What does the term mean
The term “vegan leather” is popping up more and more these days, positioned as an alternative to real leather, an ethical, “cruelty-free” choice. It’s also positioned as better for the planet although that claim is highly questionable.
But what does the term “vegan leather” actually mean? Stop and think, do you honestly know? Clearly, the material in question is not an animal-based product, but what is it really made of? Funnily enough, it’s not necessarily plant-based either, as we’ll reveal.
It’s a confusing state of affairs as is clearly illustrated by the complaint we received from a member of the public.
They’d spotted an item of clothing labelled as “vegan leather” in an upmarket high street fashion chain. They were curious as to the composition but there was nothing to indicate what it was made of. No sewn-in label, nothing on the swing tag. When they asked the assistant, they were told it was made of “vegan leather” - clearly not an answer. It was only by going online that they were able to find the actual material – polyurethane (PU) - in other words, plastic!
Many people choose plant-based and vegan alternatives because they want to avoid animal products. At Leather UK we respect this freedom of choice and are happy for leather to co-exist alongside a range of alternative textiles. But there is also an assumption that choosing vegan or plant-based products is a good way to reduce our environmental impact.
While we respect the freedom to choose, we do object to the use of the terms “vegan leather” and “plant-based” when they mislead (whether deliberately or not) and provide a cover for synthetic alternatives to real leather. Something labelled as “plant based” could in some cases contain a significant amount of plastic.
Both are meaningless catch-all terms and we would like to see the use of the descriptions like “vegan leather” banned as happened recently in Portugal
But there is also an assumption that choosing vegan or plant-based products is a good way to reduce our environmental impact. That’s not necessarily true.
Not only that, the term “vegan leather” is an oxymoron, since by definition, leather is an animal product. The description is a blatant attempt to appropriate the characteristics of real leather such as quality, durability and luxury, which the material in question might not actually possess.
While there is some interesting work being done to develop alternative textiles that can be used as a substitute for leather - apple, mushroom, pineapple and cactus are the ones most commonly mentioned – to date they are not yet available at any real scale and are usually expensive. Because of this, most of the material commonly marketed as “vegan leather” in the UK today is likely to be a plastic such as PVC, PU or similar.
We know leather is not for everyone
As the trade body for the UK leather industry, we love the real leather that we represent. But we are certainly not saying that leather alternatives are fundamentally bad, it’s much more nuanced than that. We know that our animal-based product is not for everyone, we get it.
Yet something we are deeply uncomfortable with is the use of the word leather, for something that is not in fact leather. Leather is as old as mankind, and it cannot be divorced from its animal origins. Did you know that legislation has recently been passed in Italy and Portugal that makes it illegal to label anything as leather that is not the original animal product? The same is true in Germany, France and Brazil and we hope that similar legislation will be laid in the UK.
we are certainly not saying that leather alternatives are fundamentally bad, it’s much more nuanced than that.
Revealing the truth
We’ve also discovered a worrying state of confusion regarding the meaning of the term “vegan leather” - over half (54%) of the 2,000 people we asked had no idea of the composition of this material (link to previous vegan section)
At Leather UK we work hard to communicate the true facts about leather, where it comes from, how it’s manufactured and the extent of its environmental impact. There is always work to be done.
We talk to UK consumers via regular surveys, asking them for their views on topics that are important to us and them, such as their knowledge on the origins of leather. When we asked that question recently, we were surprised to find out that only 24% of people understood that leather was a by-product of the food industry. It’s vital that we improve knowledge levels.
We’ve also discovered a worrying state of confusion regarding the meaning of the term “vegan leather” - over half (54%) of the 2,000 people we asked in research we ran recently had no idea of the composition of this material.
And the use of the term “vegan leather” is of concern to people when they realise the material in question may not be what they think it is. When told that an item labelled in this way could potentially be 100% PVC or PU, rather than made from “all natural” materials, 52% of respondents expressed disappointment. A further 14 % said they would be very upset and 13% said they would want their money back. Three quarters agreed that “it should be easy to see what I am buying and that labelling should not be misleading.”
