What is Eco Leather? Real or Fake? Green or Greenwashed?

TheRoundup is reader supported. We may earn a small commission when you make a purchase via links on this site, at no cost to you.

Leather is a luxurious material that has been used to make furniture and clothing for centuries.

But many people don’t realize that there are different types of leather, some of which are more environmentally friendly than others.

As a family, we’re trying to live a more vegan lifestyle. We’re not fully vegan yet…but we’re making progress.

What is eco leather? Is synthetic vegan leather eco-friendly?

Mrs. M and the girls love their fashion. So eco leather (and vegan leather) are currently hot topics in the Miller household as they move away from animal leather to more sustainable alternatives.

But, which alternative is best?

How Traditional Leather Is Made

  1. The skin from a deceased animal is removed, and the flesh is stripped from the skin to give a clean hide.
  2. The hide is then immediately placed in a salt brine to prevent decomposition.
  3. If hair remains on the hide, it gets treated with chemicals like calcium oxide. This process removes the hair and softens the hide.
  4. After the hide is softened, it’s cut into two layers, creating different types of leather. The upper layer is full-grain leather which is more expensive but also more durable and soft, whereas the cheaper layer comes from the bottom part of the hide and is used for items such as handbags and shoes.
  5. The next step is tanning the leather to prevent it from decomposing further. To do this, the hides are loaded into a drum and mixed with a solution of harsh chemicals and tanning agents. Then, fats are added to keep the leather strong but give it a soft feel.
  6. A roller extracts excessive moisture from the hides and dries them.
  7. After treated hides are inspected for quality, they are given grades that determine their value and what purposes they might be used for.
  8. The leather is tanned and dyed again if necessary. These leather materials are then ready for manufacturing into a finished product.

Traditional leather production has a negative impact on the environment, as it involves the slaughter of animals and the use of harsh chemicals. It also produces waste by-products that can pollute waterways and harm wildlife.

Eco leather production follows a similar process. However, the hides are sourced sustainably, and no harsh chemicals are used in the tanning or dyeing process.

Toxic Chemicals Used In Traditional Leather Production

Eco leather was developed to remove some of the toxic chemicals used in traditional leather production, such as:

  • Arsenic
  • Antimony
  • Barium
  • Selenium
  • Chromium VI
  • Formaldehyde
  • Lead
  • Mercury
  • Cadmium
  • APEO
  • Dimethyl fumarate
  • Chlorinated Fungicides (PCP, TeCP, TCP)
  • Azo Dyes
  • Coal Tar

What Is Eco Leather? Everything You Need To Know!

eco leather samples

I briefly touched upon different leather types in my sustainable fabrics article, but now I’m going to use this article to delve much deeper.

First, let’s clarify the terminology. Eco leather and vegan leather (synthetic leather) are two separate things.

Eco Leather

The term eco leather refers to leather made from animal hides, just like real leather.

It differs from real leather because the production process is more eco-conscious.

For example, real leather is tanned using a wide range of toxic chemicals. Whereas eco leather is tanned using non-toxic and vegetable-based dyes.

Vegan Leather

Vegan leather, on the other hand, is entirely free of animal products and made from sustainable resources, such as bamboo, cork, or pineapple leaves.

Different Types of Eco Leather

Recycled Eco Leather

Recycled eco leather is a type of leather made from scraps and remnants of real leather that would have otherwise been discarded. These recycled leather materials are processed and turned into new eco leather products.

Byproduct Eco Leather

Byproduct eco leather is made from livestock byproducts that would have otherwise gone to waste (hides and trimmings from the meat industry, for example).

Natural Leather

Natural leather is made from ethically sourced animal hides tanned using vegetable-based dyes rather than toxic chemicals.

Different Types of Vegan Leather

Pinatex

Pinatex is a type of leather made from pineapple leaves, a by-product of the pineapple industry that would have otherwise gone to waste.

Cork Leather

Cork leather is made from the bark of cork oak trees, a renewable resource that you can harvest without harming the tree.

Mushroom Leather

Mushroom leather is made from mushroom mycelium, the underground network of roots that mushrooms grow from.

Waxed Cotton Canvas

Waxed cotton canvas is made from organic cotton treated with natural waxes to give it a leather-like texture and durability.

Apple Leather

Apple leather is a type of leather made from recycled apple waste, such as apple peels and cores.

Natural Rubber Leather

Natural rubber leather is made from latex, a sap harvested from rubber trees. It’s biodegradable, recyclable, and can be made into a leather-like substance.

Grape Leather

Grape leather is made from the waste by-products of winemaking, such as grape skins and seeds.

Lab Grown Leather

Lab-grown leather (also known as ’clean meat’), is a type of leather made from cells that are cultured and grown in a lab. This technology is still in its early stages and not widely available yet.

