Apple recently announced that, for sustainability reasons, they are phasing out all leather from their products. And Apple isn’t the only one, many companies including apparel, shoe, and automotive companies have started phasing out leather for more “sustainable” alternatives. But leather is a centuries old, natural, biodegradable material that also happens to be one of the most durable and abrasion resistant flexible materials ever developed by humans. So how has petroleum based plastic alternatives started to beat out this natural material in terms of sustainability? Let’s dive in:
When Apple announced it was phasing out leather it was seemingly to universal applause online. Tech bloggers with 5 minutes of Wikipedia research churned out ill-informed articles like this one, or this one titled “Apple saves a cow” - when in reality anyone with actual leather industry knowledge knows that no, Apple has not saved any cows, here’s why:
Leather is a by-product
Leather is fundamentally a byproduct of the meat industry. No cattle, pigs, or sheep are raised and killed exclusively for their leather. And whatever your stance on eating meat, humans in general still eat a lot of meat.
This slightly better researched article highlights the debate over whether leather is a by-product or a co-product: “it’s argued, that leather is in some cases the primary product, not a secondary one. For example, rather few people eat veal these days, yet calves are still raised and slaughtered, because calf leather is highly prized in the fashion and luggage sectors.”
There is a lot of moral complexity when it comes to calves and while this seems like a reasonable argument it is still very flawed. Calves slaughtered before adulthood are usually males born on dairy farms - and males aren’t needed on a dairy farm. And while people don’t eat a lot of veal anymore, we still need a lot of “animal protein” for dog and cat food. Calves aren’t born and raised for their “prized leather” as the quote would suggest. In fact the RSPCA actually recommends calves be raised for veal to improve their welfare - it's a complicated issue to say the least.
It’s true that livestock and particularly cattle are horrible for the environment. From the methane they release, to the razing of the rainforest, to the copious water consumption, livestock has a huge environmental toll. But the world still eats a lot of meat, and leather from livestock is a byproduct of the meat industry. According to this study an average US premium steer hide averaged US$36 per piece, which equates to only 2.2% of the total value of the animal. And a reduction in the demand of leather has meant hide prices have fallen 50% over the past 25 years despite cattle numbers not changing.
Not only is leather a byproduct, but often it’s not even used at all. According to the U.S. Hide, Skin and Leather Association a record 5 million hides went to the landfill in 2020 due to low leather demand.
Cattle are raised for meat regardless of whether the hide gets turned into leather, burned, or thrown into a landfill. This places leather firmly as a byproduct, not a coproduct.
The opposite is true of exotic skins like alligator, crocodile, snake, etc. which are by far the most valuable part of the animal - so that must be bad right? Well even that is more complicated than you might expect. Chanel’s well-meaning ban on exotic skins in their products seemed great until a group of conservationists spoke out against it. It turns out that many exotic skins are sourced from local tribes all over the world who are motivated to conserve and protect habitats and wild populations of these reptiles because of the income luxury skins provides.
The tanning process
Leather detractors are also quick to point out the environmental impact of leather tanning. Citing the dangerous and toxic chemicals used in leather tanning, but like nearly everything - it depends.
Some leather producers do indeed use toxic chemicals and discard them untreated, causing severe long term environmental damage. While other leather tanneries use different tanning methods and carefully treat and monitor any waste materials. Vegetable tanning is one method for creating amazing leather in an environmentally friendly way, but even chrome tanning leather can be done in a sustainable way. In fact some tanneries take sustainability so seriously that when touring the tannery the owner will proudly drink a glass of the wastewater to show its safety.
All this depends on the country the tanning takes place in and the tannery itself. While it is true that leather tanning can be toxic and environmentally damaging, saying it’s true of all leather production is a gross overstatement.
As experts regularly agree, one of, if not the best thing you can do for sustainability is to buy fewer, higher quality, longer lasting items - and this is where leather really shines. Leather is one of the most durable materials commercially available, especially in abrasion resistance. While this doesn’t apply to all leather, there is a reason why welding gloves, motorcycle jackets, work boots, and saddles are all made of leather. The microscopic entangled fibers that make up leather makes it incredibly strong, especially in abrasive environments because unlike woven or knit fibers, leather doesn’t lose strength when abraded.
So what happens when you abrade vegan leather? It wears out a lot faster, sheds microplastics, and of course being plastic - it never biodegrades.