It seems therefore that there is broad support for our drive at Leather UK for clearer labelling to ensure that UK shoppers know what they are buying when it comes to "vegan leather” and other leather alternatives.
Leather is a by-product of
the food industry
Leather is a by-product of the food industry.
The hides and skins used to make leather are an unavoidable by-product of the rearing of animals for meat. However, this fact is not widely understood. In our recent survey, we asked consumers where they believe leather comes from. Fifty percent of the 2,000 people we surveyed said they thought it derives from animals which are raised specifically to make leather. Thirteen percent confessed that they didn’t know. Only 24% of our respondents chose the correct option, which is that the hides or skins used to make leather are a by-product of the food industry that would otherwise go to waste.
It also important to clarify that the production of leather does not drive slaughter of animals.
When leather’s status as a by-product was clarified to our respondents, 30% cited ‘not wanting anything to go to waste’ as their main reason for buying leather. Eight percent of people who told us they don’t currently buy or use leather said they would be more likely to buy leather in the future after learning about its origins as a by-product and this rose to 19% among 18-to 34-year-olds. Another 10% said they might consider it in the future, now that they knew the real facts.
It also important to clarify that the production of leather does not drive slaughter of animals. Never let anyone persuade you to the contrary and there is research to support this from the University of Montana
Why is this? Most of the value of the animal lies in the dairy and meat products that are used in the food industry. The value of the actual hide that is used for leather is only around 1 to 2% of the whole animal. In some cases, hides are disposed of in landfill and while this wasteful practice horrifies us, it happens because those hides have no value.
As long as people eat meat, there will be hides and skins produced. It would be unethical and unsustainable not to use these vital raw materials to make leather.
Real leather or a leather alternative – which is better for the environment?
Wouldn’t it be great to see at a glance which material does least harm to the environment? But calculating the impact on the planet of a wide range of materials used in the clothing industry is no easy feat. It’s called Life Cycle Analysis, or LCA and it’s a term you’ll probably notice if you decide to read more about sustainability and the clothing industry. However, it is essential to understand how LCA works and the system’s limitations if you want to get a true picture of the environmental impact of a material.
The best-known measure of material sustainability is the Higg Index. The Higg Index uses a limited LCA to assess the impact of a range of textiles and other materials, including leather. While it’s constantly being improved, it’s still based on some false assumptions and offers only a limited view on the environmental impact of materials. If you are to believe the Index, polyester is more sustainable than leather. Common sense tells us this cannot be true.
In summer 2022 Higg Index was in the news for all the wrong reasons. Norway’s consumer watchdog issued warnings to clothing retailers H&M Group and Norrøna over what it deemed “misleading environmental claims”, adding that their use of the Higg Index was insufficient as a tool to support their environmental claims. The Sustainable Apparel Commission, the body that runs Higg Index has had to pause its consumer-facing programme and set up an independent review.
Even before these recent events, Leather UK has always had issues with Higg Index, and here’s why.
First of all, its calculations only cover the impact of manufacturing to the point where a natural or synthetic material such as leather or silk or PVC or polyester leaves the factory – in other words, the raw material, before it’s made into a handbag or pair of shoes, garment or interior furnishing.
Higg also applies one rule to synthetics and another for leather when it comes to what it considers the start of the process. It includes the environmental impact of raising the animal that produces leather, but it does not consider the sourcing of the fossil fuels required to manufacture plastic-based materials such as polyester.
Nor does Higg take into account what happens when the finished item is worn and eventually retired. It ignores the impact of washing, how long an item lasts and whether it can be recycled and how, or simply disposed of.
Real leather lasts longer than PVC in most cases and at the end of its life, leather will easily degrade, compared to fossil fuel-based materials such as polyester, PVC and PU that go into landfill, adding to the plastic waste that is filling up the planet. Plastic based fabrics produce microplastics when washed, and these are ending up in the food chain. In 2022 they were detected in our bodies for the first time. Higg covers none of these issues.
