Sustainable Notes on Leather & Leather Alternatives

I’ve been searching for a new handbag recently, and I really wanted leather as I am tired of replacing handbags when the body or handle begins to crack and peel , but naturally I’m looking for something that is sustainably sourced and ethically made. I’ve always known there was debate around the ethics of leather sourcing, and even whether “sustainably sourced” leather is really sustainable – but I struggle with the leather alternative of pleather (which is just plastic really but more on that later). So I wanted to share some more information around it, as I’m sure I can’t be the only one!

Let’s start by looking at real leather, most often cow hide, or lamb hide and of course here in Australia, kangaroo hide too.

While some animals are raised just for their hides, other times, leather is produced as a by-product of the meat industry. As a meat eating person, I view this as a more sustainable and more ethical way of producing leather, and it is rare that cow leather is from any other source than a by-product of the meat industry. Unfortunately, the way that animals are treated is not the best, and that is one of the reasons that leather falls into the most unsustainable fabric categories.

Another reason is that the people involved in the tanning process are exposed to many highly toxic chemicals and compounds including ammonium salts and arsenic. And of course, the management (or mismanagement) of these chemicals in the run off is of significant importance, as they are damaging to the environment.

One of the benefits of real leather is how long it lasts. When well cared for it can be passed down from generation to generation and will almost always outlast its owner. And it has an iconic and beautiful smell.

Faux leather or pleather is the cheapest alternative to real leather, and is a common option for those wanting to avoid the complex issues of real leather.

Pleather is made from a plastic base which is treated with a variety of waxes, dyes, chemicals and polyurethanes to create the desired look. This means that at a basic level, pleather is made from plastic, and it does not biodegrade.

It also has a much shorter lifespan than real leather, rarely lasting as long as 10 years before it starts to peel and crack, creating a horrible mess. Pleathers are also not always vegan, sometimes they are combined with real leathers to give a more authentic feel.

Plant based leathers are growing more and more in popularity and availability. They provide a similar finish and feel to genuine animal leather, but have slightly different textures dependent on the material they are made from. There are many sources including pineapples (Pinatex), mushrooms (Mylo), grapes (VEGEA) and apples (Apple Skin).

The wonderful thing about VEGEA and Apple Skin is they use the left over skins, cores and seeds from winemaking (VEGEA) and apple juice (Apple Skin), which gives them bonus points towards sustainability.

As a general rule, vegetable leathers still require the chemicals for tanning, so they are not 100% sustainable. And similar to pleather, it lasts at most 10 years. Vegetable leather does possess many similar qualities to genuine leather too, being breathable and having a similar feel and smell (because let’s be honest, the smell of genuine leather is one of best things about it!)

There isn’t really a definitive answer to which kind of leather is most sustainable, it depends what your end goal and personal convictions are. I personally prefer real or vegetable leather over pleather as I do my best to avoid synthetics and reduce plastic waste – I don’t even like recycled polyester because of micro plastics (see my post on that here) .

Sustainably farmed/ meat industry waste leather will be my go to when hunting out this new handbag, as I want it to last a long time, or vegetable leather if I can find it at a reasonable price and in a colour I like.

It will be really interesting to see where production goes and how the availability of vegetable leathers grows over the next few years, as I think they are a much better alternative to pleather, especially for vegans/ people who don’t want animal skins.

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