The Leather vs 'Vegan' Leather Debate Pt.2

Vegan Leather vs Leather: the longstanding debate between the two materials that divide many people.

However, is one truly better than the other when it comes to ethical and
environmental wellbeing?

This blog post continues from our previous vegan leather blog post and it will present you all of the facts and knowledge you need to know about genuine leather, to help you gain informed opinions about all your leather options!

To begin this blog, we are going to discuss the production of leather, the simple ins and outs of how it is produced. From there we will go into more in depth discussion about the ethical and environmental repercussions of the leather industry.

The single most important difference between genuine leather and all of the other forms of leather is that this type is made out of animal skins; automatically meaning that the death of an animal is involved, causing conflicting opinions. Many will say that leather is simply a byproduct of the meat industry that would be wasted if not used, therefore making it more worthwhile to use rather than wasting. Although this is partly true, the lives of the animals and the environmental costs of over farming are still apparent whether the leather is a byproduct or not.

The most important fact to remember is that many farmers will farm their animals, not for the purpose of minimising waste but for maximising profit, and an animal’s leather is the single most valuable part of the animal. This unfortunately means that, in countries with few animal-welfare laws, animals can be slaughtered for skins alone, resulting in a large culture of cruelty and waste. If you are to buy leather goods, one way to combat this is to know the source of the leather before
purchase. If the supplier can guarantee the leather is from a sustainable, free-range, UK farm, it will ensure less suffering during the animals lifetime. However, if the origins of the leather are unknown then there is no guarantee of quality or animal welfare at all. Another way to combat this would also be to choose companies that revive and repurpose old and previously used leather that is already in circulation, as leather is an extremely durable material that lasts forever.

The process of making leather is anything but basic! It is important to remember that this process is for ‘real leather’ only, with that term being used to describe the leather that has origins from an animal. The whole process takes at least 10 days and it is a gruelling and costly process. Skins are cured in order to preserve them and to prevent them degrading before the leather making steps have begun. To do this they are salted, and frozen, chemical biocides are also used at this stage. The hides are then soaked and painted. Soaking can last between several hours and several days, cleaning the hides but essentially reversing the curing process, reintroducing moisture and removing the salt. A sulphide-based mixture is then added in the painting stage. Alkaline substances and enzymes are then used to remove any remaining hair, follicles and flesh, before being soaked in weak acids and salt solutions to pickle the hide in preparation for tanning. At this point they can be graded and stored for several months if necessary. The tanning process is the process of converting the hide into the stable material known as leather, by forming crosslinks in the collagen of the material. Tanning is a very involved process and there are many different ways of achieving it: mineral tannages that use salts of chromium; aldehyde/oil tannages which produce extremely soft leathers but are the worst chemicals for environmental wellbeing; and vegetable tannages which are eco-friendly and produce very brown thick leathers. From this step the next stages are to split, shave and dye the leathers forming the thickness and appearance desired. The material is then lubricated to keep it flexible and dried so that it holds between 10 and 20% of its original water mass. Finally, it is buffed, brushed and graded. Once the leather is in the hands of leatherworkers the process can also become even more costly. Leather work is an age-old craft. It is a highly skilled job and can make bespoke leather extremely pricy. Items such as sofas, jackets, bags and shoes are often created this way.

When approaching the understanding of the leather industry it is also important to comprehend the idea that not all leather is equal. In fact, the grade of the leather is quite significant when it comes to evaluating its quality. There are three categories of grading that determine the quality of leather: full grain leather, top
grain leather and split grain leather. Full grain being the best quality and most expensive, and split grain being the cheapest. For a consumer, when it comes to considering the worth of a leather good against its environmental impacts, a one-off purchase of a top-quality, full grain product is often the chosen approach.

But what are the positives and negatives!

One of the main benefits of leather is the quality. Although many vegan leathers try to replicate the feel and quality of leather goods it is almost impossible to perfect it. Leather is an extremely durable material whilst maintaining a very soft and subtle handle. It is a natural material meaning it is porous so absorbs water, fats and oils and will adapt and develop a lush patina over time. The porous nature also means that the leather is breathable, making it comfortable to wear for long periods of time, and perfect for items such as shoes and jackets.

Another benefit to real leather is its durability, lasting for years, even generations if appropriately cared for; even worn-out leather can be easily and successfully be restored. This means that unlike vegan leather the items won’t need to be replaced as regularly, or ever! These properties can also lend themselves to a more circular economy in the long run, with many more companies beginning to recycle and reclaim leather to make new items instead of sourcing brand new materials.

The final physical elements of leather that are considered positives are the smell and the ‘flaws’ of the material. Leather can often have inconsistencies in the surface, these blemishes are often welcomed by purchasers of leather goods because they are a sign of quality and authenticity that the leather is ‘genuine’.
Another sign of genuine leather, that is wanted, is the smell that real leather has, it is incredibly distinct and is impossible artificially for the use in artificial leather production.

There are many negatives of leather and its production that need to be covered in
order for you to gain all the information necessary to form a comparison between Leather, Vegan Leather and any other alternatives!

Quite a few of the negative impacts of leather have been highlighted in the first section, including the lack of animal welfare laws in developing countries, over farming, and leather not always being a by-product.

