What is Sustainable Leather & Understanding the Differences

April 26, 2021 108 view(s)
What is Sustainable Leather & Understanding the Differences

Conventional leather is heavily criticized because of the adverse effect it has on the environment, especially as it regards its highly toxic tanning process. This criticism has brought about the rising demand for the use of sustainable leather in the manufacturing of clothing and accessories.

Thankfully, eco-friendly leather is now available, even though the options are still limited. Currently, there are three main types of leather in the market. These include the conventional animal-derived leather, petroleum-based plastic leather, and plant-based vegan leather.

It is easy to assume that the alternatives to animal-derived leather are sustainable, but it is important to examine each option a bit more closely to fully understand their differences and how they impact the environment.

This article will help you understand what sustainable leather is and which options have a lesser impact on the environment.

Animal-Derived Leather

Here is a fact that cannot be argued: leather is not an animal-friendly product. We can dance around the subject of sustainable leather all we want, but it won’t change that fact. And that’s because leather is made from dead animal skin.

Meat consumption appears to be decreasing slightly in recent times, but the meat industry is not going to vanish in one magical puff. It won’t happen tomorrow, neither is it going to happen anytime soon. In fact, it is almost impossible to imagine the near future without the meat industry.

Now think about this: animal-derived leather comes from animals specifically raised for meat. That is to say, leather is a byproduct of the already existing meat industry and does not require additional resources.

It will be a terrible waste to use animal skin for landfills or to burn them up. As long as there is a meat industry, it makes sense to have an industry that uses the byproduct of meat – the animal-derived leather industry.

But it is important to point out that the current state of the meat industry is a far cry from being ethical and sustainable. Many ranches are striving to align their livestock farming with best practices, but their effort is insignificant compared to the majority that cares less about being ethical or sustainable. This has created a wide gap that does very little to prevent the environmental footprint of the meat industry.

In addition to all of this, the conventional leather industry needs to tan the skin from dead animals so that it doesn’t rot. Most manufacturers adopt a tanning method known as chrome tanning. The hide or skin is bathed in chromium salt, which is then disposed of and eventually gets into the sea.

So, what’s the problem with this process? Chromium salt is highly toxic! Besides the potential health hazards that the substance poses to the workers in manufacturing who handle it, chromium salt can cause severe damage to the aquatic ecosystem when it is released into water bodies.

Fortunately, vegetable tanning is a safer, non-toxic method of tanning hides that poses no threat to humans and is also environmentally friendly. But the sad news is this method is not common as only a few manufacturers adopt it.

Although conventional leather has come under serious criticism, the process of manufacturing it can make it a sustainable option. In fact, it is biodegradable, which means it will break down easily when discarded without causing significant harm to the soil.

This is not the case with the most common non-animal leather alternative that we will discuss next. Also, animal-based leather is long-lasting, durable, and can withstand harsh conditions, making it the most preferred option.

Plastic-Based Leather

With animal rights organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) championing the course of non-animal leather, alternatives have since hit the market.

Vegan leather is derived from other sources apart from traditional animal leather. Vegan leather is currently on the rise. In a recent global report, the market for vegan leather is expected to reach $89.6 billion by the year 2025. (1)

The fight against using animal byproducts for manufacturing clothing and accessories is an excellent way to protect animals and our environment. Ideally, non-animal leather should significantly reduce the environmental footprint of animal agriculture. However, this is far from being the case. Vegan alternatives also have some serious inherent concerns.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is petroleum-based plastic leather and happens to be one of the most common leather alternatives. Sadly, PVC is made from fossil fuel, making it non-biodegradable. PVC poses the (if not more) environmental problems as other synthetic materials.

For example, the largest source of micro-plastic pollution in the world’s ocean comes from synthetic fibres from (you guessed it) clothing! Here’s another shocking statistic, production of polyester gulps more than 70 million barrels of oil every single year! (2) If that doesn’t shock you, perhaps you are not aware of the adverse impact of extracting fossil fuel on the environment.

