Is vegan leather more sustainable than animal leather? What to know. – The Washington Post

How does vegan leather stack up against animal leather? Here’s what to know.
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If you’re shopping for leather shoes, belts and clothes, you might be finding more and more products labeled as “vegan.”
Some brands are marketing these items as a more sustainable choice over traditional animal-based leather, but it’s not as clear-cut as you might think. It may not be made from animals, but “vegan leather” is often a rebranding of “pleather,” or plastic leather, a synthetic, fossil-fuel-based textile.
We looked at how pleather stacks up against animal leather. Here’s what you need to know:
Most faux leather is made out of either polyurethane or polyvinyl chloride — also known as PVC — both of which are types of plastic.
If you’re buying pleather, you should steer clear of PVC, said Huantian Cao, professor and chair of fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware, who has researched sustainable textiles and design.
“The entire life cycle of this material has a very bad environmental impact,” Cao said. Production, use and disposal of PVC can release toxic chlorine-based chemicals, and the plastic is one of the world’s largest sources of dioxin, a harmful pollutant that persists in the environment and can accumulate in the food chain.
Pleather manufacturers are working to eliminate the use of PVC, Cao said. Polyurethane is a better alternative, he said, but it’s still plastic and made from petrochemicals, a nonrenewable resource. Producing this type of pleather also involves chemicals, he added.
Recycling pleather is complicated and not widely done, Cao said.
Throwing out your pleather once you don’t want to wear it anymore can be a problem. “It is synthetic,” said Sonali Diddi, an associate professor in the department of design and merchandising at Colorado State University who researches sustainable clothing production and consumption. “It’s never going to biodegrade.”
Traditional leather comes from the hides of livestock, namely cattle, that are primarily raised for meat and dairy. Hides that aren’t turned into leather typically end up burned or in landfills.
“As long as we human beings eat meat, there will be skin, and we need to find some application for that,” Cao said. “Many people may think or feel bad that we kill animals just to have leather and make shoes, and that is essentially not the real case.”
One estimate from the Leather and Hide Council of America, a trade organization, suggests that about 40 percent of hides worldwide are landfilled, said Kevin Latner, the group’s vice president. As these hides decompose, they could release about 40 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent each year, he said. This amount is similar to the emissions of more than 9 million gasoline-powered cars being driven for a year.
“To collect the animal skin from the meat industry and convert them to leather goods is a way to maximize the using of the resource,” Cao said.
Leather products can be shredded into scraps, but recycled leather can have limited applications, he added.
And, he noted, traditional leather tanning often uses heavy metals, most notably chromium, and the resulting waste is a health hazard and could pollute waterways if facilities don’t have proper safeguards in place. Groups such as the Leather Working Group and Oeko-Tex offer sustainability certifications for leather.
When it comes to shopping, many experts say the most sustainable choice is the product you’re going to keep and use for as long as possible.
Animal-based leather is “time tested,” Diddi said.
“We still see leather products in pretty good condition even if they’re 100, 150 years old,” she said. “If you’re thinking about sustainability, durability, hand-me-downs, I would say genuine leather would be the way to go.”
Depending on how it’s made and used, pleather can be less durable than genuine leather, she said. The synthetic material can peel, chip or crack with frequent use.
Companies are experimenting with plant-based alternatives to leather, including materials made from mushroom or cactus, as well as fruits such as pineapple.
These textiles could be more sustainable than pleather because they’re plant-based and they don’t require tanning like animal leather, Diddi said.
But research into these materials is ongoing and products are not widely available yet, meaning it’s too soon to know what the actual impacts of plant-based leathers are.
“They are still at the very, very early stage,” Cao said.