Vegan leather, it is mostly a nonsense name. A marketing phrase.

‘Leather is a collective name for processed animal hides and those are by definition everything but vegan. The name “leather” should be protected’ says senior researcher sustainable textile Paulien Harmsen of the Wageningen University in a recent article published in the Volkskrant. ‘Synthetic or plant based fake leather does not even come close to real leather in terms of quality. The term vegan responds to the emotion that animal-based is basically bad and vegan is always good.’

Leather compared to “vegan leather”

In this article in one of the leading Dutch quality newspapers leather is being compared to so called sustainable alternatives. A well-founded commentary to a, often, misleading narrative. Finally. It is about time that consumers and brands become conscious about this fast-growing offer of “vegan leather” and any other so called leather alternatives. Are they really environmentally friendly? And are these alternative materials always more sustainable than leather?

Let’s not keep you waiting for the answer, because the conclusion is a clear no. Most of these materials consist of a large part of synthetic, man-made fibers based on fossil fuels.

Fossil-based vs. bio-based

Fossil-based materials, like plastics and PVC, are depleting Earth’s resources, polluting our oceans and are often not recyclable nor biodegradable, thus causing more and more waste. Leather, on the other hand, is based on a hundred percent biobased hide and holds a biobased level between 70 and 98%, after processing. Moreover, leather can be reused, repaired, recycled and, when using the right chemistry, is compostable and biodegradable.

Fashion for Good, an international platform for sustainable fashion innovation, is also questioning the sustainability of vegan alternatives to leather. ‘The lifespan of lots of alternatives to real leather is much shorter, and they don’t have the same look and feel. It is also good to keep in mind that there are only milk- and meat-cows, there are no cows that are being bred for leather, so if we do not use the hides, they will be burnt. As long as people eat meat, leather will be available.’


Still, when people talk about the leather industry facts are not always checked. Unfortunately. In the article it is stated that 100,000 liters of water is used to process one hide. But, what is the scope? It is not mentioned in the article, therefor the number does not mean anything. Acknowledged institutes like the Leather Working Group (LWG) and The Framework for Sustainable Leather Production use the tannery as a scope to determine water usage; from raw hide to finished leather that is ready to be used for leather articles (such as shoes, bags and car seats). In that case, bovine leather production, from raw hide till finished leather, typically uses between 600 and 1.100 liters of water per hide.*

Or we sometimes get stuck in the past, using old data. The times that leather was made using harmful chemicals, lays for a big part, behind us. With strict regulations and certifications, conducted by independent organizations like the Leather Working Group and Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC), tanneries are guided towards the use of zero harmful substances. There are also multiple chemical innovations in place that pave the way for fully sustainable leather making. Besides that, the leather industry cares about animal welfare and there is a growing transparency in the origin of animals.

Be inspired by brands like Mulberry, Anya Hindmarch and Puma who use responsible, sustainable leather for their products and SPOOR, who offer documented traceability back to the single animal.

Return To Nature collection by Anya Hindmarch. In support of DIRT, the foundation for the regeneration of the soil.

The article states that leather is an unsurpassed sustainable material. It breathes, is every so strong and lasts a lifetime. We could not agree more.

Buy less, buy better

Let’s look further than the marketing label and make truly sustainable material choices.
It will also help to change the way we consume. We live in a society where we can buy whatever we want and throw away when we please. From clothes to cars. From footwear to furniture. Low quality materials are cheap and have a short lifespan and enable mass consumption. Let’s move away from this throwaway society. Buying less and buying better is the key to sustainability.

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