With the world transitioning to plant-based foods and renewable materials, how does leather fit into the eco-conscious future?
While we're all well aware that leather comes from animals, there are a number of reasons why leather still holds its weight as a coveted material. For starters, respected tanneries across the USA and Europe acquire their hides as a byproduct of the meat industry. This means that every part of the animal is used, leaving no waste.
Second, leather is extremely durable and can truly last a lifetime with proper care. In the span of owning one leather wallet, you'd likely have to buy three or four fabric or faux leather replacements. The takeaway here is that you're adapting the "buy it for life" mentality by investing in one high-quality item rather than several disposable items. This again cuts down on waste and the demand for new materials. And when you are ready to retire your leather goods, vegetable tanned leather is biodegradable where as faux leather is not.
Further, the idea of "vegan leather" being eco-friendly is actually quite misleading. While the sentiment behind not sacrificing animals is great, the petroleum-based materials used to produce vegan leather are far from stellar. By this point, we all know that plastic is no good. What brands using vegan leather don't want you to know is that it's just plastic! Remember pleather from the 90s? Yea, this is it with a shiny new name.
Lastly, vegetable tanned leather uses natural materials in the tanning process. Harmful chemicals are traded in for tannins from tree bark, tree roots, and leaves. The process of vegetable tanning has been going on for centuries and is known to produce the highest quality of leather. The low n' slow process takes a considerable amount of time but has far less of an impact on the environment compared to the chrome-tanned leather used for upholstery and cheap purses. You'll also hear the term "genuine leather" or "bonded leather" at many mass market brands. Bonded leather is basically the MDF of the leather world—shredded up scraps glued together into a new material. It actually sounds like a low-waste solution at first, but the quality is terrible and the process requires lots of chemicals.
That said, there are a ton of new materials coming about that satisfy both animal and environmental wins. Cactus leather, for example, sounds like a win-win. Unfortunately the fabric backing gives it more of a vinyl feel but it's still a promising alternative that I'm hoping to explore. Also, mushroom leather has been on my radar for quite some time now. Mushrooms kinda seem like they're going to save the world and I am all for it.
So, to sum it up, leather definitely isn't perfect. But its durability and quality make it a tough competitor to beat. While I'll still take real bovine leather over re-branded plastic any day, I'm excited for the future of high-quality leather alternatives and you better believe I'll be trying mushroom leather as soon as I can get my hands on it!