When creating a sustainable wardrobe, a key point is choosing versatile and durable closet staples.
Dating back millennia, one of these versatile, durable, and timeless fabrics is leather. However, leather is a controversial material. Genuine leather is under fire for animal cruelty, unsustainable farming practices, and destructive fabrication processes. Then there's vegan leather, but is it actually more sustainable, or is it simply a misleading and creative marketing scheme?
First and foremost, it should be emphasized that vegan simply means not being sourced from an animal. This is vegan leather's most significant benefit, yet that doesn't necessarily mean it's an environmentally friendly option. Not all vegan leather is created equally. There are currently two types of vegan leather: plastic-based leather and plant-based leather.
Plastic-based leathers have been around since the 1950s, and the manufacturing process is now highly streamlined. But, plastic-based vegan leather is problematic. They are most commonly sourced from two different plastic polymers: polyurethane (PU) and Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC). These plastic polymers result in poor-quality products and exacerbate one of the biggest environmental problems. Plastics take hundreds, if not thousands, of years to degrade and release toxic chemicals into the environment, affecting every aspect of the ecosystem. It is estimated that 13 million tons of synthetic fibers enter our oceans each year, leading to the accumulation of plastics in our food chain. Microplastics are now found in the fish and animals that we eat.
On the flip side, plant-based leather can be made from mushrooms, cacti, pineapples, or other organic materials. Although these fabrics appear to be the perfect answer, they are still in their infancy and expensive, representing only a tiny share of the vegan leather market. In addition, the product itself still requires further refinement and development to improve the quality, longevity, and visual appeal of the material. However, as the industry grows and matures, prices can become more accessible to all people while producing better quality. There is great potential here that we are excited about.
Compared to vegan leather, genuine leather comes with a set of pros. A product made out of genuine leather may come with a hefty price tag, but it is an investment that will last you a lifetime when properly looked after. In addition, there's a perception of value attached to natural leather. An individual is more likely to keep and covet a product made with authentic leather over a synthetic counterpart. This is beneficial as it minimizes waste and consumption.
However, leather fabrication is not without its own set of problems. In addition to the cruel and inhumane treatment of animals, the World Resources Institute states that the cattle industry is responsible for 14.5% of global CO2 emissions and 36% of global deforestation. Aside from the emissions produced, the most common tanning process, in which the cowhide is turned into leather, uses toxic chemicals such as chromium, releasing toxic waste into the environment. There are natural tanning methods like vegetable tanning. Still, they require removing the bark from trees to extract tannins to treat the leather, eventually killing the tree.
Although genuine leather is equally problematic to plastic-based leathers, it doesn't contribute to the growing microplastic and waste problem that the world is facing. At the end of the day, "in people's minds, vegan leather is more sustainable, but in reality, it's a lot of plastic," Sciamma-Massenet says.
At Livelihood, we view genuine leather as the lesser of two evils because we believe that natural, organic, and biodegradable materials should be chosen over inorganic compounds like plastics. However, we refuse to manufacture anything using these materials as they do not meet our sustainability and ethical standards.
Currently, we're excited about the development of plant-based leathers. We'll continue to monitor their development to ensure they align with our goal of producing only sustainably and ethically made products from natural and organic materials.
At Livelihood, we understand that you have an overwhelming amount of information coming from all angles. We feel a social responsibility to be transparent and show you the facts you need to form your own opinion that best suits your lifestyle and beliefs. We hope this article can guide you to make an informed decision that you can feel good about.