Vegan Leather Versus Real Leather
How we can balance personal style with our ethical dilemmas
By Lillian Wilson-Daeschlein
Leather has been a staple of every grunge, dominatrix, NASCAR, and punk oriented closet from Grace Jones’ 1985 oversized leather jacket to Kim Kardashian’s 2019 lime green bodycon leather dress. Leather was made with the vision of durability and timelessness, but has evolved to take multiple different forms today. The advent of vegan leather and the vintage craze has created a diverse and sometimes confusing landscape for leather’s place in ethical fashion. As we are faced with the impending destruction of our planet due to climate change, we fashionistas are searching for ways to look good while feeling good about the environmental impact of the pieces we wear, and leather is no exception.
Although we usually think of vegan as synonymous with eco-friendly, when it comes to leather, this is not always true. Vegan leather is most commonly made out of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane (PU), which are both damaging to the environment. Not only are they non biodegradable, but bonding a plastic coating to a fabric backing to produce vegan leather requires dimethylformaldehyde, acetic acid, and other harmful and hard to pronounce chemicals. Not all vegan leather is made from these materials, but most of the cheaper and more accessible options are. If you’re buying vegan leather from a fast fashion retailer like Zara or ASOS, it's not going to be sustainable in the long run, nor will it be ethically made.
However, there are many vegan leather options that are eco-friendly. For example, the so-called queen of sustainable fashion, Stella McCartney, has a “vegetarian leather” made from recycled polyester. Even better, the clothing industry has seen recent innovations such as Pinatex by Ananas Anam, which is a faux leather made from pineapple leaves. Cork and kelp have also been used to make faux leather, which promises a bright future for sustainable alternatives in fashion.
Now, if compassion for animals isn’t your top priority when it comes to making decisions in the fashion industry, you may find yourself buying real leather. Leather is often a byproduct of the cattle used for beef and milk and it could thereby be seen as wasteful to dispose of the hides, but there are some things to be aware of in the production of real leather. 90% of real leather undergoes a tanning process that requires chromium, salts, formaldehyde, and dyes. However, just like vegan leather, there have been great strides taken to produce real leather sustainably and consciously. When sourced from sustainable ranches and tanned naturally, real leather can be a great addition to your closet, due to the long lasting and durable nature of the material. Real leather has a non-uniform surface, will indent when you push into it, and over time will wrinkle slightly. This wear on real leather is called patina, and it only makes the leather more valuable with time. Real leather is one of the only materials where the more you wear it, the better it looks. That characteristic is extremely valuable in combating over-consumption and our collective desire to keep buying new things. Ultimately, when it comes to sustainable fashion, one of the most important things is being able to buy less, and wear your pieces longer.
Making ethical fashion choices is going to look different for everyone. I wish I had a definitive answer in this debate between vegan leather and real leather, but as is the nature of ethics, I do not. What remains, is that whichever option you choose, you can do it in a more environmentally conscious way. I hope you can begin to identify your own next steps to feeling good about what’s in your closet.