By Jeanne Yacoubou, MS
The Vegetarian Resource Group received an email in April 2020 from a Dutch college student working on her senior thesis in fashion and textile technologies. She asks:
“…I’m writing about sustainable alternatives for artificial leather without added PVC…I thought you could help me find information about sustainable artificial leather possibilities…”
VRG Note: “PVC” is the acronym for polyvinyl chloride, a common petrochemical used in many consumer products from baby toys to construction materials. Although there are many different types of synthetic leather, most of it has traditionally been made out of PVC, on the market since the 1960s. Another fossil fuel derivative, polyurethane, PU, is also used to make vegan leather. From looking at many company websites for this article, PU appears to be the most common vegan leather on the market today.
The inquirer added in a subsequent email:
“…The aspects I’m looking at for artificial leathers are: price, quality and sustainability…I was wondering how you see this situation and what you think/see is important?”
In responding to this student researching the sustainability of vegan leathers, The VRG began by directing her to a document which discussed the environmental impacts of cow leather versus synthetic leather.
Cradle to Gate versus Cradle to Grave
According to the table on page 25 in this 2017 document, titled Pulse of the Fashion Industry, published by the Global Fashion Agenda and The Boston Consulting Group, the environmental impact of animal leather far exceeds that of PU leather based on a “Cradle to Gate” analysis. (No values for other types of vegan leathers are given.) By this metric, PU leather appears more sustainable than animal leather.
Unfortunately, “cradle to gate” means that the environmental assessment occurred only before the item left the factory. In-Use and End-of-Use (i.e., what happens during and after the useful life of a product is over) are NOT considered. It’s also unclear whether the environmental impact from the manufacture of all the starting materials before they got to the factory were taken into consideration, or just the impacts of assembling the item’s pieces in the company’s factory itself.
This difference is relevant in the case of synthetic leather because often fashion companies use “remnants” – or leftovers – of PVC or PU. Fashion companies may use this as a reason to exclude its manufacture from an analysis of the environmental costs of their products, since they didn’t commission its production in the first place.
These are important distinctions. A “cradle to cradle” analysis of every starting material would give a more accurate comparison of cow versus synthetic leather. Certainly, at the very least, it would increase the environmental impact of synthetic leathers because of the toxic and, in many cases, carcinogenic air and water pollutants – like dioxins –generated during the initial manufacture and the final incineration of PVC, PU and other fossil fuel derivatives. If the PVC is destined to go to a landfill, it will leech chemicals indefinitely during its lifespan which is believed to be thousands of years.
Sustainability and Fossil Fuels
Whether a product is derived from fossil fuels or not has an enormous impact on its sustainability. First of all, fossil fuels – coal, gas, and oil – are not renewable resources. Sustainability is based on a circular economy in which all starting materials can be – and actually are – recycled, upcycled or reused. Non-renewables, by definition, cannot be. This implies that a product claiming to be sustainable cannot be made from fossil fuels. Secondly, burning fossil fuels is the major reason for anthropogenic climate change, which has been called a human existential threat. This also implies that a sustainable, circular economy cannot include fossil fuels. For these reasons, the claim that vegan leather made from fossil fuel derivatives (like PVC or PU) is not sustainable has strong support. Among the petrochemicals used to make vegan leather – also called “pleather” where the letter p stands for plastic – PVC is the worst.
Polyvinyl chloride is coated with one or more other petrochemicals to make it soft and supple. These chemicals are in a class called phthalates. Many more phthalates are banned in the European Union compared to the United States, and banned in more products, because of their toxicity. Birth defects and hormonal disturbances are associated with exposure to even small quantities of phthalates. Phthalates are not bonded chemically to PVC. This means during the use of products made of PVC, as well as upon incineration, phthalates readily break loose and can cause harm.
By contrast, the type of polyurethane (PU) used to make vegan leather, called thermoplastic PU, does not require the use of phthalates to make it bendable. It is for this reason that some people believe PU is a more environmentally-friendly vegan leather option.
In terms of price, synthetic leather is very inexpensive compared to cow leather.
With respect to quality, many people with experience using both types claim that cow leather is more durable and long-lasting compared to pleather. For instance, they claim PVC and PU leathers do not last as long as cow leather, and they crack or peel easily compared to it.
Fortunately, for vegans and all people who are concerned about the environment, there are alternatives to both cow and synthetic leathers. There are also a few synthetic leathers that may appear to be eco-friendly, and are marketed that way. A closer look, however, reveals they are 100% petrochemical.
Newer Types of Synthetic Leathers
Polyamide (PA) is another petrochemical used to make vegan leather. (The synthetic material nylon is also a polyamide.) Like PVC and PU, the production and incineration of PA release toxic chemicals that pollute air and water, harm human health and adversely affect aquatic ecosystems.
Ecolorica® uses PU and PA in its products.
Dinamica® uses recycled polyester, which is another fossil fuel derivative. (Polyester is commonly used in clothes.) They call it “ecological suede.”
Both companies refer to their synthetic leathers as microfibers.
Microfiber materials, when washed, burned or landfilled, release large quantities of extremely small fibers that are detrimental to marine life and do not biodegrade. They eventually find their way into seafood or sea salt.
Here’s the nonprofit Story of Stuff® discussing microfibers.
Semi-Synthetic Vegan Leathers
There are a few companies which sell a wide variety of semi-synthetic pleathers. The most common semi-synthetic types have a synthetic layer made of PVC, PU or PA attached to a natural backing, or vice versa.
Note: Piñatex® uses PLA (polylactic acid, which is chemically misnamed because it is an ester and not an acid). PLA, although it may have a natural source, is industrially manufactured using some petrochemicals. Because of this, Piñatex is included in this list as a semi-synthetic leather.
Matt and Nat®
All-Natural Vegan Leathers
Leather made out of banana leaves? Leather from fungi? Just some of the sustainable innovations in materials coming to the market. The following brands are relatively new, and are not yet readily available. They may cost up to ten times more than PVC/PU leather.
There are companies like Biofabricate® with the sole purpose of serving as support to entrepreneurs looking to create sustainable fabrics.
As an example of how the material development process works, here’s a video by Suzanne Lee, the founder of a tech startup, Biocouture®, describing the creation of her microbe-based leather:
Many of these natural leathers are still in the development phase, so quality issues are still being worked out. It remains to be seen how durable they will be to withstand wear.
Here are some natural leather companies:
For more information about any of these companies, including where you can purchase their products, contact them directly through their websites listed above.
To learn more about vegan leather, view a previous VRG blog post here. https://www.vrg.org/blog/2016/12/09/whats-the-deal-with-vegan-leather/
Also see https://www.vrg.org/links/LeatherAndClothingAlternatives.htm
To support The Vegetarian Resource Group research, join at https://www.vrg.org/member/2013sv.php
Or donate at www.vrg.org/donate
[Editor’s Note: Please remember that humans are not perfect. We all do the best we can, and at various times in our lives we may choose various issues to focus on or make different decisions. Don’t judge others or be discouraged by all the choices out there. Forty years ago, if you wanted soymilk, often you had to order powdered products through the mail. Now a host of plant milks are available almost everywhere in the U.S., and more people are consuming these products. The same evolution may happen with sustainable leather. If you are promoting a better world, this should all be done in a positive and caring way.]
The contents of this posting, our website, and our other publications, including Vegetarian Journal, are not intended to provide personal medical advice. Medical advice should be obtained from a qualified health professional. We often depend on product and ingredient information from company statements. It is impossible to be 100% sure about a statement, info can change, people have different views, and mistakes can be made. Please use your best judgment about whether a product is suitable for you. To be sure, do further research or confirmation on your own.