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Is Eco Leather the environmental solution, or are we being greenwashed?

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With so many sustainable options for different types of leather it can be difficult to know which one is the environmentally friendly leather and which ones should you stay away from. We dove in deep to give you all the answers and make sure that next time you go and buy a leather or leather look-a-like product you have the knowledge to make the best buying decision for you and the planet.

Is Eco Leather the environmental solution, or are we being greenwashed?

The concept of eco-leather is a good one. It means that any leather obtained from environmentally friendly materials or recycled leather products in an eco-friendly way can be called eco-leather. It is designed to reduce the harm caused to animals and the number of pollutants and waste products during manufacturing processes.

Here are the main leather options on the market that claim to be eco friendly leather. More on the “claim” part later.

  • Synthetic leather comes from a synthetic artificial material that looks and feels real, often made from plastic. This includes Faux leather; it is simply the name for any artificial leather. Polyvinyl chloride, PVC, PU and Polyurethane are used to make “Vegan leather.” These are highly toxic chemicals that I wouldn’t like to wear on my skin for a day and they do not biodegrade. The argument is that it is less resource intensive than real leather.

  • Recycled leather; is a way to use leather scraps and turn them into a powder after mixing with natural rubber glued back together to create a new eco-leather product that can be used for further production.

  • Vegan leather is also the name for natural leather that has been tanned in a more eco-friendly way.

Can you see how this can be quite confusing for the end consumer? Often companies use great marketing strategies to make us believe that what we buy is more eco-friendly and less harmful to the planet because, let’s face it, we all want to be good humans.

While eco leather refers to a type of leather that uses fewer chemicals in the production process it doesn’t biodegrade over time, leaving microplastic behind and clogging up landfills just like all the other leather options.

Yes even natural leather does take around 40 – 80 years to biodegrade and since it has been treated with toxic chemicals it doesn’t just turn back into soil.

Here is a table I made to further illustrate different alternatives for eco leather.

LeatherToxicityBiodegradable Cruelty
Animal Hidenoyes/but leaves residuehigh
Vegan Leather (vegetable tanned)noyeshigh
Made from PVCyesnoN/A
Made from Mushroomsnoyes – plastic freeN/A
Made from Polyurethane yesnopeN/A
Made from Pineappleyes/noonly in a composting facility, so no, not reallyN/A
Made from Cactusnosame as aboveN/A

Is vegan leather the better option?

eco leather
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

To understand whether vegan leather is better for the environment, we must compare its opponent, animal leather.

Animal leather or hides mainly come as a byproduct of the meat industry.

But we also know that the meat industry is one of the biggest polluters in the world. Cattle burp tons of CO2 and need a lot of land to graze on. Causing deforestation at alarming rates. You can jump over to the best documentaries you prefer watching and click on cowspiracy.

Additionally, we have to take

  • Transport into account.

  • Chemicals used for the tanning process.

  • Water usage and pollution.

  • Biodegradation of leather.

  • The carbon footprint of cattle.

When we look at synthetic leather, also known as ‘pleather’ which I believe got its name because essentially, it’s made out of plastic, let me know in the comments if you believe this to be true.

However, we know that this so-called environmentally friendly leather does not biodegrade, uses harmful chemicals, relies on crude oil and needs lots of energy to be made. Additionally, it has carcinogenic byproducts.

So which one is better? Or is this all a great marketing strategy to get us to buy more “eco-friendly” products?

What is eco-leather, and what is faux leather?

You understand that eco-leather is made from plastic like PVC or another leather lookalike. The internet says that some companies call eco leather real leather that has been processed only with natural products.

Simply put, Eco-leather is a leather alternative that doesn’t come from an animal. Most eco leather is made from plant-based material or PVC. But it gets confusing because some companies claim to have eco-leather, real leather tanned without the harmful chemicals used for the traditional tanning process called vegetable tanning.

What does vegetable tanning mean?

eco leather
Photo by Vince Gx on Unsplash

The process of turning animal skin into leather is called tanning. Since its invention in 1858, tanning has been done with toxic metal chrome, and it helps to make the leather softer and more waterproof. Almost 90% of all leather today has been tanned this way.

The animal hides are dipped into big water tanks, allowing the protein structure to change and help with decomposition. This wastewater often ends up in rivers and the ocean causing severe health problems. Not only is this chemical process bad for the tannery workers, but also the environment.

Equally, this makes real leather not biodegradable like its opponent, faux leather or eco-leather. Now, which of the two evils should you pick when it comes to your new leather clothes?

Since eco-leather only defines that a product has been tanned in an eco-friendly way, the answer isn’t so straightforward.

It depends on the kind of eco-leather.