Creating plastic-based leather involves the use of non-natural and even toxic dyes, excessive amounts of water, toxic chemicals, and, of course, extracting fossil fuels. All these environmentally hazardous processes are geared at creating non-biodegradable faux leather, making many people wonder if it is worth it at all.

While the process does not harm any animal (at least, not directly), it is definitely worrying and even disturbing to some extent. Since plastic-leather or PVC creates as much environmental impact as animal-derived leather, it doesn’t seem like a sustainable option.

Vegan or Plant-Based Leather

In the quest to create a true vegan leather alternative, scientists have come up with plant-based leather that has the least impact on our environment. Plant-based leather is plastic-free. It is produced from plant sources such as pineapples, kombucha-cultures, and mushrooms.

Although this type of leather does not contain significant amounts of plastic, it may have a small quantity of petroleum-based products to keep the fibres from falling apart. However, the quantity is notably less than what is contained in PVC leather.

A good example of this type of leather is Pinatex. It is a natural, breathable leather made out of pineapple leave extracts (cellulose fibers), petroleum-based resin, and polylactic acid (PLA).

Brands Play a Huge Role

Consumers may as well be shouting into the wind if they are alone in the quest for using more sustainable leather in the fashion industry. The journey toward creating a meaningful impact on the environment will be rather too slow if manufacturers are not willing to do their bit.

Thankfully, a handful of brands are already caught up and are using eco-friendly options in their manufacturing processes. These companies may not be in the majority, but they are slowly and steadily, making a positive impact.

For example, here, at David Hampton, our exquisite collections are produced using chrome-free leather. Besides, our modern tanning process does not use heavy metals that are harmful to the environment.

Our workers’ health and safety are of the utmost importance to us – It is simply not negotiable. Our workers are in the manufacturing frontline, and we do not compromise their health for cheap gains.

In the same vein, we do not sacrifice the comfort of our consumers, just as we always have our eyes on the overall impact that our products have on the environment at large. We strive to make sure that we provide the highest quality possible without creating avoidable environmental damages.

Interestingly, we don’t only stop at producing and using sustainable leather. Even our zips, locks, and other fittings are made from high quality, eco-friendly brass without any trace of lead or potentially harmful metals.

Bottom Line

Here’s the thing: regardless of how environmentally-conscious we all are, there is no manufacturing process that doesn’t have some form of impact on the environment, at least for now.

Whether the world will ever get to a point where only a hundred percent sustainable leather is used in manufacturing clothes and accessories is still very debatable. However, one thing is sure; sustainability is still shrouded in several shades of grey – there simply is no perfect black and white about it.

The most important thing for everyone to consider when buying fashion and other stuff is their personal values. Vegan leather might be the right choice for you if animal agriculture or animal-derived products are a complete no-no for you.

You may even opt for petroleum-based plastic alternatives, although you should be aware that they also have their attendant impact on the environment. Plant-based leathers are still in the minority, but if you are passionate about ridding the planet of the impact of fossil fuel and plastics, that might be your best option.

For many people, the animal-based option is still considered to be sustainable leather as long as it is chrome-free and is sourced from ethical and sustainable ranches. Buying this type of leather or products crafted from it goes a long way in reducing the amount of waste in the meat industry.

In the end, whichever choice you make is entirely up to you. But keep in mind that reducing our impact on the environment is the way to go when deciding which products to buy.


(1) “Vegan leather industry will be worth $89.6 billion by 2025,” Vegconomist, 2020. Retrieved from https://vegconomist.com/market-and-trends/vegan-leather-industry-will-be-worth-89-6-billion-by-2025/

(2) “9 Reasons to quit fast fashion,” Helle Abelvik-Lawson, 2019. Retrieved from https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/news/9-reasons-to-quit-fast-fashion-this-black-friday/

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