Many people prefer to produce and consume products not derived from animals, and I completely understand. Mass ranching practices are far from kind to animals and not wanting to support that system is completely fair. My issue is not with the cruelty free tag of vegan leather, but when plastic is passed off as more sustainable than leather. So how have companies passed off plastic as a more sustainable alternative?
A marketing masterstroke
There are few marketing campaigns I could think of that are more masterful than the re-branding of pleather to “Vegan Leather”. Essentially taking petroleum based plastic (either in the form of polyurethane (PU) or toxic polyvinyl chloride (PVC)) and calling it “vegan leather” - passing it off as a more sustainable alternative to a natural, biodegradable material is nothing short of incredible.
Leather that’s well taken care of can last decades, and when it does finally wear out it is biodegradable. Contrast this with plastic based vegan leather which is much less durable, sheds microplastics, can be just as environmentally damaging to produce (if not more so) and can even leach toxins into the environment after being made. PVC has been banned in children's toys for years due to leaching phthalates responsible for developmental disorders and birth defects, but call PVC “vegan leather” and it’s now somehow a more sustainable option to leather? Brilliant marketing at work, so what can we do?
If you want to use leather in your products, talk to the tannery. Find out where the raw hides come from: Europe? Asia? South America? North America? Different countries have different ranching practices that are better or worse for both the animals and environment. Next, ask about the tanning practices. Vegetable tanning is typically much more sustainable, but if vegetable tanning isn’t possible ask about chemical and waste disposal practices.
Finally use a third party certified tannery - there are several different independent certifications including LWG Gold Standard and Oeko Tex Leather Standard.
Not using leather
If you want to create cruelty free products not using animals there are several options. Modern faux leather doesn’t have to be made from plastic, it can be made from cactus, apples, pineapple, mushrooms, cork, and more. While the durability wont match leather, the look can be very similar and some can even age gracefully like leather.
There are very nice faux leathers made from recycled plastic, but keep in mind the durability won't match real leather - they won't age well, and they’ll shed microplastics as they wear out.
Finally my last suggestion would be to just use an alternate material instead of using fake leather. Often leather is used in situations where it isn’t an ideal material in the first place, a prime example is automotive interiors. Leather car seats can be damaged by water, are difficult to clean, they get stiff and brittle in winter and hot enough to burn you in summer. They’re hot, sticky, and much more expensive - arguably worse in nearly every way when compared to a nice fabric. Replacing leather car seats with fake leather keeps all the cons (except price) with none of the pros of leather.
The same is true of many products, why is leather being used? Is it used for its properties like durability and patina or because that’s the norm? There is a wide world of amazing materials out there - of which leather is only one of many. Lamborghini has been using faux suede (Alcantara) for ages in their cars because it’s lighter and grippier than genuine leather. And Apple used a mesh fabric for the earcups of the Airpod Max - arguably a better material for that purpose than leather or faux leather. And I would take a luxurious Belgian linen sofa over a leather one any day of the week (have you ever had a nap on a leather sofa in the summer!?)
So when choosing a leather alternative ask yourself if it needs to be leather at all or if you can replace it with a completely different material. Don’t just make a leather sneaker out of faux leather, be the first to make a sneaker out of a custom kevlar hemp blend.
A complicated relationship
Leather has a complicated relationship with sustainability. Unfortunately we don’t live in a black and white world, we live in a world with gray. Leather can be sustainable, and it can also be very unsustainable. It depends on myriad factors and can’t just be summed up in a neat “this category is more sustainable than this category”
While animal agriculture is the direct source of environmental damage - burning or throwing millions of hides into the landfill surely does not help the problem. While leather production can be toxic, the owner of a PVC manufacturing plant probably wouldn’t drink a glass of the plant's wastewater.
We live in a world of complexity, one that can’t be summed up in a short sentence. So no, unfortunately Apple did not save a cow, it contributed to more hides winding up in the landfill while charging $60 for a partially recycled plastic case that arrives worn out.
If you enjoyed this article I would highly recommend reading: How Fashion Giants Recast Plastic as Good for the Planet - an amazing piece of journalism written by Hiroko Tabuchi for the New York Times and Is Leather Truly a Byproduct of the Meat Industry? - a terrific article written by Alden Wicker for EcoCult