What does vegetable tanning mean?

eco leather
Photo by Johannes Pokorn on Unsplash

This form of tanning uses tree bark, berries, or leaves instead of harsh chemicals, like in the chrome tanning process. It is said that the environmental impact of vegetable-tanned leather is less than the softening and prepare the leather hides and turning them into a finished leather that has a rich smell and generates a nice patina over the years of use.

It is the oldest way of tanning, but today we only find 10% of leather being handled this way.

The tanning process

This is where animal skin or hides are turned into something soft that doesn’t rot and is waterproof. When in its raw form, it is not usable for the final product, like shoe wear, clothing or even leather seats. So we need to treat the leather to make it more flexible and last.

The tanning process is also the process that defines whether a piece of leather is eco-friendly or not.

Chromium tanned leather

It is the most common form of tanning leather but also the most toxic. It requires a sludge of chemicals that are toxic.

By using chromium salts and aluminum salts, the companies can produce more leather, but it also lowers the quality of the final product.

Since we know how bad chromium is, more companies are looking for eco friendly leather alternatives. Now, I have come across a lot and won’t list them all here, simply because that would turn this post into a book. So I have given you the best one in my opinion and a good example of how they are trying but are not quite there yet.

eco leather
Photo by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash

Some inspiring new eco-leather companies are making a difference.

Now let’s look at the eco friendly leather options:

  • Mushroom Leather is in my opinion the winner. Ecovative has created a plastic-free leather that will biodegrade.

  • Pineapple Leather is also known as Pinatex is still uses 20% of PLA. Not plastic free.

  • Cactus Leather is another great idea that turned an abundance of cactus plants into a leather-like product. Used in applications like handbags, sports, car interiors and more.

Seems like you can turn anything into leather if you only try hard enough. But let’s stick to the two top ones.

Mushroom Leather.

This is particularly exciting because you can grow your leather in 9 days. The company ecovative has been researching and investing a lot of time and money in mycelium, the foundation of mushrooms, and what they have found is the future.

It is an incredibly durable material that has the potential to disrupt the leather industry by making truly eco-friendly leather that does not contain any chemicals or plastic and can be composted in your backyard compost.

They named it forager, and these guys can grow leather-like hides that are

  • Customizable tensile strength,
    density, and fiber orientation.

  • Forager™ Hides grow in days,
    final textile ready in weeks.

  • Ready for tanning Our Forager™ Hides are a step
    ahead in the tanning process.

  • Works with existing infrastructure
    and mushroom farms.

  • No size constraints or
    irregular animal geometry.

  • 100% mushroom mycelium,
    no plastics, blends or fillers.

What I find fascinating is that there is no waste product left behind.

The second company that I found is pinatex, and they are already an established giant in the ‘vegan leather’ industry.

Pinatex

eco leather
Photo by Julien Pianetti on Unsplash

A material from pineapple leaves has found its way into the fashion industry. My biggest concern with this one is that it still needs a PU coating, which makes it non-biodegradable. And yes, their FAQ section states that Pinatex is not 100% biodegradable. The substrate/base material of Piñatex (made from 80% pineapple leaf fiber and 20% PLA) is biodegradable under controlled industry conditions.

Ahh, and this is where I get mad because companies often use the green logo and say it is biodegradable, only to find out later that you need a special facility for it to biodegrade; otherwise, it will take hundreds of years to break down.

What is PLA plastic? You can find out more in this article.

Pinatex is already a really well-established brand supplying even bigger names like Hugo Boss, Stella Mc Cartney and H&M use their pinatex product. Sure it uses up a waste product that would otherwise end up in landfills, but it is not part of a circular economy where it can just decompose in your backyard.

eco leather

What are the most environmentally friendly materials to use instead of real leather?

Since natural leather seems the best solution from logic, if it weren’t for all the chemicals and the above-mentioned environmental issues, the best option would be to opt for second-hand leather products, at least they last a lot longer than fake pleather, and it is easier to repair as well.

You can bring your leather shoes to a cobbler near you and, in most cases, extend their lifetime. The same goes for your leather jacket or your handbag. So should you opt for any eco leather at all?

That depends: If you choose a company like Ecovative to make your leather products, I would say yes, go for it.

But so far, I haven’t seen many products made from their mushrooms. It looks like they are more present in the process of making packaging for all sorts of products. From wine bottles to beauty products, there are no limits to mycelium.

mushrooms, moss, wild mushrooms

Are planet-based fabrics a better alternative?

Companies like Allbirds and Boody and Fioboc use new technologies that can utilize natural materials with a less intensive production process than leather tanning while creating more sustainable products that are of high quality.

If you want to learn more about how Fioboc is starting a eco-friendly activewear revolution check out this review article of the brand.

Photo of author

Hendrik Kaiser

Is the guy behind Zerowasteman. He is a YouTuber and ocean lover just trying to leave this place less messy than before he got here. Follow him and subscribe for more fun enviro goodies.

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