Leather is a beautiful, high-quality material. Leather handbags and shoes often last for years. Unfortunately, the production process often has a major environmental impact. In addition, it is often difficult to find out in what circumstances the cows live and are slaughtered. Many consumers are therefore opting for vegan leather, a market that will only grow in the future.
Vegan leather is a material that imitates leather, but is made from artificial or plant products instead of animal skins. At COSH, we asked ourselves: is vegan leather better for the environment and animals? You can read our surprising findings below.
Vegan leather made from plastic
Plastic is a common substitute for leather. Popular are polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU). These plastics have a wrinkled texture that allows them to mimic the effect of leather perfectly. Today, brands often choose PU over PVC because it is more environmentally friendly. But it's not perfect yet. The production of vegan leather from plastic requires many chemicals and large amounts of water.
Plastic remains a plastic that requires fossil fuels to make and chemicals to process. This releases additional greenhouse gases into the air and pollutes nature and waterways. Moreover, it does not decompose in nature and is difficult to recycle. So it is anything but environmentally friendly.
If we look only at the environmental impact for production, we can say that vegan leather made from plastic is indeed better for the environment than regular leather. Several studies calculated that the total environmental impact of vegan leather made from plastic would be up to 30% lower than regular leather.
The Higg Index tells us that the environmental impact of plastic leather is only 1/4 of the environmental impact of cow leather. If we look at leather made from kangaroos, however, the story is different. Kangaroo leather is in turn more environmentally friendly than plastic vegan alternatives. So this measure is highly dependent on the type of leather you are comparing. Although the leather industry consists mainly of cow leather.
However, the Higg Index will only calculate the environmental impact of the production of a material and does not take into account the final finishing of a garment, its use or its recycling afterwards. In order to calculate the true environmental impact, it is important to take into account the lifespan and the possibility of recycling. Leather is a high-quality material that only becomes more beautiful with age. Plastic, on the other hand, will wear out more quickly. In addition, animal leather is a natural product in contrast to the artificial variety. Therefore, when decomposing, it does not spread microplastics in nature.
Despite the high initial environmental impact, we at COSH! opt for high-quality leather that is tanned using plants, can last for years, is easier to recycle and does not burden the environment when broken down.
Once plastic ends up in landfill, microplastics are released during decomposition. These end up in the groundwater and the oceans. The small pieces of microplastics are everywhere. Via the water, the pieces end up in fish, jellyfish and all animals that live in the sea or rivers. Despite the fact that vegan leather is supposed to be "animal friendly", vegan leather made from plastic will still be harmful to animals.
Vegetable fibres and new innovations
As an alternative to harmful plastic, vegan leather made from plant fibres is also available.
Here, natural products such as cork, coconut, pineapple, apples, cacti, coffee and mushrooms are transformed into fibres and then processed into a leather-like material. The Dutch company Fruitleather even develops leather from mangoes. We also see several new innovations for vegan leather on the market. We list our favourites for you below!
The company Natural Fiber Welding developed a 100% plant-based alternative to leather in 2018: Mirum. No synthetic substances such as plastic are involved in its production. In addition, Mirum leather can easily be recycled into new Mirum - a nice circular circuit! Mirum has a similar production cost to vegan plastic alternatives and has a smaller ecological footprint. In addition, Mirum can be made from agricultural waste and plants and is fully biodegradable, making it much better for the environment! In addition to shoes, Mirum can also be used for other leather goods such as seats and car upholstery.
The American company Modern Meadow has succeeded in making leather in a New York laboratory. The team developed 'Zoa leather' on the basis of collagen proteins. Collagen is the substance that is naturally present in cow hides, and has particularly strong and elastic properties. Perfect for shoes and handbags. The collagen is grown in the lab and transformed into new fibres from which the 'Zoa leather' is created. This final material takes the form of liquid leather, making it able to take on any shape. For larger runs, material can be poured into moulds. This way, no material is lost. Which is the case when cutting normal hides. Modern Meadow has thus succeeded in developing a new type of leather in which no animals are killed but the material still has all the properties of natural leather products.
The American company Provenance Bio also recently started developing vegan leather in the lab, based on collagen as the building blocks.
Malai is a vegan material grown on coconut water, developed by Slovakian designer and researcher, Zuzana Gombosva. She works with local farmers, collecting the waste water from coconut production. This water is reused to feed bacteria that Malai can use to form fibres. A small company processing coconuts can collect 4000 litres of water a day, with which they can make 320 square metres of Malai.
The final product feels like paper and leather, and is fully biodegradable. No artificial products are added to the process, making the vegan leather even safe to eat, according to Malai itself. Fun fact: Malai is PETA approved!
Vegan leather can also be made from mushrooms. The hats of some mushrooms are made from fibres that react with the chemical tanning agents used in the leather industry. This material will not biodegrade because chemicals have been added to it.
Other types of fungi do not require chemicals. They can be immediately transformed into fibres under the right environmental conditions. The company Bolt Threads - Mylo™ uses this innovative technique. These fibres are particularly soft and have an irregular appearance and thickness, resembling suede.
Which mushrooms and moulds are used exactly? The company MuSkin uses a parasitic fungus 'Phellinus Ellipsoideus' that grows in the subtropical regions. Another company, MycoWorks, uses fungi grown from mycelium and agricultural by-products. Recently, MycoWorks has started a collaboration with Hermès for the production of vegan leather handbags and shoppers.
