Vegan vs Leather - Why veg tan leather is more animal and eco friendly than vegan imitations
Leather is frequently demonized by people claiming to care about the environment and sustainability. I am constantly asked for vegan friendly renditions of my work. But here is the truth that many people don’t want to hear. Vegan replacement options for leather goods are more harmful to the environment, animals, and humans than real leather.
Allow me to explain.
In the US most of the hides used to make leather are a byproduct of the meat industry. I will not go into the ethics of the meat industry as that is an entirely different topic. However, the meat industry would exist without the leather industry. If leather were not being made out of the hides, they would just be thrown away as waste. Animals are rarely killed solely for their leather, with the exception of some countries.
So most leather is made from hides that would otherwise go to waste. Here is where some nuance comes in. Leather is frequently tanned using a method called Chrome tanning. This method uses a lot of water and produces toxic waste that can contaminate bodies of water. Unfortunately, this is currently the most common method of tanning.
Fear not! There is a method of tanning that does not use chromium or other toxic elements. It is called vegetable tanning. Veg tan leather is not vegan leather, it is a hide that has been tanned using tannins from plants. This is one of the oldest methods of leather tanning. In recent decades tanneries, especially European ones, have been perfecting this method of tanning to produce hides that are nearly indistinguishable from chrome-tanned hides in terms of softness, finish, and fashion.
“Vegan leather” is a false notion in itself. Leather by definition is made of an animal hide and therefore cannot be vegan. Products calling themselves vegan leather are just utilizing questionable marketing. In fact, international trade laws require that for something to be marked as leather it must contain a certain percentage of animal hide. These imitation leathers must be labeled as the plastics they actually contain in order to be legally sold in quantity internationally. It is something of a clever loophole that products can be called by a marketing name when sold to the public.
Products claiming to be vegan leather are usually made using PVC or other plastics and rubbers. These are extremely harmful to the environment both in their production and over the long term. They take hundreds of years to break down, leaching toxins into the soil and becoming microplastics ingested by animals. Leather usually biodegrades in 25 to 50 years, yes, even chrome tanned leather.
But what about that pineapple/cork/leaf/cactus leather I saw on facebook? That could replace leather and it would be more environmentally friendly and vegan!
This is also false. Many of these plant matter options use plastic of some kind in their production and almost none of them are biodegradable. Cork imitation leather is held together with layers of silicone, a material that is not biodegradable. When it is used in making these materials it is also no longer recyclable since the other material is so mixed in with the silicone is too difficult to separate. In many cases, the trees cork is obtained from are being overharvested and killed.
Leaf leathers are frequently just a preserved leaf that has been adhered to fabric using acrylics and plastic sealants.
These plant-based options are also rarely suited to the wide range of uses currently covered by leather. For example, the plant matter amalgams might be fine to make a tote bag or book cover but would be utterly unreasonable for a dress or briefcase. It also isn’t strong enough to become load-bearing straps or able to be braided or tooled.
There are thousands of types of leather out there and all of them are for different purposes. For example, the leather used to upholster a couch could not be used to make a saddle and horse tack, or footwear, or briefcases, handbags, or wallets. The imitation leathers usually have only a few versions of their material and are only suited for a narrow range of uses.
What about “upcycled” leather or rubber/plastics? Those should be okay, right?
The downside of upcycling rubbers and plastics is that it frequently makes them unsuitable to ever be recycled. Many of these materials can be recycled many times in a sustainable way, but not if they are made into something the recycling process cannot break them down from. For example, the inner tube of a bike tire could be recycled. But if someone cuts it up and sews/glues it together to make it into a piece of clothing it can no longer be recycled because the recycling plants are not going to take the time to take the clothing item apart and remove all the non recyclable elements.
Items that are made of recyclable materials but are not in a format that is conducive to the recycling process are usually just sent to the landfill.
What should you do if you want to buy goods that are environmentally friendly and sustainable? If it is a case of a leather item then the best thing to do is to purchase veg tan leather (vegetable tanned leather). Brain tanned leather is also more environmentally friendly and sustainable but is rarer.
I understand that there is a knee jerk reaction that people have since leather does come from an animal. However, the choice boils down to this; consume a product that is extremely harmful to the environment and all the animals in it during its production and for hundreds of years to come (if it is even biodegradable at all) or choose a product made in a way that is sustainable and without toxic byproducts and created from a resource that was already in existence and would otherwise be wasted.
Very often I see people making the choice to purchase an item that is just labeled as vegan without actually taking into account the real effects the product has. Just because a product is labeled vegan doesn’t mean it doesn’t harm animals or people, it just means there are no animals in it.
If your true intent is to make purchasing choices that are actually more environmentally responsible and not just virtue signaling, then please consider veg tan leather rather than plastic.
Note for Kinksters- When it comes to BDSM gear the leather used in the lower end toys that are sold by resellers (people who purchase their stock in bulk from overseas) is usually from the countries whose tanning methods are the most destructive. Most mass-produced BDSM toys come from Pakistan and other middle eastern countries whose environmental laws around manufacturing are severely lacking. These companies not only use very toxic tanning methods that harm the environment, but their workers are directly exposed to these toxins.
India is also one of the countries with the worst leather tanning practices and a country where cows are slaughtered just for their hides. These cows are frequently taken to the neighboring country of Pakistan to be killed and their hides sold there.
I understand that these items are usually inexpensive and that can make them very appealing, but if you can, purchasing your kink gear from a leatherworker who sources their own hides, or even better sources veg tan leather, is a much more eco-friendly choice than purchasing from a reseller.