When “pleather” was first introduced as an alternative to leather, it was referred to as an eco-leather. This is because it was originally thought to be more sustainable than leather, which is sourced from the beef industry.
“Vegan leather” is projected to be an $85 billion dollar industry by 2025. But a lot of people are asking, “how sustainable is pleather and is it actually more sustainable than leather?”
The answer is: it’s complicated.
To understand the full story, you have to look at many aspects of both the leather and pleather life cycle. The materials, chemicals, carbon footprint, water impact, and end of life disposal options all play a part in determining which type of “leather” is more sustainable.
Types of Leather and Faux Leather
For the sake of clarity, we’ve detailed the raw materials for a few different types of leather. We will focus on the sustainability of leather vs. “pleather” in this blog post. But, it’s good to know the difference between the many types of leather to make an informed purchase.
Leather: This is the traditional leather we know and love (if you’re not vegan or vegetarian). Leather is often referred to as “real leather.” It’s made from a wide range of animal hides, the most common being bovine. You can also find crocodiles, stingray, or sealskin leather. Leather comes in two categories, top grain and full grain leather.
- Full Grain Leather: This leather has no blemishes and the skin isn’t sanded or buffed after the hair removal. It’s considered the highest quality leather.
- Top Grain Leather: To create top grain leather, the top layer of hide is shaved off before tanning to remove blemishes. It’s considered a lower quality leather.
Faux Leather: This term is a catch all phrase for any kind of leather that isn’t made from animal hides. It can include pleather, plant leather, and silicone leather.
Pleather (plastic leather, also known as vegan leather): Pleather is a product made to look and feel like leather. It’s made using plastic polymer (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Both PU and PVC leather are made from petroleum and chlorine.
Silicone Leather: Silicone leather is made from silica rather than PU or PVC. Rather than falling in the plastic family, it’s technically considered a rubber. It looks and acts like pleather.
Plant based leather: Plant based leathers are made of mushroom fibers, fruit waste, pineapple fibers, cactus or other plant substances. They’re a newer form of “leather,” and are harder to find, especially when it comes to furniture.
Bicast Leather: Think of bicast leather as the Frankenstein of leather. It’s typically half plastic, and half cowhide. The cowhide pieces are pieces that are discards from the full grain or top grain leather. It’s considered one of the least desirable types of leathers out there as it includes all the negatives of leather and pleather.
Bio Leather: If you thought bicast leather was weird, you might get a kick out of bio leather. Bio leather is animal hide that’s grown in a lab. So while no animals are killed to create this leather, it’s still made of animal hide. This is also a new and rare type of leather.
Materials and Chemicals
Leather and pleather are made of different materials, and use different chemicals in their manufacturing process.
Leather is made of animal hide that is tanned to ensure that the hide doesn’t rot. We surely do not want anyone to skip this step. There are two ways to tan a hide: vegetable tanning or chrome tanning.
Vegetable tanning is rather sustainable becuase the process uses liquid and tree bark. The liquid is called tanning liquor. It can take from two weeks to two months to finish this leather process. This may sound like the way to go, but less than 10% of the leather world uses this practice due to its complexity and time constraints.
Chrome tanning is far less sustainable and used by the majority of the leather industry. This practice places the leather in a chromium salt bath with ingredients like hexavalent chromium. Hexavalent chromium is incredibly toxic and can negatively impact multiple parts of your body. The water created from this process is also hard to dispose of. To add insult to injury, this technique discards 50% of the leather it receives as waste.
Pleather doesn’t rank well in this category either. Pleather is made from PVC, which is harmful to the environment as well as humans. This type of material contains dioxins, which increase the health risks of the workers exposed to this gas while making pleather. Dioxins have been linked to cancer, leukemia and lymphoma.
The Carbon Footprint of Leather and Pleather
The carbon footprint of leather is part of the beef industry’s carbon footprint. It might be easy to think of leather hides as repurposing an item that would otherwise be discarded, it is important to note that not every cow hide becomes leather. Because of this, it’s not fair to pin the entire carbon footprint created by the cattle industry on leather. That said, livestock emits 14.5% of the total GHG emissions each year.
Pleather, whether made of PVC or PU, is made from fossil fuels, which creates a carbon footprint to make the product. From there, between manufacturing and shipping, the carbon footprint only grows.
Pleather and Leather Durability and End of Life
When it comes to durability and end of life, these are two areas where leather shines. Leather can last for a lifetime, and if cared for properly can be passed down as a family heirloom. If the hide is vegetable tanned, then it is biodegradable. If the leather is chrome tanned, it’s biodegradable and will emit harmful chemicals as it breaks down.
Pleather is not very durable. A PU Leather sofa might last 3-5 years, or less than a year if poorly maintained (think kids and pets). Even with the proper maintenance, pleather will crack and flake, which means you’ll have to buy a new pleather sofa every three years.
To top that, pleather is not biodegradable. It can take up to 500 years to break down, and there will still be traces of microplastic left over. Microplastics are pieces of plastic that never break down but instead become smaller and smaller pieces.
Other Factors Worth Mentioning
There are two other factors to consider when deciding which material is more sustainable. Given that leather is tied to the meat industry, leather allows the beef industry to occasionally use the whole animal. In theory this sounds great, but the reality is, this is a tiny sustainability step for an industry that’s considered very unsustainable.
Which brings us to our next point: the water impact. Cows need a lot of water. Raising cattle has led to deforestation and created degraded soils around the globe. In whole, agriculture is responsible for an estimated 75% of global deforestation.
So, is Leather or Pleather More Sustainable?
As you can see, picking the more sustainable option is a difficult thing to do when it comes to leather vs. pleather. But if you’re willing to do your research, you can get the most sustainable version of either pleather or leather.
If you want to buy leather furniture for your home, start with sourcing a leather that’s vegetable tanned. You can also do some research on where the leather comes from along with the sustainable practices the farm and factory use. The Leather Working Group provides transparency on which organizations are creating leather with a smaller environmental impact.
If you are after a vegan option, pleather can be a good, short term substitute. However given how short its lifespan is, it may be a better idea to wait and see what advancements plant based leather and bio leather make in the next three to five years.
Sometimes our sustainability and home remodeling decisions are not as simple as they seem. A seasoned professional on your side can take the guess work and research out of your purchasing process.
At Spark Interiors, we pride ourselves on helping our clients navigate murky waters when it comes to sustainability. We can help you make the right choice for your home, and for your sustainability goals. How can we help you with your next remodel?