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Using Leather in Fashion: Is It Really Environmentally Friendly to Avoid Leather Products?

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Some people completely avoid leather products, especially when they discover the animal cruelty and environmental damage involved with leather products. To replace animal leather, vegan and faux leathers are now available.

But is it really much better for the environment to avoid leather products? There’s no easy answer, but it’s a discussion that needs to happen.

How is leather sourced?

It’s a common belief that leather is a by-product of the meat industry. And that’s partially true. And since cows are the primary sources of leather, let’s consider bovine hide for a moment.

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Many cows are raised for their meat or for dairy products, and when they are slaughtered, their hides are used for leather. But manufacturers don’t do this to be frugal and avoid waste.

They do it because there’s a high demand for leather. In fact, 10 percent of the cow’s value is in its hide. And when the market demands more leather than the meat and dairy industry provides, cows are raised solely for their hides.

Or, when manufacturers want to tap into this booming market, they raise cows primarily for their hides.

Therefore, while leather can sometimes be a by-product of the meat industry, it’s misleading to think that unless we buy leather, it will go to waste.

How leather is processed

While leather is a natural product, by the time it gets to consumers, it’s far from natural. In order to tan, treat and dye leather, many toxic chemicals are involved, including cyanide, chromium, formaldehyde, lead and carcinogenic chemicals.

Using these chemicals can seriously harm the workers in the leather industry, some of whom become sick with cancer. Water pollution is another serious problem thanks to leather production.

And when you consider these hard facts about the leather industry, it’s no wonder people avoid leather products and look for vegan leather or faux leather. But what is this leather substitute and is it much of an improvement?

What is vegan leather?

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Since vegan leather isn’t an animal product, what is it exactly? Most of the vegan leather you buy today is made out of polyvinyl chloride, or as it’s commonly referred to, PVC, along with polyurethane.

And while PVC avoids all of the nasty problems of the leather industry, it’s not a healthy alternative. For one thing, PVC is not only a respiratory irritant, but it’s also a known carcinogen.

However, it gets even worse. When PVC is heated to high temperatures or sits in landfills, it releases dangerous toxins called dioxins. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), dioxins are a very toxic pollutant.

Among other problems, dioxins can cause reproductive and developmental health problems, and even cause cancer.

To finish off the vegan leather, phthalates are added to the polyurethane to increase softness and flexibility. But phthalates are yet another harmful chemical involved in the vegan leather industry.

Vegan leather creates it’s own set of environmental problems and can harm human health, too.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), phthalates can negatively affect the reproductive system. And the Story of Stuff goes so far as to say that phthalates are “reproductive toxins.”

In short, you could argue that vegan leather – while avoiding animal cruelty and environmental concerns – creates it’s own set of environmental problems and can harm human health, too.

As you can see, when it comes to leather, it’s hard to say if one is massively better than the other. They’re both problematic.

But there are other reasons why it’s not environmentally friendly to avoid leather products and substitute them with vegan leather.

3 problems with fake leather

Vegan leather isn’t biodegradable

Unfortunately, many synthetics are used to produce a vegan leather that is supple, soft and similar to real leather.

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The problem is that this fake leather product isn’t biodegradable, and even if they do break down to some extent, these products release harmful chemicals in the process. What you end up with is lots of waste and pollution.

Unfortunately, due to it’s all the synthetics used to create vegan leather, it can’t be recycled either. And usually, incineration is the only option.

And as we know, high temperatures can release harmful dioxins.

Vegan leather is less durable than real leather

While vegan leather is a good option for people who want to avoid real leather, it’s not quite as sturdy and durable as the real thing. In general, vegan leather is a lot thinner and lighter, but this makes it weaker and susceptible to cracks, tears and unattractive wear and discoloration.

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When this happens – and it sure does – it’s easy to toss the item and replace it with something else.

But this consumeristic mindset is harmful to the environment. On the other hand, real leather can hold up for decades if it’s cared for properly.

What’s best? It’s really up to each individual to decide what’s better, and in alignment with their values.

Vegan leather doesn’t breath

Real leather comes from the hide of an animal. And by its very nature, it’s more porous. Because of this, it’s a breathable material.

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Most vegan leather, on the other hand, doesn’t have this natural quality, making it uncomfortable to wear as clothing. And instead of wearing soft leather, it can really feel like you’re wearing plastic – and that’s because you are.

Where to find environmentally friendly leather

If you’re not a fan of vegan leather but aren’t okay with the environmental and animal cruelty concerns from the leather industry, it can be tricky knowing how to move forward.

To address this problem, there are leather manufacturers who are committed to strict environmental regulations. There are also truly eco-friendly vegan leather brands that create their leathers from biodegradable materials that are much better for you and the environment.

Here’s a brief roundup of companies and brands to consider:

For recycled leather:

For eco-friendly and environmentally aware leather:

For environmentally friendly vegan leather:

When it comes to leather in fashion, there’s no easy answer.

On the one hand, you could argue that real leather is best. On the other hand, vegan leather seems like a much better choice. What do you think?

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