Leather vs. Faux Leather: Which is Worse?
Updated: Nov 29, 2021
Published on the Consider Beyond App.
Published in Moss Magazine Issue 05.
I’ll admit, when diving into the murky waters of the leather vs. faux leather debate I was heavily biased. Most likely because I was raised in Northern California by hippies who bought shea butter wholesale and were anti-parabens before you could say ‘Bare Minerals.’ Needless to say, I have a penchant for the natural, organic, and fake-free.
Which is I why was googling things like ‘synthetic leather is worse, right?’
What I found was severely disappointing: both animal and fake leather are incredibly harmful to the environment. I also found there was no exhaustive comparison of the two. So, here it goes. If you’re happy just knowing they’re both awful, see my favorite eco leather alternative brands here.
The Case For (& Against) Animal Leather…
One argument in defense of leather is that it’s biodegradable, while plastic alternatives are not. This is technically true, but not the full picture: this argument doesn’t consider the effects of toxic tanning practices.
In order to prevent hides from rotting in your closet they must be tanned, which is the most toxic stage of leather production. 90% of leather undergoes ‘chrome tanning.’ The chemicals involved in chrome tanning are horrific for both garment workers and the planet. Chromium, arsenic, lead and other chemicals used in tanneries are known carcinogens linked to lung cancer and edema, asthma, skin diseases and damage to the central nervous system. A study of Swedish and Italian tannery workers found their cancer risks “between 20% and 50% above [those] expected.”
Wastewater with these toxic chemicals is often dumped directly into local waterways, devastating local ecosystems. Take Hazaribagh, Bangladesh for example, home to 90% of Bangladeshi tanneries. According to an investigation by Human Rights Watch, not a single Hazaribagh tannery has an effluent treatment plant to treat its waste. The Bangladeshi government estimates that 21,600 cubic meters of untreated wastewater is released into the city every day. This chemical wastewater runs off the factory floor directly into the streets and gutters, eventually ending up in the Dhaka River via local waterways.
So yes, leather is more natural than plastic alternatives but after tanning processes hides are so caked in chemicals in order to ensure leather won’t biodegrade, this is something of a flimsy pro. Plus, the effects of chrome tanning on people and the planet means the cons outweigh the pros here. The good news is that more brands are turning to vegetable tanning and getting quality approval from the Leather Working Group.
Another primary argument for animal leather is that it’s a by-product of the livestock industry. Fashion uses cow, pig and other animal hides otherwise destined for the landfill. While this is at times the case, that’s not the full truth:
First, this argument can’t be applied to calf, lamb, crocodile, deer or snakeskin leather.
Second, leather is international market worth 271 billion this year. Hides are worth about 10% of the animal’s monetary value, which incentivizes the raising (and slaughter) of animals for leather production. This makes leather more of a co-product than a by-product. And, according to PETA, more than 1 billion animals are raised and killed annually exclusively for leather production.
And this ‘by-product’ argument is a double-edged sword. The primary argument against leather is its massive environmental impact as a part of the livestock industry. As we all learned from Cowspiracy, the livestock industry is one of the most environmentally damaging industries on the planet. And one of the largest: worth over 2 trillion dollars, rearing 70 billion animals around the world annually. Here are few not-so-fun facts about ecological footprint:
1/3 of the planet is desertified, and livestock is the primary cause.
Animal agriculture is also the leading cause of ‘species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, and habitat destruction.’
Livestock covers 45% of the planet’s total land.
Livestock (and their excrement) produce 51% of the world’s greenhouse gas emission (or 32,000 million tons of CO2 annually).
Animal agriculture is responsible for 91% of Amazon destruction, as one to two acres of rainforest are cleared every second. Such massive rainforest destruction means we lose 137+ plant, animal and insect species every day.
