The use of leather in fashion products has become increasingly controversial with the rise of vegetarianism/veganism. Some advocates contend that killing animals for their skin even if the animal is also being used for food production can never be ethical. Others argue that if the skin is merely 'waste' from the meat industry, then it should be put it into productive uses such as making furniture or garments.
However, no matter where one stands on the animal-cruelty debate, leather continues to be incredibly unsustainable for the environment. The Higg Index which measures the environmental impact of producing fibres – gives most leathers a staggering 159 (compared with 44 for polyester and 98 for cotton), due to its contribution to global warming, water use and pollution.
Another issue relates to the processing of leather and the impact this can have on human health, and in particular, the health of workers in tanneries in the global south who routinely come into contact with harsh chemicals. For instance, chromium, a known carcinogen, is used in huge amounts along with acids, natrium and ammonium salts. Despite being exposed to toxic substances, workers are often not equipped with appropriate protective gear.
When these toxic chemicals are released into local waterways, they can also have a destructive impact on natural life. High levels of chemicals used in tanneries mean that there is less oxygen in the water, which causes aquatic life to suffocate and die. Furthermore, samples from wells in Hazaribagh, Bangladesh, have shown to surpass the chromium limit permitted in drinking water as a result of the pollution coming from local tanneries.
The production of new leather can also be destructive to tropical forests and the biodiversity contained within them. According to Hughes, up to two-thirds of Earth's species reside in tropical forests (Hughes et al., 1997). As cattle inevitably require pasture land to graze on tropical forests have become a targeted site for this agricultural activity. Cutting down trees for agriculture not only reduces our planetary carbon sink and biodiversity—when forests are burnt, huge amounts of GHGs are also released into the atmosphere.
The methane that cattle produce only adds to the GHG emissions problem. While there is not much methane in the atmosphere compared to carbon—methane can lead to substantially higher rates of global warming than its more well-known counterpart. According to the IPCC, methane is about 28 times more potent than Co2 at warming the Earth, on a 100-year timescale, and more than 80 times more potent over 20 years.
In sum, clearing tropical forest land, rearing cattle and processing leather are all very unsustainable processes. This is not to mention the transport, packaging and re-packaging emissions associated with shipping leather hides and finished leather products across the planet.
Various alternatives to leather have popped up - from the more common PU (which is often tooted as a vegan alternative) to the more exotic pineapple skin and mycelium leathers. However, while some of these alternatives sound exciting, there is no silver bullet when it comes to finding a sustainable leather alternative that is also aesthetically beautiful.
Now that an overview of commercial approaches to producing leather has been provided, this post will proceed to give you some alternative suggestions - whether you are a brand, consumer or curious citizen.
Leather + Alternatives:
Anti-Deforestation Leather | Anti-deforestation leather, as the name suggests, is leather that comes from cattle that are reared in agricultural zones that do contribute to deforestation. However, there is some controversy around anti-deforestation leather as these cattle are often farmed in areas that are not actually facing the threat of deforestation. The notion that leather possesses "anti-deforestation" properties thus seems to be somewhat overstated. While this type of leather may not contribute to deforestation, anti-deforestation leather can be unsustainable for a variety of other reasons—these range from the methane produced by cattle to the use of toxic chemicals in tanneries.
Apple Leather | Apple skin leather made by the supplier Frumat is obtained through processing of the leftover skins of apples. Apple skin leather can be used for the production of clothes, shoes, luggage and small leather goods. The output of Frumat is considered to be of low environmental impact, as at least fifty per cent of the total fabric composition is apple fibre, which is obtained through the recycling of organic industrial waste. However, we also need to consider what makes up that extra fifty per cent—polyurethane or PU which is a type of plastic, meaning it does not biodegrade. While Frumat are, therefore, reducing waste they are simultaneously contributing to the plastic problem.
