Deciding what kind of leather or leather alternative you will invest in is a decision that can be difficult and is filled with moral and ethical questions. The answers can be a challenge to find amongst the sea of information available on the internet. Leather and leather-like products impact the planet in many ways such as carbon emissions, animal impact, and water and soil pollution. Their impact starts with their source materials and production processes, and continues through manufacturing to the final product where durability and biodegradability are key considerations for conscious consumers.
Pleather Production and Qualities
Until recently, plastic leather, or pleather, was the cheaper and only vegan alternative to leather. First invented in the 19th century, it was used as a leather alternative during the war times. Pleather was made from a paper that was coated with tree pulp to be waterproof, and was called Presstoff. Since then it has gone by many different names, which includes fake leather, faux leather, synthetic leather, artificial leather, leatherette, pleather and even vegan leather. But the way it’s made has changed since it was first developed, and it now involves many more petroleum-based products, including base fabrics, coatings and fabric finishes.
Pleather is created by bonding a base fabric (generally cotton or polyester) to a plastic, either PVC or PU; both of which release toxins into the environment during production. The coated fabric then is coloured and embossed to recreate the appearance and texture of any kind of leather that exists, and has been developed into new variations of pleather. Plastic leathers have little to no breathability or any moisture wicking ability because they are made from synthetic and plastic fibres and coatings, this allows it to have good thermal retention for winter. So, if you sweat, the moisture from it will stay inside the garment against your skin, which could be potentially uncomfortable but you will stay warm.
Pleather: Pro’s and Con’s
Pleather is often known for its lower-quality, and it is quite common for pleather to crack, peel and delaminate. This low durability may be due to its plastic base. Pleather also is not fully biodegradable. And while pleather products may not last long, they will be with us on the planet for a very long time in the form of micro-plastics, where they will pollute our waterways, soil and air.
Micro-plastics are tiny pieces of plastic, less than 5mm long and they have an impact on the environment as well as animal and human health that is becoming increasingly urgent to address. They are created either by larger plastics breaking down slowly into the smallest possible particles, or come from microbeads in beauty products. It is almost impossible to remove them from the environment once they are out in water systems, and they have been found almost everywhere including in our bodies. Microplastics are definitely part of why reducing our plastic consumption and why having the correct recycling practices are important to take part of.
While pleather is considered to be vegan because it is cruelty free, pleather is far from sustainable. Since it is derived from plastics, its chemical usage, low durability and being non-biodegradable does make it an unsustainable choice. So, what is the conscious consumer supposed to do? Well there are some other alternatives out there.
Bio-based leathers are leather-like fabrics that are derived from non-animal sources. They are newer to the fabric and fashion market, but their uptake by high end and sustainability focused brands has been promising and an exciting move forward for the slow and conscious fashion communities.
Food industry waste is now being converted into some bio-based leather alternatives. Sources such as grape skins come from wine production, apple skin from apple juice, and pineapple plant leaves (that would be waste from harvesting pineapples) can all be turned into materials for bio-based leather alternatives. Cacti can also be made into leather-like material, however if it is harvested in a sustainable way it will only allow six monthly harvests. This has minimal impact on the planet since it absorbs carbon, requires minimal water to grow and doesn’t compromise food sources, all the while cacti can thrive in extreme conditions that other crops cannot.
Other natural sources that are being turned into bio-leathers include fungi, seafood waste and even combinations of vegetable oil and rubber. So far, the fungi/mushroom based bio-leather has had the most success in creating a more sustainable leather alternative. It is created by growing mushrooms on sawdust or agricultural waste, which spreads and forms a thick fibre mat as it grows. This mat can be treated and become a form of leather. There is one mushroom based “leather” that so far has avoided the trend of finishing or refining their fabric with plastics, making it solely bio based. This means that the fabric can either be recycled into new fabric or decompose into the earth safely and sustainably. This makes it a low carbon source that is circular and better for the environment.
The shrimp shell is also another waste product of the seafood industry used for bio-leather. Shell fabric is made by extracting a product called chitosan from it. The chitosan is then combined with coffee grounds, ochre, and charcoal before being molded into the leather-like fabric and sometimes finished with beeswax. They are able to replicate many different weights of leather, finishes, textures, and colours by varying the “recipe” they use. The great thing about shell leather is that it’s biodegradable and breaks down into organic matter. Plus it avoids using many of the toxic dyes and chemicals that are commonly used in the dyeing and tanning processes in leather. It is also important to note that this material does rely on an animal source, so for vegans and animal welfare advocates, this wouldn’t be an option.