PVC Leather

On the other hand, PVC leather is made from polyvinyl chloride (a plastic material), which is not biodegradable and can release harmful chemicals into the environment.

It often has a glossy finish and is usually one of the cheaper options on the market.

Eco Leather Vs. Synthetic Vegan Leather

Eco Leather Chair

General Environmental Impact

Both eco leather and synthetic leather have their benefits for the environment.

Eco leather uses animal hides, which would otherwise go to waste, and the production process is more eco-conscious than so-called genuine leather.

On the other hand, synthetic leather does not involve using any animal products and is generally made from sustainable resources.

Certifications

Adding ’eco’ to the name of a product is a classic greenwashing tactic.

Fortunately, there are some respected third-party leather certifications that give you added peace of mind that the product you’re buying is as eco-friendly as it claims to be.

Some to look out for when shopping for eco leather and vegan leather include:

Air & Noise Pollution

Leather manufacturers who are signed up to the standards set by The Leather Working Group have to produce leather in a way that keeps air and noise pollution to a minimum.

The main areas of concern are:

  • Particulates Spray Machines
  • VOC Spray Machines
  • Sulfides
  • SO2 Boilers
  • NOx Boilers
  • Particulates Boilers
  • Ammonia

Water Usage

Traditionally, leather production is incredibly water-intensive. For example, it can take up to 8,000 liters of water to make a pair of traditional leather shoes!

Eco leather and synthetic leather, on the other hand, use significantly less water during production.

The Leather Working Group assesses leather manufacturers on a range of criteria, including:

  • Wells
  • Runoff
  • Rivers/Canals/Lakes
  • Municipal Water Supply
  • All Other Applicable Water Sources

Durability

In terms of durability, it really depends on the specific type of eco or synthetic leather.

Some types of synthetic and eco leather, such as recycled leather, cork leather, and waxed cotton canvas, can be just as durable as traditional leather.

Others, like apple and grape leather, may not be as durable.

Ultimately, it’s important to do your research (or hit me up with any specific questions) and choose a synthetic or eco leather that suits your individual needs.

Waste Management

Eco leather and synthetic leather both have an advantage over traditional leather in terms of waste management.

As mentioned, eco leather uses animal hides that would otherwise go to waste, and many types of synthetic leather use materials that are often considered waste products, such as apple peels and grape skins.

The Leather Working Group also assesses leather manufacturers on their waste management strategies, such as:

  • Hazardous waste disposal
  • Non-hazardous waste disposal
  • Waste recycling
  • Water treatment plant operation and monitoring
  • Landfill management plans
  • Sewerage systems and effluent treatments plants

Cost

The cost of synthetic and eco leather also varies depending on the type.

Generally speaking, eco leather tends to be the most expensive option, followed by traditional leather and then synthetic leather.

However, this can vary greatly depending on the specific synthetic or eco leather type.

For example, lab-grown leather is costly due to the new technology involved in its production, while cork leather is often more affordable.

Regarding cost, it’s important to consider your purchasing decisions’ environmental and ethical impact. Choosing a more sustainable option may cost a bit more, but it can have long-term benefits for both the environment and animals.

Appearance

The appearance of synthetic and eco leather also varies depending on the type.

For example, recycled eco leather is indistinguishable from traditional leather. And some types of synthetic leather (such as mushroom leather and natural rubber leather) have a texture and appearance similar to traditional leather.

Others, like apple leather and waxed cotton canvas, have a unique look.

Breathability

Synthetic and eco leather also differ in terms of breathability.

Traditional leather is often considered the most breathable option, followed by eco leather made from animal hide.

Synthetic leather, however, can vary significantly in terms of breathability depending on the material used. For example, cork leather and natural rubber leather are more breathable than PVC leather.

History

The history of eco leather began in 1998 in China. As China worked to join the global trade organization WTO, they had to comply with international standards across major industries. This included the leather industry.

Synthetic leather is a more recent innovation but one that’s been gaining traction over the past decade.

Energy Consumption

Traditional leather production generally uses more energy due to the chemical processes involved in tanning and treating the animal hide.

Synthetic and eco leather options like cork, pineapple leaf, apple leather, and recycled leather use less energy during production.

Lab-grown leather can potentially use even less energy in the future as the technology continues to evolve and improve.

The Leather Working Group measure holds leather producers accountable by measuring the following usages:

  • Fuel Oil
  • Gasoline
  • Natural Gas
  • LPG
  • Coal
  • Diesel
  • Wood

Cleaning Vegan And Eco-Friendly Leather Items

It’s crucial to clean eco leather (and synthetic vegan leather) as per the manufacturer’s care instructions.

