Is Vegan Leather Really Better for the Environment Than Real Leather?
Because leather is an animal product, many vegans avoid using or wearing anything made of leather. Vegan alternatives to leather include mushroom leather, pineapple leather, and biofabricated leather.
Most vegan leathers are made from polyurethane, which is plastic. This makes it non-biodegradable and unsustainable, especially because it degrades when wet or left in a moist closet.
More natural vegan leathers like mushroom or pineapple leather are better for the environment than polyurethane leather, but that doesn’t guarantee they’re better for the environment than real leather. It’s also important to check what other materials are used with vegan leather – manufacturing vegan leather shoes often uses other animal products or plastics!
Is vegan leather better or worse for the environment?
It’s important first to know about leather’s impact on the environment before we can compare it to vegan leather.
Leather is obtained from tanned animal skins and decay, typically sourced from cattle, sheep, goats, horses, pigs, crocodiles, and other animals.
As long as there’s a meat industry, a leather industry helps use up animal skins and prevents them from going to landfills.
But leather still has an environmental impact. This includes:
- The carbon footprint of the animals, especially cattle rearing
- Chemicals used in the tanning process include chromium, phthalate esters, nonylphenol ethoxylate soaps, pentachlorophenol, and solvents
- Air pollution from its transformation process, which forms hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, and solvent vapors
- Water usage and pollution
- Leather biodegradation takes 25 to 40 years to decompose
- Chemical waste disposal (tanneries often pollute water sources like rivers)
A life cycle assessment carried out by the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation on leather processing found that leather is mostly derived from bovine, sheep, and goat skins. 99% of leather production sources its animal skins from “animals which have been raised mainly for milk and/or meat production”.
It’s also important to note that artificial leather, also known as ‘pleather’ or synthetic leather, is a material largely manufactured with polyurethane. This means pleather is petroleum-based and uses lots of energy, has carcinogenic byproducts, and does not decompose.
While there isn’t much information on the environmental impacts of mushroom or pineapple leather, we can find some information to figure out whether they’re generally better or worse than leather or pleather.
How vegan leather is made
Mushroom leather is made from fungi. Muskin is a variety made from phellinus ellipsoideus, found largely in China.
According to Life Materials, Muskin is a “100% vegetable alternative … made from … a large parasitic fungus that grows in the wild on the trees located in subtropical forests”.
Muskin is made from the caps of the fungi and treated similarly to animal leather but “with completely natural techniques”. This includes an unspecified eco-wax. We don’t know much more about how it’s produced, though it’s thought that only 40-50 square meters of Muskin are produced per month.
Another variety of mushroom leather is Mylo, which uses mycelium. Adopted by brands such as Adidas and lululemon, Mylo is created from mycelium grown on sawdust and other organic materials, which can then be processed, tanned, and dyed to create vegan leather.
Bolt Threads, the manufacturer behind Mylo, uses “expert mushroom farmers” to grow mycelium in indoor “vertical farming facilities” which are then processed by scientists. This takes place in the United States.
They also ensure that the processing and finishing chemistries are evaluated and selected using Green Chemistry principles.
However, Mylo is not plastic-free, and is only 50-85% bio-based.
If you want to learn more about Mylo’s mushroom leather, check out this interesting video from Future Proof:
Piñatex is a pineapple leather using waste pineapple leaf fibers. They use the byproducts of the pineapple industry, and the company behind it outlines the manufacturing process.
Manufacturing Piñatex involves:
- Collecting pineapple plant leaves after harvest
- Extracting long fibers using semi-automatic machines
- Drying the fibers in the sun or in drying ovens
- Purifying dry fibers through a “purification process”
- Mixing the fibers with a corn-based polylactic acid
- Using a mechanical process to create a non-woven mesh
- Shipping the mesh from the Philippines to Spain or Italy for “specialised finishing”
- Coloring the mesh with GOTS certified pigments
- Adding a resin top coating to give strength, durability, and water resistance
Is vegan leather sustainable?
