The ethical implications of the leather industry

Sunday, December 13, 2015 - 4:41pm

There’s no way around it: leather is something that will always be at the forefront of fashion. However, the rising trend of ethical fashion has sparked some opposing points regarding leather and the increasing use of faux or “vegan leather.”

That being said, what is vegan leather? For the most part, people are not be able to tell the difference between real leather and vegan leather, and yet vegan leather is often made from kelp, trees, slate and cork. But what people largely don’t know is that faux leather is also made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyurethane and other polymer fabrics.

Deduced, vegan leather is made from petroleum. Therefore, a lot of energy goes into manufacturing pleather. Since it is plastic leather, it will not biodegrade. Destroying PVC-derived products produces dioxins, which are extremely toxic and have been linked to being a human carcinogen.

In opposition, real leather is created from animal skin — usually from cattle. Most of the leather is tanned using one of the many different ways to tan leather. Chrome-tanned leather is an option that uses chromium salts. Another method is from vegetable tanning, using tree bark, leaves, fruits or roots. Leathers used to be tanned from formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen (this method is no longer practiced by leather makers, for obvious reasons).

So, which to choose?  Going further than the inception and disposal options for leather and pleather, the lifespan is an important factor when making an educated decision on one’s opinion in regards to choosing faux or real leather.

Faux leather doesn’t age as well as real leather does. Though it will never biodegrade, it will look worse as it ages. It’s not as durable, so it can be susceptible to tearing and ripping. Essentially, if that one doesn’t take care of the pleather jacket, its lifespan will be much shorter to that of a real leather product.

Since leather products get better with age, their lifespan is something to consider when purchasing goods. Furthermore, since leather products last, buying secondhand or vintage leather goods is an eco-conscious decision, as the product is getting a second (or more!) life with a new owner.

Is vegan leather really a better alternative? Weighing in all of the information, it’s purely the decision of the buyer. If the ethical treatment of animals is important, then pleather is a great alternative. Knowing the process of producing leather or faux leather goods, individuals have to weigh in the production process into choice.

If leather and faux leather are both unappealing, there are increasing amounts of ethical materials being made for leather-like products. For instance, fish leather is another viable option. Fish leather is a byproduct of the fish industry, so fish are not killed directly for their skin. Coated cotton is another option gaining more popularity as of late.

Whatever option is chosen, valuing the clothing and caring for it will always make it last longer — making the production of the item worth it. However, it is also important to not only consider the obvious ethnical dilemmas of purchasing faux leather over genuine leather, but to also take into account the environmental costs associated with the production of vegan leather. In short, neither option is completely free from ethical or environmental costs, however the good news comes in the form of all the other types of leather substitutes that are starting to gain more popularity.