Cactus Leather | Cactus leather developed by supplier Desserto is a partially biodegradable leather alternative. Desserto aims to offer a cruelty-free, sustainable alternative, without any toxic chemicals, phthalates or PVC. This textiles developer only cuts the mature leaves of the plant without damaging the cactus itself, enabling repeat harvest every 6-8 months from the same plants. Their USDA certified cactus is grown organically on degraded soils that cannot be used for many other crops. I couldn't find much information about what part of Desserto's cactus leather is not bio-degradable. Presumably, as is the case with apple leather, Desserto will use PU, which produces its own issues as described above.
Exotic Leathers | The most common type of exotic leathers includes snakeskin, alligator/crocodile skin, lizard skin, ostrich skin and fish skin (which will be discussed separately). The most common arguments against the use of exotic leathers are both the inherent animal cruelty and the endangerment to the species that poaching causes. While leather may be used primarily for food production, these animals are often slaughtered for their skin alone.
However, if you are more interested in the environmental aspect, exotic leathers can be considered to be more sustainable than cow leather if the killing of these animals does not infringe upon biodiversity. The mentioned animals produce far less methane than cows. However, this does not mean that exotic leathers are all gravy from a sustainability perspective. The skins of exotic animals still have to be treated to ensure they are suitable for accessories production and like with cow leather this often does not exclude the use of toxic chemicals. Exotic leathers can be tanned using either chrome or vegetable dyes, the former of which is far more sustainable (discussed below). If you are a consumer looking to purchase exotic leathers, I would recommend going vintage. Meanwhile, if you are a brand considering using exotic leathers, I would recommend not only using vegetable tanned skins but also ones that have not endangered species. Nile Crocodiles provides an interesting case study for their principles on environmentalism and conservation - I recommend checking them out!
Fish Skin | Fish can be considered to be skin is less problematic than exotic leathers as large swaths of the population eat fish as opposed to say—lizards. This means that the leftover skin from fish that have been skinned for their flesh can be incorporated into the fashion supply chain. Icelandic supplier, Atlantic Leather, produces fish leather which is environmentally sustainable in two different ways. Firstly, Atlantic Leather's fish skin is a by-product of the fishing industry, utilising raw material that would not otherwise be used and secondly, their production process makes use of renewable hydro and geothermal energy. When seas are not fished to excess, fish skin can be seen to be a cleaner alternative to leather.
Grape Leather | You guessed it - grape leather is made from grape material that would otherwise go to waste. For instance, supplier Vegea makes leather out of the skins, seeds and stalks of grapes, which are left over after winemaking. Vegea thus offers an eco-friendly alternative to the use of animal or fossil-derived materials. Grape leather can be created in a variety of colours to meet designers needs. As with Apple leather, however, we also need to consider the use of PU in this fabric.
Leaf Leather | Leaf leather is made leaves coated with a polymer. Accessories brand Thamon sells bags from fallen leaves, which means that no trees are destroyed in the process. However, the plastic coating on these leaves means that these items will take thousands of years to decompose. It is highly unlikely that the leaves will be able to be separated from the PU coating once fused. Yet, leaf leather probably remains more sustainable than commercial leather at least in the production stages.
Mycelium Leather | Mycelium leather is made by Bolt Threads and goes under the trademark name Mylo. Mycelium consumes significantly less water and land and emits fewer greenhouse gases than raising livestock. The mycelium used to make Mylo is grown from mulch, air, and water in just a few short weeks, versus the years it takes to raise cattle. Mylo is certified bio-based, which means it’s made predominantly from renewable ingredients found in nature today. Go Mylo!
Pineapple Leather | Pineapple leather (also known as Piñatex) made by supplier Ananas Anam is the in-the-know alternative to leather. It has a beautiful crumpled like finish and comes in a variety of shades including metallic gold and silver. Piñatex is made of ﬁbre from the leaves of the pineapple plant that would otherwise go to waste. As these leaves are a by-product from existing pineapple harvest, the raw material requires no additional environmental resources to produce. Piñafelt (the fluff-like pineapple leaf fibre before it is turned into leather) is also coloured using GOTS certified pigments and a resin top coating is applied to give additional strength, durability and water resistance.
Pre-Loved/Second Hand Leather | Pre-loved leather is leather that has been used before. This option perhaps more relevant to consumers than brands. However, it is a great option when applicable. Leather is a long-lasting and highly durable fabric. It can last for decades and still retain a beautiful finish. Buy choosing pre-loved you are playing a tiny role in helping prevent the unsustainable practice of producing leather. Next time you are looking for a bag or leather jacket, choose pre-loved!
PU | PU is the most common vegetarian/vegan choice for those who wish to avoid first- and second-hand leather. While PU is more sustainable than its outdated counterpart, PVC, PU is still a plastic meaning that it will take hundreds if not thousands of years to biodegrade. You can read my previous post "Why I'm Not Buying Vegan Fashion" to learn more about the issues with PU. Despite these problems, there are some suppliers who are producing PU a bit differently. For instance, Dinamica has developed a recycled polyester suede which can go on to be recycled again post-use.
Recycled Leather | Recycled leather inputs can be sourced from diverse places. For instance, supplier Recyc Leather uses pre-consumer leather wastage found in domestic gardening gloves factories. The result is brilliant—highly durable and lighter products that have outstanding strength, yet retain the traditional appearance and feel of genuine leather. While we must question how energy intensive this process is it seems like a promising option.
Recycled Rubber | Recycled rubber can be obtained from various sources. For instance, supplier Vulcana incorporates recycled post-consumer tires into a material that is suitable for a variety of uses. It comes in a range of colours and thickness and can be further customised to meet specific colour, thickness, and texture requirements. Similarly, bags manufacturer, Elvis + Kresse, recycle London's used fire hoses and turn them into bags and small leather goods. This creative approach to re-capturing waste serves as a great source of inspiration when it comes to reconsidering the trajectory of supply chains.
Vegetable-Tanned Leather | The art of vegetable tanning leather is thousands of years old. According to a leather supplier, Tärnsjö Garveri vegetable tanning is far more sustainable than the chrome excel method. Vegetable-tanned leather produces less toxic waste and it can also biodegrade in a clean way. Suppliers, Deep Mello and Moore & Giles even dye their leather using rhubarb and olives respectively! While colour options are more limited when it comes to vegetable-tanned leather, it presents an excellent choice when going for more earthy tones.
Waxed Cotton | Waxed organic cotton is such a beautiful leather alternative. If the cotton is organically grown and GOTS certified then this is even better in terms of environmental footprint. Waxed cotton is generally coated with either beeswax or paraffin wax, the latter of which is derived from petroleum, coal or shale oil. If you want to go for the truly sustainable option, choose beeswax for its low ecological footprint and its ability to biodegrade.
Zero-Waste/Discarded Leather | Zero-waste/discarded leather is, simply put, the use of leather that would otherwise go to waste. This most commonly includes leather scraps and offcuts remaining after cutting out pattern pieces in factories. Using discarded leather is a great way to prevent leather from becoming waste. However, as these scraps are often small pieces, brands might need to get creative about how they incorporate offcuts into their products.
Atlantic Leather | The Story
British Millerain | History of Waxed Cotton
Citizen Sustainable | Is Beeswax Sustainable? Everything You Need to Know
Common Objective | Fibre Briefing: Leather
Deep Mello | Our Rhubarb Leather
Desserto | Why Cactus?
Desserto | Why Desserto?
Dinamica Miko | Dinamica
Ecocult | Are Exotic Leathers Sustainable?
Econation | Beeswax
Human Rights Watch | Toxic Tanneries: The Health Repercussions of Bangladesh’s Hazaribagh Leather
Moore & Giles | Olive Green Leather
Mylo | Unleather
National Geographic | Methane Explained
Nile Crocodiles | About
Pinatex | About Us
Recyc Leather | Home
The Restory | Exotic Leathers: The Ins and Outs
Thamon | About Us
I hope this post has given you a few ideas for find sustainable leather alternatives whether you are a brand seeking to find a more sustainable solution or you are simply looking to find a new bag. Check out my posts on silk, wool and plant-based fibres if you would like to learn more about how to level-up your sustainability game in these departments.
Love and solidarity,