The vegan material revolution has only just begun, and leather is at the forefront. Here's everything you need to know about leather and its most common alternatives.
- REAL LEATHER
- What is real leather and how is it made?
- De-bunking the myth: Leather is a by-product of the meat industry, doesn’t that make it “sustainable”?
What is real leather and how is it made?
Genuine leather (or real leather) is made from animals. Real leather is most commonly made from cow hide (skin), but is also made from animal skin derived from sheep, goats and pigs to name a few, as well as snakes and alligators when creating more exotic leathers.
Once you’ve got the skin, the process is:
- Preparing: After soaking (rehydration) and cleaning, unhairing and fleshing, the skins undergo a bating and softening process.
- Tanning: There are two methods which are more commonly used, the first being ‘chrome tanning’ which results in serious water pollution that is toxic to the environment and the people that rely on the water supply and eco-system (read more about this here). The second method is called ‘vegetable tanning’, which is a longer, more challenging process involving tree bark and tanning, which in turn results in much more expensive leather products.
- Dyeing: The skins are dyed wet in large drums. The leather is also fatliquored (oil is introduced into the skin so that the individual fibres of the skin are uniformly coated) to give it suppleness and strength.
- Drying: The skin hides are put into condition for drying, which usually involves smoothing and stretching the hides, while compressing and squeezing out excess moisture. Then, the leather is dried.
- Finishing: To prepare the leather surface for its final appearance, the leather is often coloured in a dye bath, or covered with a layer of pigment, and waterproofed with coating.
Is leather sustainable?
De-bunking the myth: "Leather is a by-product of the meat industry, doesn’t that make it “sustainable”?"
A classic argument made by everyone who uses leather. We don’t think it makes leather “sustainable” – here’s why.
- The meat industry is far from cruelty-free, and inherently “unsustainable” – that extends to any by-product beyond it. If you buy organic meat, and care about where it comes from, you should with regards to the leather you buy too. However, given the largely untraceable nature of much leather, it’s really hard to know where it comes from.
- Leather is a hugely profitable industry, which means the industry financially supports the slaughter of animals, just like buying meat or dairy does. Indeed, the global leather goods market is valued at $95.4 billion USD, and is set to reach $128.61 billion USD by 2022. Thus, animal skins are sold and made into leather goods for profit, not for waste reduction. This good on you article debates whether leather is a “by-product” or “co-product” very comprehensively.
- The processes of making leather (described above) use an enormous amount of water. Without accounting for the water used in cattle raising, 1.32 sq.m. (for a biker jacket) uses over 27,000L of water – that’s the average water consumption for a person for 13.5 years. Accounting for the cattle raising as well, it goes up to 36 years!
- The processes of chrome tanning and dyeing, along with certain types of coating (finishing), use toxic chemicals that are released into the environment. These go on our skins, into water sources, and into our bodies as a result of that.
- Tannery workers are often exploited and face serious health risks, illness, and even death due to exposure to carcinogenic and harmful chemicals. For example, studies of leather-tannery workers in Sweden and Italy found cancer risks “between 20% and 50% above [those] expected.” Certain industrial areas in China where leather is tanned are even referred to as “cancer villages” by local and international news outlets.
Where is real leather made?
China, Brazil, Russia, India and Italy are currently the top five leather producing countries, acquiring the animal hides and then transporting these around the world to be processed and transformed into various leather goods. Often, the hides are transported between countries and continents between the different stages outlined above (hello carbon footprint).
The different qualities of real leather
There are varying qualities of real leather, most commonly genuine leather, top-grain leather, and full-grain leather. We wrote more about this here.
So, what is vegan leather? And how does it compare? Is vegan leather sustainable?
This comprehensive article by Ecocult does a really good job at breaking different alternatives down by name. Here, we’ll focus on the most common alternatives, and finishing with our favourite: coffee-cycled vegan leather.
What is PVC leather and how is it made?
As the name entails, PVC leather is a vegan synthetic leather made of PVC, which is short for polyvinyl chloride. Also known as vinyl or synthetic leather, it is made by combining polyvinyl chloride with stabilisers which help protect the material, plasticisers to soften and lubricants to make the leather flexible, this is then applied to a base material which are typically made from polyester, cotton, nylon or rayon.
Here’s the process breakdown:
- Fabric base: Generally cotton or polyester is used as a base fabric. Often, they need to be rough or porous, which means that they are specially manufactured for this purpose.
- Plastic formulation: PVC is combined with stabilisers which help protect the material, plasticisers to soften, and lubricants to make the leather flexible.
- Binding the materials: The fabric and plastic are bound, usually by melting the plastic on the surface of the fabric.
PVC leather is cruelty-free, but is it sustainable?