Many can be cleaned with a soft, damp cloth and eco-friendly cleaning product or mild dish soap.

Avoid harsh chemicals and rough scrubbing, as this can damage the material.

Always air-dry vegan and eco-friendly leather. Never use a dryer.

Finally, a leather conditioning product can keep your leather soft, supple, and less prone to cracking, scuffing, and scratching. This won’t apply to fake leather made from plastic or fabric leather backing tape, or some other vegan leather materials.

Storing Synthetic And Eco Leather Items

When not in use, store synthetic and eco leather away from direct sunlight and heat. Also, avoid storing near water or dampness, which can lead to mold growth.

Keep the leather in a storage container or wrapped in a soft cloth to protect it from dirt and debris. And make sure there’s enough room for air to circulate.

Where To Find Vegan And Eco Leather

Many fashion brands (especially shoes and bags) and eco-friendly furniture manufacturers are starting to offer vegan and eco leather options, so it’s worth researching before making a purchase.

Look for labels that specifically mention sustainable materials or production processes.

Your local boutique or thrift store may also have some hidden gems…just make sure to ask the seller about the materials used in the item.

Pros And Cons Of Eco Leather

Pros

  • More sustainable and environmentally-friendly production process
  • Can be made from a variety of materials, including recycled or repurposed materials
  • Often has a softer feel due to the slower and less harsh tanning process

Cons

  • Uses animal skins, which some consider inhumane
  • Some eco leather options may not have the same look or feel as traditional leather
  • Can be harder to find and may be more expensive than traditional leather

Pros And Cons Of Synthetic Vegan Leather

Pros

  • No animal products used in production, making it vegan friendly
  • More environmentally-friendly production process (depending on the material used)
  • Can be made from a variety of materials and have unique looks
  • Often more affordable than traditional or eco leather

Cons

  • Some faux leather options may not have the same look or feel as traditional leather
  • Can be harder to find
  • Some faux leather options may not last as long as traditional or eco leather, depending on the material used
  • Some materials, like PVC, may have negative environmental impacts during production

Frequently Asked Questions

Does Eco Leather Stretch?

Yes. Eco leather will stretch like traditional leather. However, the amount of stretch is usually unnoticeable.

What Are The Similarities Between Eco Leather And Traditional Leather?

  • Both have a grain texture
  • Both can be used to produce luxury items and products
  • Both can be dyed
  • Both have two sides (hair side and flesh side)
  • Both have to be processed to some degree to make them workable and increase the lifespan

Is Eco Leather The Same As Faux Leather?

No. Eco leather is similar to traditional leather (made for the hides of animals), just using sustainable processes.

Does Eco Leather Peel?

No, not if it’s properly cared for. However, just like traditional leather, if it’s allowed to dry out (being exposed to direct sunlight for prolonged periods, for example), it will start to crack and peel.

What Is Bonded Leather?

Bonded leather combines leather scraps, leftovers, and a bonding agent. It usually takes the form of sheets that can be used for upholstery or to make other products. The use of bonded leather has been controversial for many years due to the use of plastic and glue as the bonding agent.

What Is Leatherette?

Leatherette is another name for synthetic leather. It often contains vinyl (a type of plastic). It has a similar appearance and feel to leather, but is not made from animal hide. It can often be found in lower-end products.

The Final Word

So there you have it…most eco leather and synthetic leather options are excellent alternatives to traditional genuine leather. They’re more sustainable and environmentally friendly.

But remember, just because a product is labeled as ’eco’ or ’vegan’ doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better for the environment.

Please research and ensure the brand is transparent about its production processes before making a purchase.

If you’re ever in doubt, get in touch, and I’ll do some research for you.

And, as always, consider if you really need to buy something new or if you can purchase secondhand or repurpose something you already have instead.

Get In Touch

Are you a fan of eco leather? Or do you want to keep animals out of the leather manufacturing process and instead prefer faux leather?

Maybe you're a traditionalist and only buy real leather or genuine leather? Drop me a line and let me know.

You May Also Like

James is a senior editor at The Roundup and has been in journalism for over 10 years. He was born in the UK but raised in Florida, where he currently lives with his wife and two daughters. James is passionate about sustainable living and environmental issues which are reflected by his work as an editor of TheRoundup.org.
James Miller
James is a senior editor at The Roundup and has been in journalism for over 10 years. He was born in the UK but raised in Florida, where he currently lives with his wife and two daughters. James is passionate about sustainable living and environmental issues which are reflected by his work as an editor of TheRoundup.org.

The Roundup

Your guide to a green and eco-friendly lifestyle. We offer simple, practical advice that anyone can follow. Together we can make a difference today & save tomorrow.
SUBSCRIBE FOR UPDATES
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram