and faux leather!


Design Life Cycle

Pulitzer Center

One Planet Green



Eluxe Magazine

Further reading:

Global Fashion Agenda