Before I started digging into sustainable fashion I didn't know much about leather. I knew about leather and "pleather". I could tell you what leather is made from cows and I knew pleather was synthetic, but beyond that it was pretty much a dark hole. Well......I've been doing my research and learning all about leather! Leather itself is organic and can be split into two categories; chemically tanned and vegetable tanned. Pleather is made from plastic and therefore synthetic, it's also known as vegan leather. So, here's the dirt on all three and which one is my favorite and why.
Vegetable Tanned Leather:
As you probably know leather is made from the hides of cows. The hides have to be tanned in order to remove the hair and prepare the hide so that it can used for a variety of goods and pieces of clothing. For thousands of years humans have processed their cow hides into leather using chemicals from vegetables, for example tree bark. The word tanning comes from the fact that the tannins (tannic acid) in the organic plant substances actually break down hide and turn it into leather. It is a lengthy process and can take a year or longer. The leather that is produced is high quality, has that special "leather smell", and is incredibly durable. The downside to it is that it takes so long to make and the leather is prone to show marks and scratches. This is actually known as giving the leather patina, which is actually a positive for some folks. Since its organic, all leather is biodegradable.
Chemically Tanned Leather:
In the 19th century enterprising industrialists figured out how to speed up the tanning process with chemicals- the main ingredient being chromium. Speeding up the process made it possible to produce more leather goods in a shorter time and thus increase production. But, it has some major drawbacks. The leather is of lower quality and the chemical process is INCREDIBLY polluting. The tanning process is major source of pollution in developing countries as well as a source for lot of diseases. Just like vegetable tanned leather, chemically tanned leather is biodegradable.
Vegan Leather or Pleather
This is a synthetic and modern alternative to leather. Obviously it is more humane to animals and therefore the only option to vegans. If you aren't vegan, but have a strong stance on animal products it will a great option for you as well. It is petroleum based and made of plastic. This means it is not biodegradable. Not being biodegradable is a drawback. There are recycling options which can help. Also, today's vegan leather is good quality and should last its owner for years. It comes in a variety of colors and styles and is cheaper than real leather too. So if budget is important for you, then this is another check in the positive column for vegan leather.
So out of the three which one is my pick? I'm not a vegan and the plastic material in vegan leather is a problem for me, so for me the number one pick is vegetable tanned leather. I love the historic story and process that comes with vegetable tanned leather. I find it fascinating that the process hasn't changed over thousands of years. When humans do things right they can be done beautifully. I love the way vegetable tanned smells and the look of the leather as a patina begins to take shape. I also love how the leather is high quality and meant to last a lifetime or longer. The idea of being able to pass down leather goods is appealing to me.
My second choice is vegan leather. I love the price point of vegan leather and I'm pretty satisfied with the current quality of vegan leather. It's story is clearly not as historic and imaginative, but I do commend it for its ethics. I think it's a great pick for trendier pieces that I don't plan to own for a lifetime (maybe just a few years) and don't want to invest in as much.
After learning all about the chemical tanning process I will never buy another piece of chemically tanned leather. I just won't. The process is bad for the environment, people, and the animals. It turns an artisan process into a fast fashion gluttony I don't want anything to do with it.
Let me know your thoughts on leather! What's your pick? If you have questions let me know, I'd be glad to answer them!