Let's talk about vegan vs. real leather - culthread

Let's talk about vegan vs. real leather

If you’re new around here, you might not know that we’ve been striving to be a slow fashion brand that’s as sustainable as can be since our very first collection (as sustainable as we can be, as we’re open about the fact that no fashion brand can be fully sustainable). A few years ago we read a horrifying story about how the softest animal leather products are made (we’ll spare you the details) and it made us feel physically ill. Ever since, we’ve been searching for a leather alternative that doesn’t cost animals their lives, isn’t made of new plastics or bound to end up in landfill for thousands of years when you’re finished with it.

To give you a better understanding of the leather industry and the impacts of various types of both real and faux leather, we’ve comprised a list below assessing their pros and cons in both quality and environmental effects. We’re thrilled to have found a fabric that puts all of these to shame.


Real Leather

How is it made?

Real leather is most commonly made from cow hide 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 (gross). 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.


When processing leather to create an end product, various tanning methods are used in order to alter to the desired appearance. 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 tannin, which in turn results in much more expensive leather products.


What’s the quality like?


When it comes to real leather you have to be cautious when it comes to the quality, and it really is a case of you get what you pay for. There are three different levels of quality to look out for: genuine leather, top-grain leather and full-grain leather.


Genuine leather does of course mean that the product is made of real leather, but it does however, also mean that it is of the lowest quality. Typically, genuine leather doesn’t last as long or look as good as those of a higher-quality and is commonly found in belts, shoes and bags found in lower-priced stores.


Top-grain leather can be found in ‘fine’ leather goods. It is a middle-of-the-road quality of leather that is used by many well-known designer brands for items such as purses or wallets.


Finally, full-grain leather. This quality of leather is regularly used for heavy-duty leather items used within the military. Full-grain leather is widely recognised as the best and highest-quality leather that money can buy, and with its durability it is almost guaranteed you will have the item for the rest of your life.


What impact does it have on the environment?


There are some severe sustainability issues linked to the production of real leather, particularly with it being a by-product of the meat industry. Deforestation, gas emissions and water and land overuse are just some of the devastating environmental impacts resulting from extensive rearing of livestock, which therefore connect to the real leather industry. Not only this, leather manufacturing is putting the environment at risk due to the use of heavy metals during the tanning and dyeing process as this can lead to chemicals leaking into water streams.

Does it have an impact on animals?

People argue that since the material is typically a by-product of the meat industry, leather goods are ethical. You’re probably reading this like we are, thinking that if anything the entire meat industry is unethical and therefore so is the production of real leather, but it’s a topic of much debate.

However, when it comes to exotic leather and the animals this is derived from, real leather can be seen as highly unethical as it is not a by-product by any means and in some cases the animals are endangered.


real leather infographic


Second-Hand Leather


How is it made?


Second-hand leather is exactly what it says on the tin, a product made from real leather that has been previously used and has been passed on or sold to someone else. There is a possibility that the original item has been reworked in order to produce something new but overall the leather and the hide it is made from remains the same.


What’s the quality like?


When it comes to second-hand leather the quality can tend to differ and this comes down to various factors. Depending on the quality of the leather material when it was first made, as well as how old the second hand product is and how well it has been taken care of, this will determine how good the quality is of the item you end up with.


What impact does it have on the environment?


One of the fashion industry’s biggest impacts on the planet is caused by its use of leather, particularly in terms of letting the leather go into landfill as the chemicals used to create the product creates even more toxic waste. It could therefore be argued that second-hand leather reduces the need for new leather products being created and in turn reduces the environmental impacts. Shopping vintage and second-hand is definitely the way to go if you’re set on having real leather items. If you currently have leather products that you no longer feel comfortable wearing yourself, please don’t throw them away, donate them to a charity shop or pass them on to be repurposed as this will reduce the chances of them ending up in landfill.  


Does it have an impact on animals?


Only first-hand purchases create the demand for more leather, so it could therefore be said that buying second-hand leather does not directly contribute to the harm of more animals.

However, there is also the argument that continuing to wear real leather, despite it being second-hand, is promoting the use of animal products, so this could be subject to debate depending on your own personal standpoint.


second hand leather infographic




How is it made?


Short for polyvinyl chloride, PVC leather, otherwise known as vinyl, 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.


What’s the quality like?


Out of the various options for faux leather fabrics, PVC is the most unrealistic in appearance when comparing it to real leather and also much less breathable and prone to cracking. It is however very durable due to its multiple layers and capable to withstand more extreme wear and weather conditions.

What impact does it have on the environment?


PVC has been labelled by Greenpeace as the “single most environmentally damaging type of plastic” as unfortunately its durability is also its downfall as it is 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. So yeah, let’s stop buying PVC.


Does it have an impact on animals?


Even though faux leather materials such as PVC prevent any harm coming to animals in the production of their product, animal life is unfortunately harmed due to the continual build-up of non-biodegradable material in the world’s ecosystems. These smaller pieces of PVC can be ingested by animals which can lead to blocked airways and other harmful consequences.


PVC infographic




How is it made?


PU (polyurethane) leather is made by applying or laminating a 100% polyurethane finish to a base material which typically include cotton, polyester, nylon or rayon. An artificial grain pattern is then applied to the surface using a roller in order to produce the look of real leather.


What’s the quality like?


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.


What impact does it have on the environment?


In terms of sustainability, PU leather is much better than real leather as its production uses less resources. Also, unlike PVC, PU doesn’t release harmful substances and dioxins during usage or disposal and is therefore considered to be more eco-friendly (but still not perfect).

PU accounts for less than 2% of the plastic waste in our oceans, compared to the 95% of thermoplastics. One reason for this low level of waste is that polyurethane lasts much longer than most thermoplastics.


Does it have an impact on animals?


PU leather is entirely artificial and therefore no animals are harmed in the making of the product. There are however, some types of PU leather called bicast or split leather include actual leather with a polyurethane coating on top, so if you are looking for a 100% vegan leather alternative, be sure to look into the product to ensure it is PU only.




culthread’s Recycled Vegan Leather


How is it made?


Our recycled vegan leather is very similar to PU, the only difference being it is 100% recycled polyester with a PU coating. As we mentioned above, PU leather is created by applying a spongy PU coating to a fabric backing, only in our case we have ensured this backing is completely recycled material.


What’s the quality like?


At culthread something we are never willing to compromise on is the quality of our products. We have done extensive research to find the best vegan leather material that will provide you with great quality without having to compromise. Our fabric is lightweight, water resistant and flexible whilst providing the appearance of real leather with a soft and supple feel. We also wanted to find a material that didn’t need any added plasticisers for a number of reasons, one of these being that our fabric will not be prone to cracking or peeling and will maintain its quality for a very long period of time.


What impact does our recycled vegan leather have on the environment?


Another reason we wanted to avoid plasticisers and instead chose a soft polymer, is that this makes our material more environmentally neutral in comparison to other materials such as PVC, particularly as it does not create dioxins and therefore reduces risk to the environment.


Does it have an impact on animals?


Our recycled vegan leather is of course 100% vegan so absolutely no animals are harmed in the making of our products. Due to the quality we have strived to achieve we feel confident that our upcoming products using recycled vegan leather will stand the test of time, we are therefore hopeful that they will not end up in landfill or pose any risk to ecosystems and will only be passed on to another loving home if you decide to part ways.


culthread recycled vegan leather



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