Clearly, livestock is a problem. But this is where it gets tricky. As the meat and leather industries are intrinsically tied, it’s difficult to decipher how much of the livestock industry is dedicated to leather, and thereby, exactly what ecological damage fashion is directly culpable for. Which is why leather has such a radically high environmental impact: leather is thrown into the ‘livestock’ category in general and saddled with the massive environmental damage of the entire industry.
This is why I find stats about leather’s ecological impact somewhat misleading. If 1 of the 70 billion livestock animals are raised annually are reared exclusively for leather, that’s 1.5% of the industry. Say it’s closer to 6 billion, that’s still only 9%. I am not negating the horrors of Amazonian destruction, ozone loss and animal cruelty: the livestock industry is inherently unsustainable and cruel.
The point I’m trying to make is that leather is not single-handedly responsible for the scale of the livestock industry and its ecological footprint, despite how it’s often portrayed.
I recognize that this is like trying to claim you’re only responsible for 1-14% of a giant pile of garbage: it’s all bad anyway, who cares what fraction you’re responsible for? The agriculture industry is bad for the planet no matter what the animals becomes, be it a bag or burger.
I make the above point only because I think it’s important for consumers to be wary of hyperbolic stats in both the pro and con leather camps: we simply do not know leather’s exact environmental impact. That said, I have a sneaking suspicion that leather’s fractional culpability is even still more environmentally damaging than faux alternatives.
The Kering 2015 EP&L states that different leathers can have over a 10x difference in ecological impact depending on the type of leather, origin, how the animal was reared, and tanning processes. Switching to more eco-conscious leathers is definitely a first step.
The final pro-leather argument is that it’s more durable, and ultimately valuable than plastic alternatives. Leather is viewed as luxurious, an expensive investment piece. It’s therefore more likely to be taken care of and passed down as an heirloom. Plastic (especially PU) bags break down more quickly, and this shorter life span means further replacement purchases down the line. Ultimately, leather pieces that are cared for mean less stuff ending up in landfill.
Before diving into faux leather, it’s crucial to clarify terminology. Vegan, cruelty-free, vegetarian, faux, synthetic leather or pleather all loosely mean ‘not made from animals.’ The term ‘vegan leather’ is particularly nebulous and is often used to greenwash plastic. People make the reasonable assumption that ‘vegan leather’ is an eco-friendly option. This is simply not the case.
The vast majority of ‘faux leather’ is made from plastic, either PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or vinyl) or PU (polyuthreathe).
The Case For (& Against) Synthetic Leather…
There are two convincing cases for synthetic leather. The first is the inexcusable animal cruelty involved in animal agriculture, like castration, branding, starvation and inhumane living and transportation conditions. It’s easy to dissociate your leather purse, wallet, belt and shoes from their origins as living beings. Faux leather obviously avoids this problem altogether.
The second is the analysis in The 2017 Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report that synthetic leather, has only one third of the environmental impact of cow leather. The report also found cow’s leather to be the most ecologically destructive of all textiles. Judging by the livestock industry stats laid out above, this comes as no surprise.
That being said the report doesn’t define ‘synthetic leather’ nor discuss the environmental impacts of PVC or PU – the most common synthetic leathers.
Greenpeace names PVC as the ‘single most environmentally damaging of all plastics,’ dubbing it the ‘poison plastic.’ Yeesh. Healthy Child Healthy World – an organization working to reduce toxic chemical exposure in the home – also names PVC as the most toxic plastic. In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the EPA, and the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer all identify vinyl chloride, the chemical used to make PVC, as a known carcinogen.
This is primarily because of the chemicals used and released during PVC production and end-of-life disposal. PVC production uses chlorine, arsenic, lead, and cadmium and releases harmful toxins like dioxins, organotins and CFCs. Dioxins are a persistent organic pollutant, also referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ because they never organically degrade, and CFCs destroy the ozone layer. Greenpeace has named dioxins as ‘one of the most toxic chemicals ever produced.’ The EPA states that there is no safe level of dioxin exposure as dioxins are proven to cause cancer, birth defects, dysfunctional immune and reproductive systems, and even diminished cognitive abilities. And PVC is responsible for more of the US’ annual dioxin exposure than any other industrial product. Oof.
