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The Leather vs 'Vegan' Leather Debate Pt. 1

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

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

We have put together two informative blogs to present you with the facts and knowledge to make that decision yourself.

This blog is focused on Vegan leather (Leather alternatives), its production process and the positives and negatives to this material. From the information within this blog, you will be able to draw a direct comparison between the information on this post and that of the Leather blog post in order to create a direct comparison between of both leather industries.

Vegan Leather (also known as faux leather or pleather) is a synthetic material most commonly made from polyurethane or PVC which are polymers that are created from crude oil, a finite resource which will eventually run out. Vegan leather has two components; a fabric backing and a plastic coating, which are bonded together to form the Leather. The plastic coating is then textured appropriately based on the request of the designers. Vegan leather can be created to mimic regular leather as well as other types of skins, including snake and crocodile skin without any need for harm to animals. This type of Vegan Leather is the most versatile in properties it comes in any weight, drape or texture desired; it can be made to order by designers; it is cost effective as it is cheap to produce and it is cruelty free, as no animal products are needed for production. Although, the unfortunate side of this production is the high environmental costs, being a large contributor to the consumption of fossil fuels and in turn contributing to the climate crisis. 

But what are the positives and negatives...

Arguably, the most important positive to Vegan Leather is that fact that it is cruelty free! Often the single most important reason why a consumer purchases this type of product is because no animals were harmed in the production of the leather.

Another positive to the use of vegan leather is its cost effectiveness and
versatility. Vegan leather is very simple, quick and easy to produce in large batches and quantities, unlike genuine leather which is limited to the size of the animal in which it is sourced from. The texture, style and colour of the vegan leather is guaranteed, and the design style can be changed quickly and easily if it is needed. This means that it can be produced in many different forms, being able to replicate real leather very effectively.

Unlike regular leather, vegan leather is non-porous which has benefits when it comes to weatherproofing. Vegan leather has natural waterproof properties thanks to its plastic coating without the need for any additional coatings or chemicals needing to be added, making it perfect for outerwear and footwear.

Finally, the natural difference between Leather and Vegan leather serves as positive for vegan leather.

Regular leather is very thick naturally while Vegan leather is more lightweight and flexible. This often makes Vegan leather a better choice for fashion as it has a better drape and can be more form fitting and comfortable.

The positives of vegan leather are very significant; however, it is arguable that the negatives are even more important. When it comes to environmental impacts and ethics nearly all productions have positives and negatives but is up to you to decide whether those positives outweigh the negatives. And for that you need the facts!

Unfortunately, vegan leather has a significant number of negatives regarding toxicity for both the environment and people. On a basic level, the material most widely used to create vegan leather is non-sustainable, it is plastic and derives from crude oil which is a fossil fuel. This means that it is a product of the burning of fossil fuels and a contributor to the excessive release of greenhouse gasses. However, when delving deeper into the chemicals and production of vegan leather it is also apparent that certain chemicals used in the manufacturing process are also toxic. PVC, a plastic used to create certain vegan leathers releases dioxins which can be extremely dangerous when burned or confined in small spaces, potentially causing harm to the people who own them.

Although PVC is not as widely used as in the 1960s/70s it is still used today and could still cause potential harm. Certain Plasticisers that are used to make the vegan leather more flexible are also an issue, especially for the environment. Certain types of phalaphate used in this process are so dangerous that they have been described as the “single most environmentally damaging type of plastic” by Greenpeace.

Waste is another important negative to consider when thinking about the environmental impacts; vegan leather degrades poorly because it peels and splits and is far less durable and hardwearing than regular leather meaning that the item is harder to reuse when worn out and it isn’t recyclable. Arguably, this means that the impacts of replacing multiple vegan leather items could environmentally outweigh the cost of one longwearing real leather item. 

The next set of negatives are not to do with the environment damage or toxicity that vegan leather can cause but are negatives all the same. These ones are about wear and user comfort. In the positives section it has been established that vegan leather has waterproofing qualities, however, when it comes to items such as shoes the lack of pours can also be a negative. Because the leather is non-porous it is non-breathable, and this can make items uncomfortable to wear for prolonged periods because of lack of air flow and moisture wicking qualities.

Furthermore, the durability of vegan leather is significantly shorter than regular leather and it also has significantly less give within the fabric despite the phalaphates. This can result in the material wearing out unattractively. The leather is soft and prone to scuffs and as it wears, it peels and cracks so much that often the item looks a lot older and more worn than it actually is.

The final two negatives that vegan leather possess are due to odour and composition. The chemicals used within the production process of the material leaves vegan leather with a very distinct smell. This odour can be described a chemically and slightly fishy, it is more potent on a brand-new item, however the odour never completely disappears. Alongside the odour, long term exposure to high temperatures and sunlight can also affect its composition, aiding in the faster degeneration of the material and making it weaker.