Using and wearing PVC leather means that we avoid the animal cruelty involved in real leather, but vegan products are not always better for the environment. The case in point: PVC leather. This material is harmful for the environment on various fronts:
- Given that fabric is often made specifically for PVC leather, you’re creating virgin fabric, which has a high carbon footprint.
- Greenpeace labelled PVC as the “single most environmentally damaging type of plastic”. The material is highly durable, which sometimes is positive, but it is because it’s not biodegradable or degradable. This means that items made from PVC will retain their form for decades and any breakdown that occurs is simply granulation where the pieces become smaller but do not disappear.
- PVC also creates dioxins, a group of highly toxic chemical compounds which are harmful to health and remain in the environment causing damage for many years after production.
Does it look any good?
Bad for the environment, and also the most unrealistic in appearance when comparing it to real leather and also much less breathable and prone to cracking. The main reason PVC leather is still used is that it’s really cheap to manufacture. At culthread, we believe that extra small investment for high-quality, ethical, and eco-friendly materials is 100% worth it – that’s why we never compromise on our materials.
What is PU leather and how is it made?
PU (polyurethane) leather is another commonly-used vegan synthetic leather, which is made in a very similar way to PVC synthetic leather, but using a PU finishing, rather than PVC.
An artificial grain pattern is then applied to the surface using a roller in order to produce the look of real leather.
Read up on the process of making PVC leather in the previous section, and on PU coating in our cultruth glossary.
What’s the environmental impact of vegan synthetic PU leather?
PU leather’s environmental impact is more positive than both real leather or PVC leather. Its production uses less resources than real leather, and unlike PVC, PU doesn’t release harmful substances and dioxins during usage or disposal.
PU accounts for less than 2% of the plastic waste in our oceans, compared to 95% of thermoplastics. One reason for this low level of waste is that polyurethane lasts much longer than most thermoplastics.
However, PU leather still uses virgin fabric, and some PU coatings do contain C8 and C6 water repellents, which are harmful to our planet, and the animals and people on it!
How does it look?
In comparison to other faux leather materials, PU leather is much better quality and is very durable. PU leather can also wrinkle and stain just like real leather and lasts a very long time without cracking or wearing down, meaning that any items will remain in good condition for a longer period of time.
So, is any leather-like material positive for the planet and the animals?
RECYCLED VEGAN LEATHER
What is Recycled Vegan Leather and how is it made?
The two primary issues with the PU vegan leather mentioned are:
- It is often made from virgin fabric, which has more negative environmental impact than anything else in the fashion supply chain and route to market.
- Some PU coatings contain toxic chemicals.
What if we solved them?
- Use recycled post-consumer water bottles to make the base fabric needed for the vegan leather, creating Recycled Vegan Leather (RVL). Using recycled polyester instead of virgin polyester to decrease impacts on the air, land, and water. It reduces energy consumption by 30-50%, water consumption by nearly 90%, and greenhouse gas emissions by about 60%.
- Use a water-based PU coating, which contains absolutely no toxic chemicals.
The recycled vegan leather is one of the leather-resembling materials with the lowest carbon footprint, and is of high quality.
How does it look?
In one word: great! (and that’s not just because we use it…) Lightweight, water resistant and flexible, the Recycled Vegan Leather (RVL) has a soft and supple feel and looks like real leather. As it doesn’t use any added plasticisers, the fabric isn’t prone to crack or peel, and is therefore long-lasting.
An even more eco-friendly leather alternative:
COFFEE-CYCLED VEGAN LEATHER
What is Coffee-Cycled Vegan Leather?
Coffee-cycled vegan leather is a type of recycled vegan leather (RVL). It is cruelty-free leather made from coffee grounds (29%), and recycled polyester fabric (31%). The fabric has a water-based PU coating (40%), which does not use harmful chemicals (like certain other PU coating) and gives it the look and feel of leather.
How is Coffee-Cycled Vegan Leather made?
Here’s the step by step process to making Coffee-Cycled Vegan Leather:
- Treatment: Coffee grounds from factories, which would otherwise be buried, emitting carbon dioxide into the environment, are treated (deoiled, ground, and modified) for compatibility.
- Recycling Water Bottles: Meanwhile, water bottles are cleaned, crushed into small fragments, and then spun to produce raw material, to make the backing fabric.
- Foaming and Coating: The treated coffee grounds are mixed into the water-based PU resin (also vegan, made from corn), to make the coating.
- Coating the Backing Fabric: The coating is then applied onto the recycled backing fabric, to create coffee-cycled vegan leather!
How does it look?
Very similar to Recycled Vegan Leather, Coffee-Cycled Vegan Leather is soft and supple, and water resistant. It looks and feels like quality animal leather, but without the cruelty or toll on the planet and people. It’s slightly heavier due to the coffee grounds’ weight!Want to take a look at some products? Check out our collection here.