Statement of the global leather industry on leather alternatives

More and more new materials are appearing in the fashion, design, and upholstery markets for transportation interiors (automotive, rail, etc.) with the stated aim of replacing leather as the material of choice. This is usually done on the basis of claimed improvements in sustainability that are rarely, if ever, substantiated.

While the pursuit of greater sustainability is necessary, portraying leather, a durable, biodegradable material made from a renewable waste product of another industry, as unsustainable is unjustified and unsubstantiated. Especially when contrasted with new materials made largely from fossil fuel-based plastics.

On a global scale, tanneries recover and upcycle at least eight million tons of raw hides and skins from the food sector every year. Without the leather industry and its upcycling activity, this residual material would simply become waste and be disposed of in landfills or incinerators. Destroying this waste instead of using it results in the release of approximately five million tons of greenhouse gases 1). So, the recovery and recycling of these wastes by the leather industry reduces greenhouse gas emissions while creating a valuable and versatile product.

Are any of these new materials capable of doing this? The answer is far from clear, because despite the widespread media coverage that supports each new launch, little or nothing is known about the performance and composition of these materials (let alone the sustainability of the corresponding production processes).

A recent comparative analysis of eight of these new products and leather 2) by the German institute FILK showed that the technical performance of these new materials and leather have little in common. Leather was far superior to the alternatives studied in most relevant functional performance parameters, and none of the alternatives could match leather in all of them.

Furthermore, the claimed sustainability of most of these new materials appeared to be severely compromised by the need for large quantities of synthetic materials such as polyurethane to try to match the functional performance of genuine leather. If the functional performance is lower, if the composition is largely synthetic, and if nothing is known about the environmental impact of the manufacturing processes, is it really valid to make claims about sustainability? Especially in comparison to leather?

The driving force for this can be attributed primarily to fashion marketing and its endless search for new and ever-improving sustainability claims. However, it makes no sense to replace a durable, biodegradable, circular material like leather with materials that are largely synthetic. It also ignores the upcycling solution that leather production offers for a material that would otherwise go to waste.

There is enough room in the market for a variety of materials, and the leather industry has no problem with competition as long as it is fair. However, it will not tolerate, on the one hand, embracing the image of leather and, on the other, denigrating the genuine article to promote alternatives with questionable performance and sustainability claims.

1) Carbon footprint of leather – Review of European Standard EN16887: 2017, “Leather – Ecological footprint – Product labelling requirements”.

2) Comparison of technical performance of leather, synthetic leather and trend alternatives.

Leather made from pineapple or apple: what can the genuine leather alternatives do?

You can watch the contribution Ökochecker in the ARD Mediathek under this link:

If you want to pull off the vegan lifestyle from head to toe, you have to find an alternative for leather shoes and bags. “Vegan alternatives” are supposed to be the solution. Ökocheckerin Katharina Röben digs deeper! The contribution is quite objective. It compares leather with alternatives. It was produces at HELLER LEATHER and FILK.

Or directly to YouTube:

The tanner – film from the beginnings of the German Leather Federation