If this isn’t convincing enough, the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ) states PVC is ‘the most toxic plastic for our health and environment. No other plastic contains or releases as many dangerous chemicals. These include dioxins, phthalates, vinyl chloride, ethylene dichloride, lead, cadmium, and organotins. There’s no safe way to manufacture, use or dispose of PVC products.’ We’ve already gone over the effects of dioxins. But what about the others? Lead impairs cognitive ability and damages brain development; cadmium is a known carcinogen and neurotoxin; and organotin disrupts the immune and endocrine (hormonal) systems. The CHEJ goes so far as to suggest looking for PVC-free materials in clothing, bags and accessories.
Bear with me, it’s important to know this stuff. PVC products also often contain toxic additives like phthalates and lead, used to make PVC flexible enough to resemble leather. Because these additives aren’t chemically bound to vinyl, they can leach and migrate. In fashion, this happens primarily through osmosis of the skin. Phalates are endocrine disruptors and have been linked to asthma, breast cancer, reproductive issues, and male fertility issues. In 2010, the Center for Environmental Health conducted a study by purchasing bags from retailers like H&M, Target, Macy's, and Kohl's. They found the purses to have ‘disturbingly’ high levels of lead, which has serious health concerns for women’s reproductive systems and children’s exposure.
Finally, and unsurprisingly, PVC is not biodegradable: it’s made from non-renewable fossil fuels. It’s either incinerated or landfilled and neither are great options. When incinerated, it releases dioxins, nitrogen and other toxic chemicals (again) affecting local communities and ecosystems. When landfilled, lead, mercury, phthalamites, chlorine and petroleum leech out of the plastic and into the soil and local waterways.
PU is a whole other kettle of fish. While PU must undergo toxic chemical processes in order to mimic leather, it doesn’t pose the same health threats as PVC. That said, it is still a petroleum-based plastic and for the most part is not biodegradable. And its production still poses some chemical exposure health hazards. It unfortunately doesn’t last as long as PVC either (which means more purchasing and more stuff in landfall down the line). While not great, PU is not nearly as bad as PVC. The good news is that brands are turning to ‘eco-PU’ that are partially biodegradable.
So, wtf are we supposed to do?
I recognize that this is radically depressing. Both animal and faux leather is bad for you and the planet, and whichever is ‘worse’ is a subjective answer. While it feels as though you’re forced to choose the lesser of two evils, it doesn’t have to be so black and white. You have options. This is what I suggest you do when next shopping for leather goods:
If you want to buy animal leather, buy secondhand to avoid contributing to further animal deaths and financially fueling the livestock industry. Alternatively buy recycled or upcycled leather, like Been London.
If that doesn’t work for you, only buy vegetable tanned leather or Leather Working Group (LWG) certified leather. The LWG measures the environmental compliance and traceability of tanneries around the world. Roscomar sneakers have a gold certification from LWG. Brands like Zamt Berlin and Rof only use vegetable tanned leather. And buy cruelty-free, duh.
If your heart is set on synthetic (‘vegan’) leather avoid PVC at all costs and opt for PU instead. There are new, ‘eco’ PU’s used by brands like Stella McCartney, Angela Roi, Samara, Nuuwai, Sans Beast and Ashoka.
Or go with regenerated plastics, like Aoife.
For shoes, try Viron World, Privato, Mireia Playa, Saye (vegan collection), or Womsh –they mix biobased ‘leathers’ (like apple, mango and corn) with PU. And a few of these brands use recycled plastics for the PU base.
Better still, support brands using plant-based leather alternatives.Check out this list of my favorite bag and shoe brands using cactus, apple, pineapple, mycelium, and mango ‘leather.’
The tides of fashion are changing, and consumer’s influence is crucial. Vote for the world you want with your wallet: choose to support brands that are doing the right thing by people and our planet.