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Do you know what your stance is when it comes to real vs fake leather?

It can feel like a game of moral tug-o-war in your head when weighing up the ethics and environmental impact of each. SWOP team members Anna (who has a fashion doctorate) and Bec (who describes herself as a “moderate vegan”) have gathered some facts and thoughts to help those who aren’t sure where they stand.

So which one is *actually* more sustainable? 

The answer—of course—is not a simple one.

There has been a shift in consumers moving away from animal products – both in their food choices (hello, vegan section at Woolies), but also when it comes to clothing choices.

Luxury brands like Jean Paul Gaultier and Chanel have moved away from using exotic animal skins. There’s also been a rise in brands who have launched with a cruelty-free philosophy – like Sans Beast.

On the flip side, many contemporary fashion brands don’t harm animals during production by their very nature. However you might have noticed an increase in clothes and accessories being labelled ‘vegan’. This has been wildly successful – particularly for vegan leather products. But is it really the more sustainable choice?

What is vegan leather?

There are two kinds of vegan leather. The most common is what’s known as ‘pleather’ or ‘faux leather’.

This is a plastic-based material with a matte-finish and minimal stretch – similar to its sister textiles PVC and vinyl.

- No animals harmed directly
- Can be strong durable material

- Production creates the same nasty chemicals as producing plastic
- Essentially never breaks down (like the plastic bags we learnt about at school)
- Low quality pleather can shed microplastics, which can be harmful to humans and the environment


Ok, what about the other kind of vegan leather?

There’s been an increase in the production of leather made from plants – including pineapple and mushroom.


Plant based leather 

This might conjure up thoughts of a shoulder bag made from dried mango slices (just us?). However these innovations—like Pinatex—look and feel like leather, and are made from agricultural waste.

These emerging technologies are becoming more popular, but haven’t reached the point of mass production (yet!)

- No animals harmed
- Degenerates back into organic matter
- Made from a renewable source
- Often uses excess/waste of the plants in question

- Not readily available to all consumers
- Long-term durability is still TBC
- Can sometimes smell (we’re looking at you kombucha leather)

Let’s talk real leather


To get back to basics: most “real” leather is made from the skins of cows, but it’s also common to find calf, lamb, and goat varieties too.

“Isn’t leather a by-product of the meat industry though?” This is a popular theory (and we wish it were true!). Technically, animal skins are a co-product of the meat and dairy industries. This means when leather goods are purchased, these industries profit.

Calf-skin leather is used to make luxury goods like handbags. Calves are often raised solely for this purpose.

So, there’s an obvious animal cruelty side to leather production, however the process of turning animal skin into leather is also bad for the environment.

This process known as ‘tanning’ sheds toxic waste into water systems, and is also harmful to the workers involved.

Other tanning processes like vegetable tanning (not to be confused with plant-based leather) can be less toxic – but this process is less common for mass production due to time and money.

- A natural material that degenerates into organic matter
- Durable, so overall life cycle is longer

- Harms animals
- Contributes to meat and dairy industry profits
- Produces toxic waste
- Harmful to leather workers health


So where does that leave us?

All of this considered, the choice between real and faux leather remains a sustainability dilemma.

While we wait for mango-leather cowboy boots to become a reality – not all hope is lost.

Considering the environment and animal cruelty, vegan YouTuber Shelbi makes a good point: buying real leather second hand doesn’t create a demand for more leather being produced.

When looking at sustainable practices holistically – the best thing we can do is buy less and reuse more.