Arguably the single most negative part of leather production is the tanning stage. Within this stage of production countless harmful chemicals are used, accounting for 80-90% of environmental pollution of the entire leather industry. The process of turning skin into leather uses a nasty cocktail of chemicals that can include mineral salts, coal-tar derivatives, formaldehyde, oils and dyes. On top of this, some of the finishes used on the leather are also cyanide-based. The use of these chemicals can lead to some major environmental repercussions. They cause noxious gasses and solid waste sludge that all pollute the environment significantly. Not only does it cause damage to the environment, but it is also detrimental to the health of the people living near the tanneries. Many people die of cancers that are directly linked to the chemicals that pollute the land they live on, a specific example being Arsenic that has been directly linked to lung cancers. There is a traditional plant-based alternative to the tanning element (vegetable tanning) that removes the need for the chemicals, however, it isn’t widely used due to the significantly increased the length of the tanning process.

Further environmental damage caused by the leather industry is emphasized in the sheer scale of livestock production. Over 26% of terrestrial land on earth is taken up by livestock, and it is the sheer scale of this that leads agriculture to be responsible for more excessive greenhouse gas production than all global transport links combined. It is this agriculture industry that feeds directly into the leather industry!

This over production of agriculture also leads to lots of waste and feedlots that create runoff and contaminate water supplies. In fact, overall, the environmental costs of producing leather, in particular cows leather, has almost 3x more of a negative environmental impact than the production of standard Polyurethane vegan leather.

Interesting alternatives

Like our vegan blog, now is the time where you are presented with some really interesting and unique alternatives to real leather. Many of these are produced in more eco-conscious ways and are less damaging to the environment; however, like before, please bear in mind that many of these alternatives still use chemicals or plastic bases within their compositions.

Mushroom leather

Mushroom leather is an alternative to conventional leather that uses a sustainable and biological process of manufacture. This type of leather is very efficient to make, completely biodegradable and has the potential to be cheaper to produce. It is significantly more environmentally sustainable and will rival both the leather and pleather industries once the technology improves.

To make mushroom leather the fungi is grown on sawdust or agricultural waste. This means growth triggers the roots of the mushroom to form as a dense matte of mycelium cells. It is these cells that are then harvested, compressed, dyed and embossed using mild acids, alcohol and dyes to create a leather. This process is extremely simple and only takes a couple of weeks to produce, making it incredibly more efficient than animal leather.

Positives of Mushroom Leather

  • No inorganic chemicals used in production process, it uses little energy to produce and is biodegradable
  • Is cheap to produce, can be accessible to anyone, not just commercial brands
  • Final product has a similar durability, look and feel to leather
  • Can be grown in any thickness or size
  • By treating the leather with an eco-wax, it can produce a waterproof textile too

Negatives of mushroom leather

  • Technology for the manufacturing of this leather is still in its infancy
  • It is still new, as of yet there are no mushroom leather products on the high street

Mango

Mango leather is a leather alternative that is similar to Apple leather (on our vegan leather blog) although this process does not use polyurethane. The basis of the material, the mangoes, are sourced from leftovers and scraps from fruit markets that would otherwise be thrown away. To turn the mango scrap into leather
they are boiled to eliminate bacteria and spread out onto sheets to dry to create the leather. These processes are relatively efficient and sustainable as up to 40% of a farmers crop can be left in fields for not meeting cosmetic appearance standards for the food industry. However, because these mango scraps are
sourced directly from this industry there is the issue of pesticides and worker exploitation.

Positives of mango leather:

  • Reduces food waste
  • Biodegradable material
  • Can be made water repellent using eco-wax like the mushroom leather
  • Very versatile in its properties

Negatives of mango leather:

  • Agriculture is a very dangerous industry, farmers are often subject to dehydration, heat stroke and exposure to toxic chemicals/pesticides as safe machinery and clean water isn’t always accessible
  • Laborers are often exploited, they can suffer poor working conditions and earn meagre wages
  • Pesticides are used which harm ecosystems by contaminating soil, air and plants

Corker

Corker is a Portuguese brand that specialises in making eco-friendly materials out of cork. The materials are handmade within Portugal and are completely chemical free in the manufacture. To make corker fabric the cork is harvested and air dried for 6 months. It then gets boiled and steamed which gives the cork more
elasticity. The cork is then heat pressured and pressed into blocks that are sliced to create the final material. Because it is blocked before being sliced it can be any thickness required.

Positives of corker:

  • The material has a very unique look
  • The fabric is durable, it won’t crack or crumble
  • It is extremely lightweight and waterproof and impermeable to gases (cork naturally produces a suberin covering, a waxy substance that is present in the cell walls of the cork cells)
  • Cork is a slow combustion material, making it naturally fire retardant
  • Each product made from cork is as unique as a fingerprint. No two products are exactly the same

Negatives of corker:

  • Although the look Is unique it does not imitate the appearance of leather
  • It is an alternative to leather property wise but visually looks very different, this may not be something a consumer wants when looking for a leather alternative

Now that you are fully equipped with all of the knowledge and information about all of the types of leather accessible to you, we suggest keeping these questions in mind next time you’re looking to purchase leather goods:

  • Are these items imperative to my daily life? Do I truly need them?
  • Are there any second-hand alternatives? Especially with real Leather which lasts for such a longtime.
  • Is the source of either the vegan or regular leather upcycled in the first place?
  • Is the quality of the item high?
  • Is the company that it comes from ethical?
  • Is there a better alternative material?

These questions will help you to make informed consumer decisions when it comes to leather. And remember you can always refer back to the information on these two blog posts.

If you found these pages useful, why not recommend them to a friend!

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