Are you looking for more environmentally friendly clothing options? Wondering about eco leather and what it is exactly?
Good, you’re in the right place.
Eco leather is one of the newer materials on the high street offering a more sustainable option. This is because eco leather is plant-based. Or at least is should be.
This is a big point of difference when compared to traditional leather (animal-based) and faux leather (fossil-fuel based) – faux leather should not be classed as eco leather!
This blog post will cover:
- What eco leather is
- How it’s made
- The environmental benefits
- The drawbacks
- wrap up on eco leather
The issue with traditional leather
When left untreated, traditional leather is highly durable and biodegradable. However, this isn’t the case in the fashion world.
As you know, leather mainly comes from the skin of a cow. Of course, this isn’t vegan friendly.
The whole farming of cattle and production of leather is one of the leading causes of marine eutrophication, deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, in the Amazon, the cattle industry is the largest contributor to deforestation. Not good. Especially when this area is so high in biodiversity.
So, is there a way we can still enjoy our favourite leather products without putting the planet and the wellbeing of animals on the line?
What is eco leather?
The term eco leather encompasses all the different types of leather-like, plant-based materials.
The various eco leathers don’t rely on plastic and fossil fuels to be made.
Plant-based leather alternatives include those made from:
- Eucalyptus bark
- Cereals (made from bio-oil)
These plant-based materials can be used to make all sorts of products, including wallets, shoes, clothing and eco friendly backpacks.
Even more, eco leathers have been tanned using more sustainable methods than traditional leather. Eco-tanned hides are exclusively treated with vegetable-based and organic tannins.
Eco leather vs faux leather – what’s the difference?
Faux leather, or pleather, is the most known and widely available option for consumers who want to avoid animal products. Faux leather may not be animal-based, but unfortunately, it’s far from eco-friendly.
Faux leather is made from synthetic polymers like polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
The big difference between eco leather and faux leather comes in their environmental sustainability.
Eco leather avoids the use of toxic chemicals, limits the production of waste and pollutants, and aims for biodegradability.
In comparison, pleather products are known for their negative impact on the planet, despite being a convenient alternative for those who wish to avoid animal products.
Faux leather is not only made from plastic, playing a major role in our increasing plastic and microplastic pollution, but it is also derived from fossil fuels. They’re not biodegradable and are very hard to recycle.
How is eco leather made?
Since the term eco leather is a catch-all for all sustainable leather alternatives, eco leather products are made in different ways. This being said, some types are significantly more eco-friendly than others.
In the case of leather made from plant-based sources like pineapple and cactus, the process usually involves breaking down the material into workable fibres and weaving them into sheets.
Cork leather, on the other hand, is made by collecting tree bark, which is then dried for months, soaked in boiling water, and pressed into thin sheets. This is usually done with an additional fabric, like organic cotton, to strengthen the finished product and make for a fully biodegradable fabric!
As you may know, cork is a super sustainable material and one of my favourites.
Some eco plant-based leathers do have the addition of plastics, mainly polyurethane, as a finishing or backing material to give it strength. Look out for this if you want to avoid plastics altogether.
Tanning and finishing
The tanning and finishing stages for eco leather involve the use of vegetable-based and sometimes organic tannins.
They use natural chemicals that bind the leather proteins together to create its signature look and feel.
These compounds are generally derived from tree bark, leaves, and even fruits.
When it comes to the finishing process, eco leather also uses biodegradable, vegetable-based dyes and natural resins. This is a brilliant way to combat the harmful waterway pollution usually associated with conventional leather production.
Be careful of leather products that have just been ‘sustainably tanned’. This leather still comes from cows and is made in the same way traditional leather.
The environmental benefits of eco leather
Eco leather made from plant ingredients relies on renewable and biodegradable resources. This combats both greenhouse gas emissions and landfill pollution.
Fabrics like pineapple leather, cork leather, cactus leather and mushroom leather, are much less resource-intensive, making for some of the most sustainable materials you can use to replace cow leather.
The plant fibres used are also often byproducts of the food industry, which largely offsets the environmental impact of growing and harvesting crops.
Eco-friendly tanning eliminates one of the biggest environmental harms behind leather. This is because some of the chemicals used in conventional tanning, such as chromium, are a leading cause of water pollution. Today around 90% of all leather is chrome tanned.
There are many environmental benefits when it comes to vegetable tanning.
By drying the leather naturally, eco tanning uses little electricity. There are also no extra chemicals used for treating, which safeguards the workers’ health as well as our waterways.
Are there any drawbacks to eco friendly leather?
While choosing eco leather is an overall more sustainable option than going for conventional leather, it doesn’t mean that it’s a perfect product.
The many sustainable plant-based leather materials are highly innovative and somewhat new to the market, this means they come with quite a high price tag. Not only are they expensive, but also hard to find as many items tend to go out of stock quickly on online markets.
These types of eco leather are also not as durable as real leather. This makes sense, as animal leather has ultimately evolved to be a tough layer, protecting an animal for its lifetime.
Another drawback is that not all eco leathers are biodegradable. Although mainly made from natural, biodegradable ingredients, plant-based leathers are often mixed with extra fabrics (like cotton) and petroleum-based resins to support and enhance its structure.
The use of petroleum-based resins in pineapple leather and sometimes cactus leather, for example, makes the material unsuitable for composting.
This means that you’ll have to do your due diligence and dig deep into all the materials used to ensure that your eco leather is as sustainable as you want it to be!
Vegetable-tanned leather, despite not releasing harmful chemicals into our waterways and using less energy than chrome-tanned leather, still suffers from some of the same environmental drawbacks as conventional leather.
One of these drawbacks is high water usage. throughout both the livestock raising and tanning stage, as well as the production of as much as 5.0 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent, making cattle the world’s driving agricultural source of GHG emissions.
So, is eco leather sustainable?
Plant-based leathers aren’t perfect materials, but when compared to conventional animal leather, they’re a much better choice if you’re looking to reduce your carbon footprint and opt for a more sustainable alternative.
Even eco-tanned leathers are a better option than animal leather tanned the traditional way.
While vegetable tanning has been around for thousands of years as the original leather tanning method, plant-based leather alternatives are still much of a work in progress, especially when it comes to biodegradability.
The industry is bound to improve in the future, so in the meantime, you can rely on second-hand leather to make your wardrobe more sustainable at no extra cost!
If you liked that, read more blogs about sustainable living…
I’m the Creator and Editor of Tiny Eco Home Life. I write and publish information about more sustainable, environmentally friendly living in and around the home. Alongside this website, I love spending time in the natural world, living a simple life and spending time with my young family (Murphy the dog!) I round up my thoughts and recent blogs on the Eco Life Newsletter.