There are other options out there being developed too that include fabric created from lab grown collagen, coconut and banana fibres as well. Unfortunately many of these plant or bio-based materials are finished with a polyurethane finish to ensure longevity and durability. This means that they are not fully biodegradable, and would have a similar environmental impact in regards to micro-plastics that pleather has. Many of the bio-based leathers have also been found to have cotton or fabric backings as well, meaning they are not necessarily more sustainable than pleather is.
When it comes to purchasing, animal hide leather is priced by the square foot, and the cost is determined by the type of animal as well as the quality grading of the hide and how it is finished. While leather alternative fabrics are priced by the metre or yard. A quality leather jacket from a sustainably sourcing brand can set you back around $470 USD. Pleather jackets are the most widely produced alternative and can cost around $90 USD, while jackets made from bio- based leathers can range around $497 to $900 USD and upwards.
As animal leather is so long-lasting and can be passed through generations when well cared for, another option to purchase leather more sustainably is through second hand stores. When browsing a popular secondhand fashion website there were leather jackets listed from$50 up to around $250 USD. However, It is worth noting that the prices of the pleather vs bio-leather jackets do not just represent the cost of the fabrics — they also reflect the manufacturing methods and ethics of the companies designing and manufacturing, and they are also influenced by the sizes of the brands. The companies using the bio-based leathers tend to be more independent brands rather than high street fashion labels. The same can be applied when looking at the costing of leather jackets.
Something we need to consider when purchasing any item, especially in fashion is the durability or longevity of items and what the garment’s end of life will look like. We need to ask ourselves questions such as: is it biodegradable or will it end up adding to the plastics polluting our environment? There is much debate over whether leather or pleather is more durable, but when comparing them depends on the kind of leather you are referring to.
Leather is categorised in a few different ways, first by animal hide but also by grade and type. You can get full grain leather, top grain leather, genuine leather and bonded leather. The latter is a combination of scraps of real leather that are bound together with an adhesive.
Full and top grain leather hides have the longest lifetime since they are sourced using the top part of the animal hide, meaning it is stronger, breathable and moisture resistant.
Pleather comes in second as the polyurethane finishes on the base fabrics eventually crack, peel and delaminate; while bonded leathers, being made from shredded fibres, leather scraps and adhesives come in last as the cheapest and least durable option for leather since cracking, peeling and delamination is a common issue.
Leather is often touted as being totally biodegradable, and it can be, but this depends on the chemicals used in the tanning process. There are many stages of biodegradability including deterioration, disintegration and assimilation.
When looking at the biodegradability of leather alternatives, we need to note that any product that contains plastics (or is finished or refined with plastics) cannot be biodegradable — as plastic is not able to break down beyond microparticles. So far, in the development of bio-based leather alternatives, there hasn’t been any real promise of a biodegradable alternative. The issue has been in creating something durable, while also able to reach the standards set by countries that determine whether something is biodegradable or not. These standards include calculating the time taken for decomposition, product volatility and toxicology during decomposition and the sizes of finally decomposed products.
Some of the plant-based alternatives do return nutrients to the earth during their breakdown process, something that faux leather cannot do. Pleather leaches chemicals into the ground and it breaks into micro particles that poison sea life, and when they are incinerated it releases carbon into the air. However, there is no environmentally safe way to dispose of faux leather at its end of life. Yet the plant-based alternatives that are fully biodegradable can return nutrients and fully decompose, but the majority of them are refined with plastics. This makes it unable to properly biodegrade or assimilate back into the environment.
The Future of Leather
There is some incredible work being done in the leather, pleather and bio-based leather industries to move us towards a more sustainable future — but we are still a long way off a truly circular and ethical model. Truth be told, there isn’t a fully sustainable or ethical option when it comes to leather or leather alternatives, it is impacting the environment negatively in some way or another, whether through sourcing, manufacturing or its end of life. Each individual has to choose for themselves which leather or leather alternative is going to meet their personal values and ethics the best. I know what leather and leather alternatives I will be supporting but until we have a most sustainable solution, it’s up to you to make your own decision.
We each just have to keep making our most sustainable choice, and cheering each other on for the good we are doing — because together we can make a difference. The future we create together relies on the decisions and choices we all make today. Consider joining the Slow Fashion Movement to continue learning about slow fashion and become part of our like-minded community!
Written by Grace Kemp
Grace is a professional dressmaker and independent fashion designer based in Brisbane, Australia. She has been passionate about the environment and sustainability since she was in primary school; and combined with her love of clothing, design and sewing it has driven her to pursue working in the fashion industry with the hope to drive change for people and planet.