Dear EarthTalk: What is vegan leather made from, and how does it compare with conventional leather in regard to environmental impact?
—Katherine Sutton, Washington, DC
Leather is stylish, fashionable and wearable throughout the year, but its production takes a heavy toll on animal welfare and the environment. While many environmentalists and vegetarians swear off leather altogether, more and more are turning to vegan leather as a cruelty-free alternative. But even vegan (AKA synthetic) leather has its environmental problems, given the toxin-laden base materials it is typically made from and the harsh chemical tanning and dying processes it is subjected to in order to make it into the type of shiny, tough and stylish material we are have all grown to love.
Most vegan leather is made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane. According to Andrew Dent of Material ConneXion, PVC is a respiratory irritant and known carcinogen. And when it is exposed to high heat or landfilled, it releases dioxins linked to developmental, reproductive and other health problems.
Meanwhile, polyurethane-based synthetic leather isn’t much better. Jody McCutcheon reports in eluxemagazine.com that off-gassing from polyurethane can cause lung irritation and trigger asthma attacks. And the solvents used to make it malleable like leather are highly toxic in their own right.
“When it does break down, vegan leather releases phthalates—initially added as a softening agent—which subsequently enter the food chain and the atmosphere, causing breathing problems, breast cancers, hormonal disruptions and birth defects,” adds McCutcheon.
Of course, vegan or synthetic leather does have one huge environmental advantage over conventional leather: no animals are directly harmed in its production. According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), most conventional leather comes from developing countries where animal welfare laws are either non-existent or unenforced. A PETA investigation in India found workers were breaking cows’ tails and rubbing chili peppers and tobacco into their eyes “in order to force them to stand, get up and walk after they collapse from exhaustion on the way to the slaughterhouse.”
Of course, plenty of conventional leather comes from domestic sources as well. PETA says that millions of cows and other animals are killed for their skin every year right here in the U.S., with many of them forced to endure the horrors of factory farming such as extreme crowding, castration, branding, tail-docking, dehorning and other forms of control. PETA adds that beyond its pollution burden, conventional leather also “shares responsibility for all the environmental destruction caused by the meat industry” including carbon emissions and the chemical agricultural inputs and waste of cropland to grow animal feed.
For the sake of both animals and the planet, stay clear of all leather, faux or real. Plenty of clothing brands are now embracing non-animal materials and cruelty-free sourcing while keeping up their fashion chops. One example is Olsenhaus, whose faux-suede microfiber fabrics are made from recycled television film yet retain the softness, comfort and look of real suede. Another responsible choice is Dinamica, which makes its fabrics from 100 percent recycled PET bottles; the company’s eco-friendly suede look-alike material produces 60 percent fewer carbon emission than so-called virgin polyester. For more animal- and environment-friendly clothing and fabric options, check out PETA’s Cruelty-Free Shopping Guide.