Is Vegan Leather Sustainable?

By Divya Kashyap. Updated: September 2022.
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Veganism is on the rise as more people are exploring their options. People are making more informed decisions about what they support and put into their bodies. Vegan leather, in particular, is a hot topic as people care more about the environment and animal rights than ever before.

Sure, vegan leather is manufactured without the use of any animal byproducts. But is it sustainable? When you do opt for vegan leather, you might find that its biodegradability is not guaranteed any more than that of the other types of leather.

Hopefully, this article will help you make a more informed (and environmentally friendly!) decision about what kind of material your future purchases may be made out of!

Is Vegan Leather Sustainable?

How sustainable is vegan leather despite being ethical? Vegan leather is more sustainable than animal leather, but it still has ways to go to be completely environmentally friendly.

That being said, there are some aspects of the manufacturing process that make sure that the production of vegan products does not have any negative environmental impacts. The truth is that it really comes down to how it’s made, and what it’s made from.

Factors like where the material is made and by whom it’s manufactured is also crucial. For example, vegan leather that’s produced in China without safety standards and then resold in Europe contributes to higher emissions. It’s best practice if vegan leather is bought locally or produced in-house.

Vegans avoid the purchase of animal-derived materials and products. They do not want to contribute to what they perceive as animal exploitation. However, vegans also want fashionable items that are free from cruelty as well.

Fortunately for them, there are many options on the market today that cater specifically to these unique needs. A new crop of fashion designers and brands are adhering to vegan principles and producing items made from vegan materials.

In other cases, natural fibers like linen and hemp are used in place of synthetic materials like polyester or acrylic. This is because they are not biodegradable and can sometimes be toxic when disposed of improperly.

However, even synthetic leather is becoming more ecologically sensitive, despite the fact that it is still plastic. Some synthetic leathers use water-based solvents. They can also be partly bio-based and include organic material in some ratio.

Additionally, they can be made out of recycled materials like PET, polyester, or cotton. Some synthetic leathers are water-based or approved by standards such as REACH and OEKO-TEX 100. They’re not the most perfect option, they are a modest improvement over traditional synthetics which aren’t the most sustainable.

Is Vegan Leather Biodegradable?

Is Vegan Leather Biodegradable
Samara Apple Leather Handbags

Not all vegan leathers are biodegradable. For a long time, vegan leather has been associated with faux leather or leather made from plastic. This has been the most common alternative to animal skin leather which is widely accessible. 

PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and PU (polyurethane) are two primary synthetic types of leather that don’t break down and can take up to 500 years to decompose. 

When exposed to air, water, and sunshine, PVC releases hazardous chemicals and poisonous gasses. Although it is unlikely that this material would enter waterways, it poses a major threat to the quality of the soil and air on the planet.

PU is relatively much more eco-friendly than PVC and has been replaced for the most part.

Then, there are partly bio-based leather alternatives. Among them is VEGEA, made from grape waste; Desserto, made from cacti; AppleSkin, made from apple cores; and Pinatex, made from pineapple leaf fiber. The most adopted bio-leather currently is corn leather with many available suppliers. Viridis is one such supplier based in Italy.

Although bio-based leathers are derived from fruit, they contain a percentage of synthetic material that is made up of PU or PES. This is necessary to give the material the necessary properties for the end use. The ratio of plastic to organic material varies depending on the manufacturer.

The challenge with them is that even bio-based leathers, while created using organic materials, use plastic resin. The ratio of plastic to biomaterial may vary in these leather types. 

Essentially, bio-based leathers are a step in the journey towards sustainability, not the end of it. And like animal leather, these too will not completely biodegrade. 

Before you throw your hands up in the air, let me say that there are leather alternatives that do biodegrade. They include vegan materials cork leather, coconut leather, and leaf leather.

So, what are our options?

Well, vegan leather can generally be discarded in one of these ways:  

  1. Composting

Vegan leather is not good for landfills if it can be helped. The most practical method to dispose of it is by composting. When buried in a compost pile with leaves and other organic debris, the substance decomposes and releases its nutrients back into the ground. This process can take many months, yet there are no toxic emissions generated while it decomposes.

