The global leather industry has released a scathing statement about leather alternatives, claiming they are “appropriating the image of leather and denigrating the genuine article”.
The statement claims that leather alternatives have “questionable performance and sustainability”, whereas animal-derived leather is “long-lasting”, “biodegradable”, and “circular”. But Allen Zelden, president of digital eco-conscious forum FUTUREVVORLD and founder of Intrinity Global, disagrees.
“As leather largely originates from industrial animal agriculture (which in of itself is one of the leading causes of global warming, water usage, and land clearing), from cradle to grave it cannot be deemed environmentally sustainable,” he says.
“Leather has a higher environmental impact than any other material used in fashion, including polyurethane-based leather.”
One of the leather industry’s chief criticisms of leather alternatives is that they often contain fossil-fuel-derived plastics, whereas conventional leather is biodegradable. But according to Zelden, biodegradable doesn’t always mean sustainable.
“In fact, leather has a higher environmental impact than any other material used in fashion, including polyurethane-based leather, particularly due to eutrophication, water scarcity, and greenhouse gas emissions,” he says.
Tellingly, the industry’s statement fails to address other issues surrounding conventional leather, such as animal welfare and the pollution and health hazards caused by leather production.
“Each year, billions of animals are confined, tortured (castrated, branded, dehorned, tail-docked, skinned — all without any sedation or pain relief), and killed for their skins to produce leather,” says Zelden. He adds, “Leather tanning and processing workers are widely associated with increased risks for a number of cancers due to chemical exposure and leather dust.”
Given the growing number of plant-based leather alternatives that are fully biodegradable, as well as the advent of cell-cultured leather, it’s doubtful whether the leather industry’s criticisms stand up to scrutiny. And there’s another uncomfortable fact that the industry doesn’t acknowledge — consumers are increasingly beginning to prefer animal-free alternatives.
“Earlier this year, a study by the Material Innovation Initiative in collaboration with North Mountain Consulting Group found that more than half of their study participants (55%) preferred leather alternatives over leather, citing animal welfare concerns as the largest contributing factor,” says Zelden.
In many ways, the statement is encouraging, because it indicates that the leather industry is worried. Much as the dairy industry is feeling increasingly threatened by plant milks, the leather industry is desperately trying to stifle its competition — but it may struggle to fight an industry that is projected to be worth $89.6 billion by 2025.