And in the case of leather hides, a by-product of the food industry, Higgs is working with out-of-date data. For example, it takes 3.6% of the weight of the live animal when calculating the impact of rearing that animal on producing a leather hide. The real figure is closer to 1%. If you consider that rearing the animal accounts for the bulk of the environmental impact of any given finished leather item, you can see how this incorrect % allocation gives leather a much worse outcome than is warranted. And as a result, any improvements in the leather manufacturing and tanning process that follow, barely make an impact in the overall equation.
Most importantly, because of the differences in the things that are measured, LCA cannot be used to compare the impact of different materials, such as leather and polyester. This is acknowledged by Higg Co but very often overlooked or ignored by those seeking to promote alternative materials by attacking leather. Yet, despite its flaws, the Higg Index is a useful measure when used to compare the impact of different sources of the same material. So, if you want to compare the impact of recycled polyester against virgin polyester or types of leather, it has a good deal of value.
And if you want to know whether vegan leather is better for the environment than real leather, remember that vegan leather can mean many different things. It can range from pure plastic PVC or PU, all the way through to part plastic/part plant textiles such as apple “leather”, pineapple “leather” and the much more sustainable and promising mushroom “leather”. And as we have explained in this section, currently you cannot accurately compare the impact of one type of material to another. However, there is a growing urgency to do this kind of work, and plenty of effort ongoing. Watch this space.
Alternatives to real leather
If you’re not in the market for real leather, a decision that we totally respect, there is some interesting work being done to develop alternative leather-style textiles - apple, mushroom, pineapple and cactus are the ones most commonly mentioned in the media and elsewhere.
But they are not yet available at any real scale and are usually expensive. Because of this, most of the materials marketed as “vegan leather” or “plant-based leather” in the UK today are likely to be a plastic such as PVC, PU or similar, labelled as fake or faux leather, and made entirely from plastic materials with a fossil fuel origin.
Here is a bit more detail about some of the leather-style textiles that are being developed and which you are most likely to read about:Pineapple leather
– marketed as Pinatex. Pineapple leaves are a waste product. The fibres are bonded together with different polymers to form a textile. In some cases, the product used to bond is mainly plastic, in others it’s polyactic acid, which will compost under industrial conditions. However, with the current state of sorting and recovery of waste footwear, clothing and accessories, it is very unlikely that a product containing Pinatex will end up anywhere other than a landfill site, where it will just be another plastic product.Apple leather
–waste apple fibres have to be bonded to a plastic material to provide stability, making the product between 50-75% plasticCactus leather
– marketed as Desserto. Cactus fibres lack the necessary structure and durability for product manufacture and like Pinatex and apple, the fibres have to be bonded to a plastic material. Desserto is 65% polyurethane.Mushroom leather
– made from mycelium, the network of filaments that form the underground thread-like structure of fungi and which grow in the ground, as tiny white threads. The mycelium structure is treated or tanned in a similar way to real leather to create the end product. Unlike most other alternatives to leather, mushroom may not contain plastic materials, except where required for certain finishes.
Other than mushroom, these leather alternatives are best viewed as plastic-based materials that contain some plant matter, rather than the other way around.
It’s clearly a good thing to be using waste material in the development of new textiles. But using a large amount of plastic to manufacture that textile so that it becomes stable enough to use is a concern. Most of the alternative materials above need to be glued or bonded to a stronger component or layer, often plastic, to ensure they are fit for purpose.
It’s also important to compare the performance of these new textiles with that of leather, across a range of criteria. You might feel like you’re doing the right thing by buying a motorbike jacket in an alternative leather material, but if that material doesn’t protect you if you fall from your bike, then it’s not doing the job it was meant to do.