  1. Incineration

Vegan leather, like regular leather, may be burnt and released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and water vapor. Depending on the material, toxic emissions may be produced during this procedure. If the material is PVC or polyurethane this may be the case. Additionally, the heat released may be polluting the surrounding region.

  1. Recycling

Not all vegan leather is recyclable. But, that hasn’t stopped companies from working to find a method for breaking down their materials. They are thus recycled into different products. 

Some of these vegan leather materials have components that are partly recycled. It’s usually not 100% because they would lose in performance. However, it’s common to have materials that have 50-60% recycled components.

To recycle the vegan leather you own, learn more about your city’s recycling program. That can offer you insight into what kinds of plastics may be recycled and if your leather fits the bill. Synthetic recyclable leather is ideally certified by the Global Recycling Standard.

That being said, durability is one of the main pillars of sustainability. The best practice would be to only buy what you need. And more crucially, to buy a product that can last for years with proper care.

What Is The Most Sustainable Vegan Leather?

What Is The Most Sustainable Vegan Leather
Murmali Sustainable Vegan Cork Leather Handbags

As it stands now, the most sustainable vegan leathers include cork leather, mushroom leather, coconut leather, and cacti leather. However, long-term studies of the environmental impact of materials are yet to be produced.

The most sustainable vegan leather is not a single material, but rather a type of material that is sustainable. So what exactly does this mean? Well, sustainability means many different things to different people. 

It points to how long the materials last and how eco-friendly they are. This means the longest lifespan with the least environmental damage for future generations.

In the case of vegan leather, the most sustainable material is one that remains strong and durable. Fashion brands have the onus of offering vegan leather that is tested to suit specific needs. For example, the way how shoe materials are tested for technical requirements like wear and tear, flex tests, adhesion tests, color tests and permeability tests.

All the while using only environmentally friendly materials to make it. With the growing popularity of vegan leather, many big companies have begun looking into their carbon footprint.

But what about smaller companies and individuals? Many people are making their own wallets and shoes, and small businesses have been known to do this as well. So what can these people do to make their vegan leather as sustainable as possible?

It is important first to understand that not all materials are created equal. Some use a lot of energy and water to process, while others are relatively simple. The difference between the two is that simple materials are usually made of fewer ingredients. Whereas more complex materials are made of many different chemicals.

In the case of vegan leather, the most sustainable material is one that uses very few chemicals to process. The reason for this is that if there are fewer ingredients needed, that means fewer chemicals need to be used in order to process that ingredient.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t make some types of vegan leather products in your own home using slightly more complex materials. But when making them on a commercial scale, simpler materials must be chosen in order to reduce the use of harmful chemicals and energy.

At present, one’s best bet as a conscious vegan is to buy solvent-free, highly bio-based, and partly recycled vegan leather material. It’s worth keeping in mind that not all vegan materials may be suitable for your end needs. 

The impetus for sustainable fashion is growing steadily. This is urging many companies to work on more innovative vegan leather materials. As it stands now, the most sustainable vegan leathers include cork leather, mushroom leather, and coconut leather.

If you’re still looking to source products made from genuine leather, you can always look at buying second-hand or thrifting it. This way, existing leather can be used to the end of its life cycle rather than ending up in landfills prematurely.

Is Vegan Leather More Ethical?

Yes, vegan leather is more ethical in nature. 

How can we know vegan leather alternatives to be more ethical than conventional animal leather? For one, buying vegan leather should also mean that animals aren’t exploited during the production of the material. 

Of course, this would imply no animal by-products are used in its making. The fact animals aren’t mercilessly slaughtered alone is enough to make vegan leather a more ethical alternative.

Secondly, they must use as few resources as possible and produce less waste or pollution when compared over time. Based on these factors, it’s safe to say that vegan leather is much more ethical than leather derived from animals.

Is Vegan Leather Better For The Planet?

Is Vegan Leather Better For The Planet
Deforestation Linked To Cattle Farming

Vegan leather is much better for the planet depending on the material it’s made from. The problem with traditional leather is that it takes a huge toll on the environment. It is an inefficient use of animal agriculture. The production process also uses large amounts of land and water.