Examples: Leather alternatives

Currently there are very few Vegan Leathers that do not negatively impact our environment, however, there are large developments into the use of plant-based polymers for Vegan Leather. These materials are often not 100% sustainable as they use components such as petroleum-based resin, however many of these are still more environmentally friendly than conventional leathers.

Pinatex

Pinatex is a Vegan Leather company that has developed an innovative way of using the leaves of the pineapple plant as a cellulose base for a leather substitute. Although the main source of the leather is plant derived, in order to turn it into the final product it needs to be combined with polylactic acid and a petroleum-based resin. Like the cellulose material, polylactic acid is biodegradable and it is made from lactic acid by fermentation of glucose or sucrose. However, this product is still not 100% sustainable as it contains a petroleum-based resin.

To make this material, the pineapple leaves are gathered and stripped in order to collect the cellulose and then the waste from this is converted into biofuel and fertilizer. Then these cellulose strands are collected washed, dried and covered in an enzyme that removes the pectin (the component that makes the fibres stiff) to make them soft and malleable. The fibres are then felted together by
condensing and pressing them using mechanical, thermal, and chemical processes. Once the mesh is created, they are shipped to Spain to continue the process to become more leather looking. This process includes washing, drying and a bath in the petroleum-based resin to increase durability and give it its
leather look.

A major positive of this approach to making Leather is that it uses up a proportion of by-product that would otherwise have been burned and discarded, to put this into perspective over 76 million tonnes of pineapple eaves are wasted globally per year. As well as this they promote a circular economy by providing support
to the farming communities where they source the plant leaves and help them generate more income by benefitting from the cellulose stripping waste by converting it to biofuel and nutrient rich fertiliser.

Other positives of Pinatex:

  • Its vegan, ethical, cruelty free and sustainably sourced
  • Has the appearance of real leather
  • No harmful chemicals or animal products (no chemicals on the Cradle2cradle banned substances list are used)

Negatives of Pinatex:

  • Low resistance to heat
  • Easily damaged, low abrasion resistance, direct UV light can degrade it
  • Not 100% sustainable or biodegradable due to the petroleum-based resin. This resin is derived from fossil fuels which are non-sustainable and environmentally damaging
  • The lifespan of this material is not as long as that of regular leather

Apple Leather

Much like Pinatex, apple leather is created out of discarded waste from the industrial food industry. The leather is created in the Tyrol region of Italy from the waste product of an apple (the cores and skins). The apple leather is similar to Pinatex in the sense that it’s composition is 50% recycled apple fibre and 50%
polyurethane, which means that although biomaterials are used within this leather process, it is not completely biodegradable. This is because polyurethane, like the petroleum-based resin of Pinatex, is a crude oil-based plastic.
The process of production for apple leather begins with the harvest waste product from the food industry. From there the apples are pureed and spread onto sheets to dehydrate them. It is this first process that creates the initial flexible leathery sheet that forms the basis of the leather. From here, the leather is combined with the Polyurethane to strengthen and preserve the leather.

Positives of Apple Leather:

  • Low environmental impact when compared to regular leather processes
  • A recycling point of food waste from another industry
  • Vegan, cruelty free and sustainably sourced
  • Can be produced in a variety of thicknesses, grains and colours
  • The local apple economy is supported
  • Water resistant, breathable and durable

Negatives of apple leather:

  • Its combined with polyurethane, a plastic coating
  • Not 100% sustainable or biodegradable due to manufacturing methods

Grape Leather

Grape leather is the final leather alternative to explore in this blog. It is very similar to apple leather in its production process. They are both produced in Italy and use the waste products of other industries; in the case of Grape leather, this is the wine industry. To create this leather the waste from the wine industries (skins, stalks and seeds) are collected and broken down. A bio-oil is obtained from the seeds, which is then polymerised using a patented method, and they are combined with the addition of chemical substances that create a final product that is very similar to real animal leather. Their aim is to make 100% vegetal
leather and claim that the materials used are 100% recyclable and sustainable therefore it’s is assumed that all chemicals used are environmentally friendly.

Positives of grape leather:

  • No toxic solvents, metals or substances in the leather
  • Either raw, recycled or bio-based polymers are used in production
  • Low environmental impact
  • Renewable raw material
  • No polluting substances or water waste
  • Low production costs

Negatives of grape leather:

  • Material is not 100% finished, they are still investing in development and improvement to make the final product even better
  • Still a new concept and difficult to find brands that use it
  • At the moment it appears to be very confined to Italy and Europe with the countries that use the technology, it is not very widespread or accessible yet

This is it for our 'Vegan' Leather case study. We will be posting our Leather case study next so please look out for that in order to gain even more information about Leathers and their alternatives!

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