Animal, Vegan and Plant-Based Leather: What Is Truly More Climate-Friendly?

The pressure for decarbonization pushes industries to consider alternatives.

Animal, Vegan and Plant-Based Leather: What Is Truly More Climate-Friendly?

This article explores the climate impact of different types of leather materials and discusses how choosing one particular type can help businesses reduce their scope 3 emissions.

Leather was invented 400,000 years ago in Hoxne in what is now called England. Since then, it developed throughout the ages and became a quintessential product in different applications (e.g., apparel, footwear, handbags, home décor & furnishing and automotive accessories etc.) in modern life. The global market for the leather was valued at USD 242.85 billion in 2022 and is projected to expand by 6.6% annually from 2023 to 2030.

What is Leather?

First and foremost, let's start by defining what exactly is leather. It is a strong, durable, and flexible textile made of either protein fiber (animal protein or plant protein) or plastic fiber (Polyurethane or Poly vinyl chloride). Depending on its origin, it is nowadays further categorized into three categories:

  • Animal leather
  • Vegan leather and
  • Plant-based leather

How is animal leather produced?

Animal hides are often considered an important economic by-product of the meat packaging industry. Once the milk production from cows decline, their skin is turned into leather by a tanning process. The hides of their calves, who are raised for veal, are turned into high-priced calfskin. The economic success of cattle farming is directly linked to the sale of leather goods. The global leather industry tans the skins and hides of more than a billion animals each year. As concerns on animal welfare and CO2 emissions related to cattle continue to grow, leather alternatives have found their way on the market.

What is the alternative to animal leather?

What became a trendy and beloved material is “vegan leather”, and vegan is often associated with environmental consciousness as it implies both the non-exploitation of animal resources and the avoidance of emissions related to cattle farming. Yet, is vegan leather necessarily less environmentally impactful than animal leather? The answer might disappoint.

Vegan leather is made from the plastics, mainly from Polyurethane (PU) and Poly vinyl chloride (PVC, aka vinyl). Being cheaper and cruelty-free, vegan leather took over as the market favourite, particularly PU-based vegan leather. PVC leather is not used as much as it used to be in late 60’s and 70’s, as it releases dioxins, which are hazardous in confined places and when heated. PVC also is composed of plasticizers such as phthalates, used to add more flexibility to the material, which also represent a tremendous health risk. Additionnally, companies often communicate on the material as being "sustainable" leather, a claim leading to greenwashing as this type of leather is in fact, not "sustainable".

Although vegan leather, by nature, is produced without harming animals and thus, without CO2 emissions related to cattle farming, but since it is made from monomers of fossil fuel origin and thus is a source of microplastics. These microplastics are rejected into the environment during  manufacturing and can't biodegrade into the environment for millions of years after leather is discarded (UNEP, 2018). The European Environment Agency's latest report on plastic pollution suggests that over 14 million tons of microplastic have accumulated on the world’s ocean floor and this amount is significantly increasing every year and posing a great threat to animals, ecosystem, and people. Hence, neither animal leather nor vegan leather can be considered environmentally friendly. However, plant-based leather might be a suitable replacement candidate, as it is both animal-free and plastic free.

Plant-based leather: the most environmentally-friendly alternative

Innovative and sustainable solutions present a variety of plant-based leather materials made from mushrooms, pineapple and corn to coconut, banana, apple, cactus, green tea, coffee grounds and many more. Plant-based leather addresses most of the issues animal leather and vegan leather create. It is bio-degradable, cruelty-free, and generates fewer carbon emissions than its predecessors. In fact, some of the plant-based leathers are as durable as animal leather, while being attractive and even give a feel and appearance similar to animal leather (Kim et al., 2021).

In recent years, many innovative companies have researched, developed and marketed exciting plant-based leather alternatives made from various resources (mushroom, pineapple, cactus, coconut, grapes etc.). Some of which already proved their materials emit less carbon than animal leather.

Carbon footprints comparison

Cattle farming for food and leather generates considerable amounts of GHG emissions. According to a UNIDO Report on Leather Carbon Footprint, 1 m2 of cow leather generates roughly 110 kg of CO2e where 93 kg CO2e comes only from raising the cattle and the rest comes from tanning and other operations along with its scope 3 emissions. Emissions from cow leather throughout the supply chain are shown below.

However, GHG emissions from vegan leather are considerably low compared to animal leather, as  emissions from vegan leather generally amount up to roughly 7-15.8 kg CO2e/ m2 (Leather Carbon Footprint Review of the European Standard EN 16887:2017, 2017; Locker & Theregowda, 2022; Study Indicates INSQIN’s PU Is a More Sustainable Option, n.d.).

Being produced on small scales and plant-based materials still being in their infancy stages, further information on the environmental performance of different plant-based leathers is still needed, but recent LCA studies on different plants based leather showed that the ghg emissions for plant based leather are in the range of 0.8 to 8.8, which are significantly lower than both of animal leather and vegan leather (HULTKRANTZ, 2018; Williams et al., 2022; Assessing Our Impact: The Carbon Footprint of MIRUM®, n.d. and MOEA LCA RESULTS, n.d.). Comparison of CO2e for different types of leather are shown in the table below.

Thus it becomes evident that animal leather may not be the wisest choice in terms of climate impact of a company. Even more as businesses are expected to carry the direct and indirect costs of their emissions one way or another, weakening the single pro argument of cost-effectiveness.

How can plant-based leather help companies reduce their scope 3 emissions?

The comparison of GHG emissions from these three different types of leather shows that the plant-based leather is the only solution for our environment and animal welfare. Not only famous fashion companies but also automobile companies like Mercedes Benz and Bentley are integrating plant-based leather products in their portfolio to reduce their scope-3 emissions. On the occasion of its 100th anniversary, company Bentley even designed an electric car with all plant-based leather interior.

As mentionned in the beginning of this article, the demand for leather materials will increase in various industries like fashion and automotive. However, the increasing societal and governmental pressure on companies to make their products animal-free, and environmentally-friendly pushes industries to seriously consider more sustainable alternatives to leather for their products, among which plant-based leathers seem like the least climate-damaging alternatives.

As a leading verified provider of carbon emissions data, sustamize helps companies measure the emissions of their products. Understanding the composition and emissions of materials is critical to achieving a comprehensive view. Our data takes this into account and allows companies to visualize which types of leather are best suited to meet the climate goals set for their products, and helps achieve greater supply chain transparency.

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