A lot of tanneries are in countries like India and Bangladesh where there is a clean water crisis.They also produce significant emissions in terms of carbon dioxide and hazardous chemicals.

The practice of grazing livestock has been linked to deforestation. The industry also generates a sizable quantity of greenhouse gas emissions. It makes sense that 14.5 to 18 percent of the world’s carbon emissions come from livestock farming.

Animals are better off with vegan leather. No animals are killed in the production of it since alternative materials are used. Vegan leather also emits less carbon dioxide than traditional leather since it doesn’t use cattle or other animals.

Moreover, it is considerably cheaper to produce and reduces the amount of land used for leather production. Bio-based leathers that use fruit waste to make leather reduce waste from landfills. Additionally, they also support farmer communities. 

A good example of this is pineapple leather. Plants can be grown on a much larger scale than the number of animals that are killed for their hide.

Even PU leather uses less hazardous chemicals than animal leather. Toxic compounds like chromium are used in the tanning of animal leather. Hydrogen sulfide is also released during deliming animal leathers. 

That said, PU leather contains plastic which is unsustainable. While bio-based leathers also contain PU, they are present at a smaller scale and a lot of the times recycled.

Plastic that has been made isn’t always recycled and can find its way into natural water systems where it causes microplastic pollution. This poses a threat to all life, but particularly marine life.

Which Is Better: Vegan Leather Or Real Leather?

Which Is Better: Vegan Leather Or Real Leather
Vegea & H&M Vegan Leather Collection

In short, yes! Vegan leather is a much better alternative to traditional leather. Most leading designers are now recognizing vegan leather as the more sustainable alternative to leather. Even H&M has launched an eco-friendly vegan leather collection made from wine industry waste.

Animal leather is a harmful product that causes a lot of pain to animals in its production. Vegan leather, on the other hand, is humane and cruelty-free. Unlike animal leather, it doesn’t require the slaughtering of animals for its production. For some people, this is the main selling point.

It also does a lot less damage to the environment than animal leather does in terms of livestock farming and waste generated. Depending on the material, it is also more eco-friendly and sustainable.

Even PU leather has a reduced environmental impact during production in comparison to leather made from cow skin. This is considering climate, water, eutrophication, chemistry, and other impacts that come with the production of these materials.

That said, we should aim to buy non-synthetic vegan leather. As fewer synthetic options become more accessible, it is easier to opt for more sustainable leather alternatives.

Access to mycelium-based leather substitutes like Mylo Unleather and Reishi will also increase significantly in the future. Even if they are not yet biodegradable, these are some of the most tactile materials and are far more efficient in terms of climate, water use, and land use. As these small-scale companies have a limited supply of materials currently, they are seen partnering with larger brands.

Animal leather uses hazardous chemicals during tanning and finishing. But for vegan leather, the majority of the ingredients are natural. Animal leather isn’t necessarily waterproof, but vegan leather is. Vegan leather is also easier to keep clean.


Whether or not vegan leather is sustainable depends on what it’s made from. 

Shoppers should stay away from PVC leather because it’s not sustainable and affects the environment in a hazardous way. It is considered the most poisonous of all plastics. 

Sure, vegan leather almost always uses plastic. We know that’s not sustainable. However, PU and more eco-friendly versions of PU leather are non-toxic and BPA-free.

While your best bet is to opt for completely biodegradable materials, this may not be feasible for everyone. In this case, it’s best to opt for natural materials like linen and hemp.

Another option is to opt for pre-loved or thrift PU leather, or faux leather made from recycled plastics. Compared to virgin plastics, recycled plastics are less heavy on the environment. They also help recycle PET bottles from landfills, which is a great way to repurpose waste.

See also: Is Vegan Leather Durable?

Image Credit: Murmali Sustainable Vegan Cork Leather Handbags

Divya is a content crafter at Vegan Avenue. She is a long-term happy vegan who is also enthusiastic about slow, mindful living in the company of cats.