When harvesting wine, peels, pips and stalks are left over. For every 4 litres of wine, 1 kg of natural waste is produced. These waste products contain fibrous materials that can be used to make leather-like materials, Milan architect Gianpiero Tessitore discovered.
Tessitore developed leather from wine in collaboration with researchers at the University of Florence, and founded the company Vegea, which aims to commercialise vegan leather from grapes. In addition to fashion brands, the car industry is also interested in this vegan alternative for the upholstery of its interiors. Grape cultivation is much less polluting than the meat industry, especially if it is produced in Europe. A sustainable and animal-friendly alternative to leather, therefore.
Researchers from the UCLL college of higher education developed Appeal leather from waste from Limburg apple farmers. Journalist Sarah Vandoorne interviewed the team for EOS Magazine. What did they find out? Every year, 80,000 tonnes of apples and pears are left over in the fields, no longer used for consumption or juice. The researchers want to reuse this waste in vegan leather. Mixing and baking the waste creates a thin layer that can be further used to make handbags. The researchers still face challenges to make the material even stronger, as well as water- and tear-resistant.
The Italian company Frumat and the Danish company "The Apple Girl" also make vegan leather from apple residues from the food industry. However, in footwear brands working with these companies, we see that the percentage of recycled apple fibre is on the low side. Often the apple fibres are mixed with the plastic (polyurethane). This is a drawback, because plastic is polluting and makes the shoe difficult to recycle. In addition, experience has taught us that the quality of appelleer today is even lower than that of real leather, which means that your shoes will not last as long.
Leather-like materials can also be developed from the waste products of the pineapple harvest. Dr Carmen Hijosa developed Pinatex fibres from pineapple leaves. Together with the team in London, they worked with farmers in the Philippines to extract fibres. These fibres are then processed in Spain and transformed into Pinatex fibres.
Pinatex is a light material, but at the same time has strong properties and it breathes easily. This vegan leather can also be used for shoes, handbags but also furniture or car upholstery. However, pineapples are produced a bit further away from home than grapes or apples, so the CO2 emissions will be a bit higher to bring the material or finished product to the European consumer.
However, part of the Pinatex collection will still contain plastic varieties. We see that part of the collection contains 72% pineapple waste, 18% polylactide (PLA) and 10% polyurethane (PU). Another part of the collection consists of 80% pineapple and 20% PLA. Pinatex is therefore less environmentally friendly than initially thought, but scores better than most fruit leathers.
Some vegetable fibres also contain plastic
Cork, grapes and mushrooms can be turned into vegan leather without the addition of plastic. But this is not the case for all natural products. We already read above that for Pinatex fibres, in addition to pineapple, plastic is also added. Several vegan leather brands also add plastic to the material. This is also the case with coffee or cactus fibres. These plant materials are not yet strong enough to be immediately transformed into leather-like fabrics. The addition of plastic is necessary to strengthen the material.
Just because a product contains a natural ingredient from agricultural waste does not mean it is better for the environment. By adding plastic to vegan leather, the environmental impact will increase significantly and the animals in the rivers and oceans will be affected. Hybrid materials are also much more difficult to recycle.
It is not always clear whether the material consists of 100% natural products or a blend of natural products and plastic. Often, brands conceal the percentage of plastic in their vegan products.
The company Desserto states on their website that their cactus leather is PVC-free. However, this only means that it does not contain a certain type of plastic. Desserto cactus leather does contain 65% polyurethane (PU) and only 35% cactus. Despite the fact that PU is more environmentally friendly than PVC, it remains plastic and is less environmentally friendly than the brand claims.
So the green washing with cactus stings a bit.
The new shoe brand 'XpreSole' by the Japanese shoe company Ccilu makes shoes from coffee. In the composition of the shoe, we also see recycled PET (polyester), PU and other types of plastic. The shoe is marketed as a sustainable alternative, but we have our doubts about the sustainable character as only 30% of the material consists of coffee and the other 70% of plastics.
In 2019, Ullafabrics developed Ultraleather® Volar Bio as an alternative to leather. The material consists of a blend of fabrics, with only 29% being based on plant materials derived from maize production. In addition, the vegan leather also consists of 65% polyester, an artificial material. Blends of materials are very difficult to recycle, in addition, they will not biodegrade shoes. So we don't think this material is that biological either.
Which leather is best?
Leather is usually a residual product from the meat industry. As with grape, pineapple or apple leather, it is therefore a waste product of the food industry. So as long as the world population continues to grow cows and fish to eat, animal skins will also exist. It is important to make the leather industry sustainable in an environmentally and animal-friendly way. So that the animals have a happy life.
We give preference to vegetable-tanned leather from European cattle breeding.
The most important certificates for leather are LEATHER STANDARD from OEKO-TEX®, a worldwide independent certification system. This label takes into account legal production, the use of lead and the use of environmentally friendly production processes. The label applies to finished and semi-finished leather products. In addition, the NATURLEDER label has drawn up guidelines for production from raw material to sale, as well as for the use of the finished leather.
As a consumer, it is important to remain vigilant to the marketing tricks of fashion brands. Just because a shoe or handbag contains a plant-based product, doesn't mean it's good for the environment. Often it still contains large amounts of plastic, which affects marine life. At COSH we advise you to avoid blends with plastic as much as possible, because they do not fit in an infinite circular economy, or to choose handbags and shoes based on 100% recycled plastic.