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What is “sustainable leather” and is it truly sustainable?

Tory Burch Suede Messenger Bag via Flickr user Lauren Indvik. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

As more people demand ethical and sustainable practices from their clothing brands, the word “sustainable” itself is being added to product descriptions and fashion websites’ “About Us” pages on a daily basis. But treating “sustainable” like a buzzword doesn’t always paint an accurate picture for buyers, and sometimes, it gets used in places where it’s arguably not applicable.

The concept of “sustainable leather” is one such issue. While the term is meant to describe leather that is taken from animals that are already dead, like cows that are already in use by the meat industry, many argue that there’s no scenario where any leather products are truly environmentally sustainable.

Is “sustainable leather” simply an oxymoron?

It’s important to acknowledge that all topics around sustainability and environmental ethics are nuanced and complex. What might be a “positive” choice for one element of the equation might have consequences that negatively affect something else, so it’s important to understand your own definition of sustainability and what you want to signal with your fashion purchases.

With that in mind, leather is typically considered unsustainable for a number of reasons. First, the sourcing process requires killing animals (most commonly cows, sheep, and goats) for material gain. Back in 2015, the Food and Agriculture Organization gave an estimate of 3.8 billion cows and other bovine animals involved in leather production on a yearly basis.

Beyond the animal impact, leather production also contributes to global warming, uses a significant amount of water, and ultimately, creates a material that introduces chemicals into the environment and isn’t easily decomposed.

To better understand the sustainability potential for leather, let’s take a look at a few of the options for “sustainable” leather on the market.

One is the example we mentioned earlier: leather that has been sourced from animals that would already have been killed whether or not the leather was used. The idea behind calling this leather “sustainable” is that it’s a byproduct from another industry and the questionable practices behind it aren’t a direct response to the leather sourcing itself. This argument is becoming less popular as many argue that it’s still contributing to a practice that is inherently unsustainable, considering cattle rearing releases 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions each year.

Another option is vegan leather, which is seeing spikes in interest in the last several years. Most vegan leather is made from two different plastics – polyurethane and polyvinyl chloride – which solves the animal-friendly concern but still introduces materials into the environment that may be difficult to break down over time. A central tenet of today’s sustainability measures revolves around reducing plastic use worldwide, which would seem to be at odds with the adoption of vegan leather made from plastics. Other vegan leather options include materials made from silicone, plants, and even materials grown in a lab. So which vegan leather is most sustainable?

Silicone leather is non-plastic and non-petroleum based, meaning it requires less water, materials, and electricity to create compared to plastic vegan leathers. Another positive attribute of silicone leather, like Voke’s “Freedom Leather,” is that it is recyclable and highly durable. Plant-based leathers like Piñatex and apple leather are made from pineapple leaves and leftover apples, respectively. They use waste products, and even help sustain farming communities. Finally, lab grown leathers are produced from a variety of materials like fungus or yeast, and are grown and combined with other materials to make a leather-like finished product.

When analyzing each of these materials, plant leathers seem to be the most sustainable option. However, at the end of the day, this issue is complex for a reason, and where you stand on this argument will likely depend on your personal definition of “sustainable” and how low-impact you strive to be in your purchase choices. Most would argue that leather, and many vegan leathers, are not sustainable at all, but it’s up to you to decide your personal stance.