Based on the information we can find about manufacturing mushroom and pineapple leathers, these vegan leathers strive to use as many sustainable practices and ingredients as possible.
The lack of information on how some vegan leathers like Muskin are manufactured makes it difficult to tell just how sustainable they are.
Most reputable companies will seek certification, such as Mylo’s certifications from DIN CERTCO’s biobased certification and Eurofins Chem-MAP vegan verification.
Biobased vegan leathers that use 100% organic material and products are sustainable, making Piñatex a sustainable material.
Petroleum-based vegan leathers aren’t sustainable, and can actually be worse for the environment than traditional leather.
Mylo, Muskin, and Piñatex are all more sustainable than polyurethane leather.
However, if you’re not looking for vegan leather and are instead looking for sustainable leather, the SLF Transparency Dashboard assesses leather manufacturers for sustainability through the environmental, social, and governance pillars.
Can vegan leather be repaired?
Vegan leather can be repaired, but it can be expensive to have it fixed by a professional. Unfortunately, because vegan leather hasn’t taken off in popularity yet, resources online are focused mostly on faux leather and pleather.
Many repair kits also use synthetic products like dyes and cleaners.
You may be able to stitch vegan leather, especially with a sewing machine, but it doesn’t guarantee quality. Maintaining and cleaning your vegan leather will help to lengthen its life and prevent tears.
Surface scratches might be repaired by dipping a cotton swab in some olive or baby oil and massaging it into the leather.
For best results, contact the manufacturer for more information!
Can vegan leather be recycled?
Vegan leather hasn’t been produced or used enough to determine how well it can be recycled yet. It’s also not clear whether they can be used in home compost.
Most faux leathers made with plastic can’t be recycled, because they can’t be turned into anything else. They can be reused at home for craft projects though.
Does vegan leather last as long as real leather?
Traditional leather is more durable than plastic-based leathers, but we don’t yet know how long-lasting biobased leathers are. Once more biobased leather products are released, we’ll find out how well they hold up to real leather.
Is synthetic leather eco-friendly?
Synthetic leather isn’t as eco-friendly as real leather because they’re petroleum-based, which means they don’t biodegrade easily.
Even though leather is processed and manufactured with petroleum-based products, the base material is organic and degrades more easily when separated at the end of its life.
Thanks to the amount of plastic used in synthetic leather manufacture, synthetic leather is harmful to the environment and not at all eco-friendly. Even if it is more ethical than real leather, it’s better to buy used leather products than it is to buy new synthetic leather.
Are there good and really sustainable alternatives to vegan leather?
There are many emerging vegan leather alternatives to real leather, but non-vegan alternatives are largely not sustainable.
The most well-known leather alternatives are:
- Piñatex (pineapple leaf fibers)
- Waxed canvas leather alternative (eco-friendly, organic cotton)
- Leaf leather (polymer-preserved leaves)
- Recycled rubber
- Coconut leather (using leftover coconut water)
- Apple leather (skin and cores)
- Polyurethane or PU leather
Of the above, cork and waxed canvas are the most sustainable alternatives to vegan and real leather.
Cork leather is made from cork oak trees, which is a sustainable, renewable, and biodegradable resource.
If you’re not able to purchase or choose from the above leather alternatives, the most sustainable option is to buy secondhand leather! By reusing leather products, we can cut down on fast fashion and reduce the amount of waste that goes to a landfill.
On “Cork Leather”: You are stating that cork leather would be the most sustainable. How come that? The link you provided is dedicated to pure natural cork, not cork leather. However, cork is not flexible at all and can easily break it when bended. Every single “Cork Leather” I have seen is essentially just a very thin layer of cork baked on canvas. This material usually breaks much much faster than full bridle leather, when used in daily life. If the canvas is made of PU or other non-degradable plastics, it hat the same climate, environment and wildlife harming effects than plastics + a subpar life span. Basically the worst of both worlds.