Leather vs. Vegan Leather

Corporate social responsibility is not just about people, planet, and profit. Animal welfare is an important part of business ethics. We know from the meat industry that animals have a huge environmental impact and they are often treated poorly. This translates to the fashion industry, where many (shoe) brands use leather as an important material. But is leather still a sustainable option? There is no clear-cut answer to this. In this blog post, we aim to explain the difference between leather and vegan leather and discuss their environmental implication.

Real leather

Leather production

Leather is often a by-product of the meat industry. While it's great that leather reduces waste, we can't close our eyes to the impact of the meat industry. The meat industry is far from sustainable or ethical. Cattle grazing is linked to deforestation, and the industry is a huge source of greenhouse gases. It is estimated that around 14.5-18 percent of the world’s global carbon emissions come from animal agriculture. There would be even more carbon emissions if all the leftover hides would end up in landfills. However, it is a misconception that leather is always a waste product. The selling of skins can be very profitable for farmers, often more so than meat - especially for exotic varieties.

To make leather, the animal hides need to be tanned to prevent rotting. The most common method to do so is chrome tanning. Chrome tanning requires the hide to be placed in a bath of water, chromium salts, and tanning liquor to make sure the skin doesn't decompose and retains colors. Chromium is a highly toxic chemical that can have negative impacts on both human health and the environment. The process puts the health of traditional leather-workers at risk and poor regulations leave the risk of toxic waste disposal in the environment.

A good alternative to chrome tanned leather is vegetable-tanned leather. This ancient tanning method doesn't involve any heavy metals but uses tannins from plants and trees to purify the hide.

Benefits

  • Very durable and long-lasting
  • Biodegradable
  • Ages well
  • Breathable
  • May prevent waste from the meat industry
  • Comfortable to wear
  • Vegetable-tanned leather will fully biodegrade

Drawbacks

  • In some cases leads to animal suffering
  • Leather production is linked to the meat industry, which emits a lot of greenhouse gases and leads to deforestation
  • Chrome tanning has negative impacts on human health and the environment

Vegan leather

Vegan leather is a material that imitates leather but is made from other non-animal sources. It's also called faux leather, pleather, or synthetic leather.

Vegan leather production

The main concern with vegan leather alternatives is the way that they are manufactured. Vegan leathers are often made of plastic-based synthetic materials. Synthetic leather is made by combining different chemicals and fossil fuels in an industrial process. The most common materials are PU (polyurethane) or PVC (polyvinyl chloride). The manufacture and disposal of these synthetics can cause health issues, and can even cause cancer. PVC releases dioxins, which are potentially dangerous, and use plasticizers that are very environmentally damaging. PU is less damaging and companies are trying to develop improved PU to reduce the hazardous toxins released during the manufacturing process and the fossil fuels used to make it.

However, the synthetics used in vegan leathers will never fully biodegrade. They can also release toxic particles and phthalates when disposed of, which can affect the health of animals and the environment. Synthetic fibers also shed tiny plastic particles when worn and disposed of. This makes them the biggest source of microplastic pollution in the ocean.

Innovative plant-based alternatives

Since the demand for vegan and plastic-free leather is on the rise, brands and companies are experimenting with leather alternatives more and more. These innovative materials like cactus leather, apple leather, and Piñatex (made from pineapple leaf fibers) are plant-based and renewable. However, they are often still mixed with PU or have a PU-derived coating for durability.

Benefits

  • Can be worn without concern for animal welfare
  • Generally cheaper than real leather
  • Innovative and eco-friendly leather alternatives are being developed

Drawbacks

  • Most common materials are damaging for environment and human health
  • Synthetics used will never fully biodegrade and contributes to microplastic ocean pollution

So... Which option is better?

Both real and vegan leather has a significant environmental impact. It's hard to say which one is the best option. Real leather is more comfortable, long-lasting, and can be biodegradable. Leather shoes are often more durable, and it might be more sustainable to invest in 1 leather pair of shoes instead of 10 vegan leather shoes in terms of resource use. However, when you buy vegan shoes, you can be sure that you are not supporting the meat industry and that there were no animals harmed in the process. In the end, it's important to choose what you feel comfortable with and what aligns with your values when considering what you buy.

Whether you go for vegan or real leather, we do recommend going for the best option in the category. Vegetable-tanned leather is more sustainable than chrome tanned leather and is biodegradable. Also, keep an eye out for brands that are certified by the Leather Working Group to make sure the production was done with regard to the environment. Want to be sure your leather purchase does not contribute to the meat industry? Look at second-hand or vintage options. If you prefer vegan leather, try to buy plant-based options instead of plastic-based synthetic leathers to significantly reduce your environmental impact. And as always: choose well, and make it last. The most sustainable choice is the item that you will love for years, that you take care of, repair, and use until it's no longer possible.

What material does CANO use?

At CANO, we strive to produce fairly made, high-quality products that, when cared for properly, can last a long time. Although the quality of vegan materials has increased over the past years, we have yet to find a material that can meet our standards. Good quality leather shoes can withstand wear and tear, whereas vegan materials are often thinner and can therefore easily wear out. We also want to work with biodegradable materials so when our shoes are eventually discarded, they will not stay on this planet forever. That is why we work with vegetable tanned leather, certified by the Leather Working Group.

At the same time, many of CANO's employees are vegetarian or vegan and are concerned with animal welfare. That's why we are working very hard to develop a long-lasting shoe that is made of a predominantly plant-based vegan material. At the moment, we are experimenting with cactus leather and are making the first shoe samples. This is a long and complex process, but we are hopeful that we can expand our collection with vegan shoes soon. In the meantime, we will keep on the lookout for sustainable vegan materials and stay in close contact with our leather suppliers to make sure they are produced sustainably.

If you have any suggestions about materials that we should look into or if you have questions about this article, please do not hesitate to reach out or leave us a comment. We are happy to learn!

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Written by Jessica Teeuw

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