The leather industry has been a thriving sector in textile manufacturing for over a century. As time progressed and the rise of fast fashion came to the scene, the leather industry played a part and soon began buying into mass production, which includes the demise of animals in each and every leather product. Along with the mistreatment of animals, the leather industry has received backlash for the environmental and social effects leather manufacturing has on the people and areas involved in the processes. This is due to the use of chemicals to process raw animal hides into leather which consists of the use of chromium. Chromium is used in about 90% of tanning production globally and has been identified as a toxin and carcinogen. These concerns are a call to action for a more sustainable alternative to leather.
Leather Alternatives’ Call to Action
The dangers and harmful effects of the leather industry have caused an increase in ethical awareness amongst consumers and manufacturers alike. The interest evolved with the notion that fur and leather products were directly linked to animal abuse and rights topics. The second topic of interest was reducing one’s environmental impact. With the products people buy having a direct link to their ecofootprint and leather having a large one at that, many people consciously decided to start veering away from animal products in clothing production to limit their environmental impact. This has raised tremendous criticism of the 40-billion dollar global industry, which is definitely for the better. Many companies and organizations have backed this movement and have vowed to remain fur-free, including Burbury and Stockholm Fashion Week.
With the leather industry going under fire for all its detrimental outputs, there has been an increasing demand over recent years for leather alternatives. There are varying qualities of leather alternatives with some very innovative solutions to the industry’s issues.
To avoid the use of animal products, there has been an evolving “vegan leather” industry which manufactures leather-like products made of materials such as cork, pineapple leaves, and apple skin, as well as various chemical recreations. These leathers have slowly integrated into the manufacturing of multiple products, such as shoes, bags, and wallets, to name a few. The following section will go in-depth on some innovative alternatives to leather.
Pleather is the most common, cost-effective, and accessible alternative to leather currently. Pleather gets its name from the combination of the words ‘plastic’ and ‘leather’ and is comprised mainly of polyurethane and polyvinyl chloride. Pleather was quick to come to the scene as a cost-effective alternative to leather that stuck when environmental concerns swirling around the sector became more common. According to American Apparel and Footwear Association, in 2008, the footwear industry produced and sold 2.2 billion pairs of shoes in the U.S., with plastic/vinyl being just as common of material as leather, both making up one third of the industry.
Pleather avoids many environmental problems the leather industry has, such as the lack of chromium and other toxins used in leather tanning. Pleather is also very adaptable and can achieve varying thicknesses, durabilities, and textures to attain various styles.
However, Pleather has received some backlash as it is dominantly plastic based. Although the industry contributes to a fraction of the environmental effects during manufacturing compared to traditional leather, there is a concern about how to manage the product at the end of its lifecycle.
SCOBY, made of a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, is most commonly used in kombucha production. But did you know it can be manufactured into vegan leather? This environmentally friendly and animal-free alternative to leather is currently in the works of becoming a viable alternative to the traditional leather industry.
This vegan leather is a biodegradable option as opposed to pleather which lacks effective planning for the end of its lifecycle. SCOBY leather is currently being produced to support a longer lifespan, but at the moment, SCOBY leather is an excellent alternative for products such as clothes, bags, decorations, shoes, etc., that are intended to last at least a year. Despite a shorter lifespan, this product offers an environmentally conscious lifecycle from manufacturing to disposal.
After exploring a couple of vegan leather options currently available or in the works to hit the shelves, there is some controversy about the durability of vegan leather as opposed to traditional leather. As previously mentioned, pleather does not face this concern as it is very malleable. However, more natural solutions to leather may be more at risk of shorter lifespans due to their lack of durability. A solution to this is to combine the “eco-leather” with a fabric backing to reinforce the stability of the material. The selection of fabric or backing-material allows flexibility in the thickness and durability of the product to mould to whatever product is being manufactured.
With options like these, there is a wonder as to how the leather industry has remained so profitable. As new and innovative solutions hit the markets, the fading of the leather industry will be inevitable. Hopefully, we can start seeing social and environmental improvements for those affected by the leather industry when this time comes.
Choi, Y. H., & Lee, K. H. (2021). Ethical consumers’ awareness of vegan materials: Focused on fake fur and fake leather. Sustainability, 13(1), 436.
Ujević, D., Kovačević, S., Wadsworth, L. C., Schwarz, I., & Šajatović, B. B. (2009). Analysis of artificial leather with textile fabric on the backside. Journal of Textile and Apparel, Technology and Management, 6(2), 1-9.
Cao, H., Wool, R., Sidoriak, E., & Dan, Q. (2013, January). Evaluating mechanical properties of environmentally friendly leather substitute (eco-leather). In International Textile and Apparel Association Annual Conference Proceedings (Vol. 70, No. 1). Iowa State University Digital Press.
Mokashi, A., Harale, P., Chougule, S., Firodiya, R., Gandhi, S., & Chougule, A. Vegan Leather from Kombucha Tea and Scoby.
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