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  • Writer's pictureCharlotte Garbutt

How sustainable is leather?

Updated: Mar 27

Leather: friend or faux?

When I was growing up, I’d associate leather with jackets and with the Clark’s shoes I wore to primary school. I certainly didn’t think that I’d be wearing faux leather shorts in my fifties. I wouldn’t have known what vegan meant either, let alone that you could make ‘leather’ from apples. Since then there has certainly been a proliferation of leather, faux leather, PVC, ‘pleather’ and vegan leather, designed into jackets, coats, skirts, shorts, dresses and pretty much any other kind of footwear, accessory or garment. I’ve - literally - filled my wardrobes with leather, faux leather and vegan leather in every colour of the rainbow, but let’s unpick some of the ethics: is leather friend or foe?

If you’re a meat eater, the chances are you may be happy to wear real leather. After all, leather is a natural and biodegradable material. It also has greater durability than faux man-made copies, making it arguably a more sustainable choice than throw-away fakes. It is also argued that leather is just a by-product of the meat industry and therefore has less direct negative impact on the environment. Old leather garments can themselves be recycled to create new ones as part of so-called circular fashion. 

But is it that simple? Chemicals are still used in the leather tanning process lessening its natural credentials. Rather than being a by-product of the meat industry, it could be argued that the demand for leather from the fashion industry increases livestock farming with the creation of environmentally dangerous greenhouse gases as well as considerations around animal welfare. 

So should we take pleasure in ‘pleather’ (plastic leather), which after all is a more affordable option for many? Much fake leather, particularly amongst less sustainably-conscious brands, however, uses microplastics with their well-documented harmful effects on the environment. United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4 is to reverse the harmful impact of microplastics on ‘life below water’. Whilst we can’t control manufacture, as consumers we can nevertheless take responsibility for more sustainable ways of washing our clothes (washing less frequently, handwashing, line drying, and the use of ‘Guppy’ bags.

And what of the new kid on the block, vegan ‘leather’? Not all vegan leather is created equal of course.  Sometimes, it’s just a name for fake leather and is plastic. Back when I was in my Clark’s school shoes in the 1970s, pineapples came cubed in tins to be put on cocktail sticks with cheese. More recently, scientists have devised ways of creating fabrics from fruit and funghi including pineapples and apples. PETA-certified Piñatex for example is made from fibres from pineapple leaves which are a natural, agricultural by-product. Likewise, PETA-certified AppleSkin™ uses unwanted apple peel and cores left otherwise unused by the apple-juice industry. Some of these exciting innovations are still expensive, but with increased consumer demand for more sustainable fabrics, we’ll hopefully see more innovations and more widespread use of natural sustainable fabrics. 

So is leather our friend or faux/foe? The issues are definitely complex. The main thing for me is to be able to make an informed choice as an individual consumer and not to judge others who make different choices. So whether you choose natural, biodegradable leather, wear your leather on repeat, wash it mindfully, buy preloved or recycled or opt for natural vegan alternatives whilst sipping your (vegan?) piña colada, we can all be more informed and more mindful fashion consumers. And finally, with leather and substitutes dyed to an array of colours, remember that working with a personal stylist or colour consultant can be a contribution towards fashion sustainability through educating you only to buy the colours and styles that suit you and your personality - part of slower as opposed to fast fashion.


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