Similarly owners of Tesla cars have been less than impressed by the performance of the car brand’s “vegan leather” seats, as this Times article
How do these alternative materials perform when compared to leather?
When you buy a bag, pair of shoes or even a sofa you usually want to know that it will last for a certain amount of time. You also want it to carry on looking good, not to damage too easily or look worn out and battered.FILK
is a renowned body in the research, development and testing of materials. Its work is recognised globally. It has carried out experiments looking at the performance of some of the most frequently mentioned leather alternatives and how they shape up to real leather. FILK’s experiments are pretty similar to what Ikea does with the chair it has on display in many of its stores, getting a proper mechanical beating to show how it can stand up to the toughest wear! If you’re keen to get more details click to download
Their study looked at a number of important performance characteristics, including tensile strength and flex and tear resistance, which are indicators of how long a product will last; and vapour permeability and moisture absorption, which are very important for comfort in footwear.
Overall, the studies show that real leather performs best. It is strong, tear resistant, it dispels moisture quickly but at the same time provides a barrier that acts to protect against moisture penetration – important for keeping feet dry when it rains! Some of the other materials were comparable to leather on some of the tested characteristics but none could compete with leather on all of them.
We understand that it is important that alternatives to real leather are made available. PU/PVC are the ones that are affordable and in plentiful supply, but they come with a heavy environmental impact.
Using waste materials is to be commended and that is why it will be interesting to follow the development and scaling of textiles such as Pinatex, Desserto and “apple leather”. However, these materials cannot be considered de facto sustainable, particularly given their dependence on plastics to achieve the necessary performance for consumer goods.
The scaling up of “mushroom leather” is being pursued by several companies and has the advantage of having no plastic elements in its composition. We imagine quantities will remain low and prices high, but that it will co-exist alongside leather for a consumer that wants an animal free, sustainable choice and is able to afford the premium price it commands.
Five ways to tell if leather is real
An article co-authored by Mallika Sharma
sets out some simple ways how to tell real leather from fake leather in garments. Below is a quick summary:
1. Give it a sniff
One of the best things about leather is its glorious aroma. It’s probably the hardest things for fakers to fake so this is a good starting point.2. Read the label!
Naturally, if the maker of the article has used genuine leather he will want to tell you. So if there’s no label, it may be fair to conclude he has something to hide. Beware also of false or misleading labelling. Designations such as ‘vegan leather’ or ‘faux leather’ or ‘leatherette’ are not leather at all. Some countries have banned this kind of misleading information but we still await a blanket EU ban. Even the terms ‘genuine’ or ‘real’ leather can cause confusion and we have published articles before on what genuine leather actually is.3. Get a feel for it
With its textured surface, genuine leather feels soft and flexible. Fake leather will probably be smooth and somewhat hard or ‘plasticky’. Genuine leather has a warmth to it compared to the coolness of plastic and it can be stretched a little.4. Check for imperfections
As leather is a 100% natural and organic material, no two pieces are the same. Each piece of leather is like its own fingerprint. If you can compare your piece of ‘leather’ with another you’ll see that they are unique if genuine. If fake, they will look identical. Genuine leather hides will also have natural imperfections. If your piece looks too good to be true, it probably is. In addition, try and check the edges of the leather. The genuine article will be coarse and fibrous whereas a synthetic material will have perfectly straight edges.5. Try a little water
Genuine leather is water resistant but that does not mean it won’t absorb some water on its surface. Fake materials, on the other hand, will be impermeable to water and it will simply run-off. So sprinkle a few drops on the material you’re testing and see what happens.
One final point on how to tell if it’s real leather: leather is the result of a lot of craftsmanship and knowhow which is why it can seem expensive. We would say it is “reassuringly expensive” because it’s an indication that it’s the real deal and a reflection of the care and expertise that’s gone into its production. If the material you’re examining seems cheaper than you’d normally expect, it’s probably trying to pull the wool over your eyes. Put it down and step away!
Read full article hereCopyright Leather Naturally 2022.