What are the best alternative materials to leather?

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What are the best alternative materials to leather?

By Deborah Taylor Managing Director of the Sustainable Leather Foundation.

If there is just one thing that I want the readers of this blog to remember as a key take-away, it’s this: all production and consumption has an impact.

Our individual and corporate responsibility then lies in how we act to increase the positive impacts and reduce the negative impacts associated with our production and consumption”

This is what the Sustainable Leather Foundation uses as its basic mission which is;

“to support the global leather industry to learn, to improve and to protect for future generations, through the People ~ Planet ~ Profit principle.”

There are many topics that all feed back to the production + consumption = impact equation, however, one topic that is a recurring theme and is also gaining widespread coverage is the advancing growth of “alternative materials” and this will be the focus of this article.

So, let’s start at the beginning with a definition; what is an alternative material? It is a material that is created to replace or substitute the usual material expected for that production purpose. For the leather industry an alternative material is therefore something that has been created to replace the use of natural leather.

So for the purpose of this article an “alternative material” is a material that has been created to replace leather.

Why the need for alternative material?

For some, there may be lifestyle choices or ethical reasons why a person would not wish to use products made of leather. In this case as a responsible brand/retailer/OEM you have a duty to offer a consumer products made with an alternative material.

However, it is important that the alternative product is clearly understood for its own environmental and social impact and that it should not “sell” itself as more environmentally friendly than leather, unless that claim can be substantiated.

What types of alternative material are available?


In recent years, marketing has become focused on appealing to the emotional receptors of consumers.  Marketeers realised that by appealing to the emotional rather than the performance, they could sell plastic alternatives to leather with a “Vegan” tag which made the product appear more appealing as an option.  That extended over time to the insinuation, through marketing, that vegan products were more sustainable.

By shifting this emphasis onto the perceived “benefit and goodness” of the vegan alternative, these producers and product manufacturers were able to deflect attention away from any of the negative attributes such as the plastic issue along with the pollution and production impacts of that product.

Coupled with this, over the last 2 decades society has seen a shift into a more fast-fashion, low price point consumerism model that is designed to drive profits and increase the bottom line.  The costs involved in producing a plastic alternative is lower than producing a leather product so they can produce more for less.

Plant based alternative material:

We have touched on the use of plastic above but what about the so-called “natural alternatives”.  Here we refer to things like Mushroom, Apple, Pineapple and Cactus.

While innovation can be good and finding useful purpose for what would otherwise be a waste product is a great ideal, innovation that is designed to substitute leather only creates additional impacts.

Lab grown / bio-based alternative material:

Lab grown alternatives such as Modern Meadow’s Zoa can be an alternative to leather that may appeal to some, however, this material is not without its own impacts – it has to be produced using engineered protein enzymes and bio-based polymers – which relies on energy and other resources and still uses many techniques associated with tanning in order to create a “leather-like” appearance.

Whilst, this alternative material may be suitable for some applications, it still leaves us with the same dilemma as with the plant-based alternatives – the hides/skins that form the raw material base for leather will end up in landfill creating additional impact.

No one-size fits all

It is important, when considering material innovation that we do not create unintended consequences and that in the process of solving one perceived issue we create new issues.

From a leather industry perspective, our focus and resources should be employed in working to find the very best techniques and processes that support sustainable practices and minimise the use of finite resources.  Within this remit, if the creation of an alternative material, in its own right, is held to the same sustainability account, then we are providing real choice to serve the consumers in the most ethical and responsible way.

The Sustainable Leather Foundation (SLF) provides an inclusive, accessible and modular approach to supporting the leather industry to achieve better sustainability outcomes through education, training, certification and through collaboration across the whole value chain from farm to post-consumption. The cornerstone that underpins this work is the SLF Transparency Dashboard™, a tool (the first of its kind in the industry) that clearly and transparently makes available to consumers and other stakeholders the sustainability performance of organisations in the leather industry.

SLF works with Crest Leather and other industry stakeholders to find improved methods and practices to continue providing first class material and products for consumers that that they can trust.

Some common questions answered

Is vegan leather more sustainable than real leather?

Just because a product has not been made with materials derived from an animal does not automatically make it better for the environment. Most vegan products will be made using plastic in some form – either for the whole material or as a binding property to give durability. The manufacture of this vegan or plastic alternative will still rely on processes similar to tanning, including the use the chemicals, which can in some cases be worse from a sustainability perspective.

Does leather production involve animal cruelty?

Although we do recognise that some countries may still use farming, transportation and slaughtering methods that are not considered to meet animal welfare standards, this is not representative of 90% of the value chain where good animal welfare goes hand in hand with quality raw material which in turn results in quality leather.

Are animals raised for their skins?

The vast majority, approx. 95%, of leather is made from the hides/skins of animals that are raised for the meat and dairy industry. Research has confirmed that we have a global production of meat that outstrips any demand for leather (i.e. more hides and skins are available than the amount that is converted to leather).

However the 5% that are raised for their skin can generally be terms as “exotics” and some farming here does take place. For reference, the use of exotic skins for leather (alligator, lizard, snake, etc) is the only manufacture that is controlled through legislation by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) and all trade involving exotic species must be registered and recorded to prevent over-exploitation and species extinction.

Farming of exotics, when carried out responsibly, can actually have a positive impact on conservation and biodiversity.

Does leather contain harmful chemicals?

Chemicals are used every day and in every product we buy. Most are completely harmless but necessary (consider oxygen is a chemical). The leather industry uses chemicals in order to convert the raw hide or skin into a durable, long-lasting material that is suitable for a number of different applications i.e. upholstery, saddlery, garments and footwear, automotive and leather-goods accessories.

The use of chemicals is regulated and there are lists of restricted substances that should not be used in the production of leather (MRSLs) and lists of restricted substances that should not be present in the finished leather (RSLs).  Stringent testing takes place for the presence of chemicals to ensure that products are safe.

Alternative materials also use chemicals in order to produce their material and in many cases these alternative materials are not subjected to the same rigorous testing that the leather industry has and some of the more well-known alternative materials have been found to contain hazardous chemistry that would not be allowed for use in leather.

Does the production of leather contribute to deforestation?

In direct terms, the leather industry does not drive deforestation. In indirect terms, as the leather industry relies on the hides/skins of animals and as cattle farming has been identified as one of the causes for the clearing of forests, then there is a link.

It is important to recognise that trees are used in everyday life by all of us – for furniture, energy, paper, pencils and construction. Many small communities also rely on forests for survival. However, mass deforestation in some of the most important ecological regions of the world such as the Amazon or the Cerrado is rapidly threatening to cause unrecoverable environmental damage and along with industrial expansion, illegal logging, infrastructure projects, mining and climate change, agriculture is a large driver (including palm production, soy production and animal farming)

Is the leather industry polluting air, water and soil?

All industry and production has the potential to pollute our environment. However, the leather industry has strict governance and legislation to protect against pollution. The majority of leather manufacturers around the world will have strict licensing and permits in place that dictate the amount of material that can be produced, the amount of discharge that is permitted for air pollutants and water pollutants and even the amount of noise that can be emitted from a facility.  These elements are monitored via a number of sources – government testing, 3rd party auditing and online monitoring systems.

Where effective regulation is not in place and monitoring systems are not yet adopted, industry, governments and NGOs are actively working to raise awareness and provide support to implement transformative change.

For more information on how the Sustainable Leather Foundation is working with industry, with NGOs and with brands, OEMs and retailers to create a more sustainable leather industry, please contact:

Deborah Taylor at Deborah@sustainableleatherfoundation.com

Or visit our website here:  www.sustainableleatherfoundation.com