There is a lot of buzz about ethically sourced leather and what it's being called "vegan leather." People are curious and confused about what each of these terms means and how they might relate or not relate to the products they purchase. 

As people become more conscious of their impact upon the world, they gravitate towards doing what they feel is the "right thing". Leather products, including how the hides are sourced, can often be a subject people are concerned about.

With the rise of the term "vegan leather", more people are questioning why a "vegan" version of leather is needed in the first place. Isn't the term itself an oxymoron? What is wrong with the standard way leather is created? Is there an alternative to this standard creation process that is more ethical? 

The goal of this article is to attempt to answer the questions surrounding these terms. In addition, I hope to clarify what these terms mean and enlighten you on the processes involved in the creation of these materials.

Let's begin by clarifying the terms.  

Before we look at what exactly ethically sourced leather is, let's address what it means to source something ethically.

leather is the ethically sourced

What is Ethical Sourcing? 

Ethical sourcing is the procedure by which materials or ingredients procured by a business are obtained in a sustainable and responsible way. This can include documentation that any workers involved are treated safely and fairly and the social and environmental impacts of creating these materials or ingredients are considered. 

What does it mean to procure materials or ingredients sustainably and responsibly? An easy example of this is in the lumber industry. For centuries wood products were sourced from virgin forests. People just chopped trees down and built with the wood. 

As the ability to chop trees down faster and faster grew and the deforesting of the landscape came with its own set of negative impacts, the idea of "managing the forests" was born. Almost all commercially available lumber is now sourced in sustainable forests where new trees are planted to replace the ones that are removed. 

Why is ethical sourcing important?

Ethical sourcing is important for many reasons. A company's future can be secured by utilizing a sustainable source of materials. Workers who are happier and feel that are being treated safely and fairly tend to be more productive, helping to lower costs. Knowing that you are sourcing your materials ethically can provide a sense of contentment. 

Moreover, some companies have found that increasing their communication with suppliers about implementing an ethical sourcing strategy helped build trust among suppliers. This increased efficiency in their supply chain, again helping to lower costs. Workers who feel they are being treated fairly tend to care much more about the quality of the work they are performing. 

Disadvantages of Ethical Sourcing

Not everything in life is all upside and no downside. There can be downsides to ethically sourcing your materials or ingredients. The amount of downside depends on your industry and what materials you are looking to source. 

The disadvantages for ethically sourcing your materials or ingredients include the entrenched, old way of doing things can be cheaper than a new, more ethical one. If there is a shared sense of values between the company and the customer, customers typically do not mind paying a higher price. They understand the manufacturer is thinking about the big picture and they agree with it. But if these customers are in the minority or not active enough to sustain the business, this can be a long-term issue for the company's success. 

What is Ethically Sourced Leather?

Ethically sourced leather is a natural leather that comes from cows who are not raised specifically for their hides. In addition, hides that are not supplied as a by-product of the beef or other industries are also considered ethically sourced leather. Ethically sourced leather is the result of the passing of a cow in a natural way. 

At MacCase, we launched our Premium Leather Collection in 2007. At that time, we looked all over the world for an ethical hide supplier we could partner with. After a long search on several continents, we choose to work with Hindu dairy farmers in India. 

In India, cows are considered sacred by Hindus. They were the favorite animal of Lord Krishna, and they serve as a symbol of wealth, strength, and abundance. The origin of the veneration of the cow can be traced to the Vedic period (2nd millennium–7th century, BCE). The Indo-European peoples who entered India in the 2nd millennium BCE were pastoralists; cattle had a major economic significance that was reflected in their religion.

One Hindu goddess, Bhoomi, is usually shown in the form of a cow. She represents the Earth. Most Hindus respect cows for their gentle nature, and cows also represent strength. Hindus who eat meat will avoid eating beef.

It is from this culture of veneration for these animals that MacCase sources its hides. The cows spend their productive lives giving milk. Once their milk-giving days are over, they are put out to pasture to live out their days. Once they pass, their hides become available. 

Below is a quote directly from our supplier about how the hides are sourced:

"The premium hides we use for your products are sourced from well-bred and domesticated animals. Their hides are only used after their proper life cycle has ended naturally. If they were not well taken care of they would never produce such high quality hides. Please be assured that these animals belong to the Hindus who themselves, hand over these animals for further use after their life cycle has ended."

Real vintage leather messenger bag

Ethically Sourced Leather Bags

For over a decade, MacCase has been creating ethically sourced leather bags in partnership with these Hindu farmers. This was the most ethical way we could find to source the hides we needed. Again, the animals are not raised to be killed for their hides. The hides are also not a by-prodcut of the beef or other industries. 

The hides we use are a result of the animal passing in a natural way. As mentioned above, there can be downsides to trying to do something "the right way". There is a major downside to creating ethically sourced leather bags in the way we do:

The wait. 

Unlike cows that are raised specially for their hides or hides that are generated as part of the beef industry, there is no set schedule for when our hides will become available. We can wait days, weeks or even months depending on the time of year. The late summer monsoon rains tend to slow production. MacCase customers occasionally have to wait for one of our Premium Leather products. This is why.

This can sometimes be a problem when you have customers who have gotten used to same-day or next-day delivery. Luckily, our customers have been willing to wait. We thank them for this. In our 10+ year experience of sourcing our hides this way, the wait that can occasionally occur is the only downside we've experienced. 

Now that we've looked at ethically sourced leather, let's have a look at another material companies are touting as an alternative to traditionally sourced leather, vegan leather. 

What is Vegan Leather?

Vegan leather is a material that can be entirely synthetic or created from a mixture of plant-based and artificial materials. The synthetic version is usually made from polyurethane or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) while the plant based versions can contains fruit leaves and skins as well as cork held together by a plastic binding agent.

Before the fashion industry invented the term "vegan leather" to make their outrageously expensive plastic bags sound more appealing to unsuspecting customers, fake leather had many names. 

Artificial leather, vinyl, man-made, leatherette, faux leather, genuine PU leather and the ever popular "pleather" were all used to describe what was ultimately some form of vinyl made from petroleum. Given these names and the downmarket association people have with them, you can see why the fashion industry needed to re-brand their vinyl products with the much trendier, much more socially conscious sounding term "vegan leather".

Even Mercedes Benz, known for the quality of their automobiles for over 100 years created the term "MB Tex" to help mask the fact that they were using vinyl in the interiors of their expensive luxury cars. Coming up with sexier or more eco-friendly names for vinyl is nothing new. "Vegan leather" is just the latest and probably won't be the last smiley, happy name marketers have created to try to sell people the same old thing with a new label. 

Vegan leather is leather in the same way that the Porsche Tycan Turbo electric car is actually turbocharged. It's not. Turbocharging uses the exhaust gas of an internal combustion engine to spin a turbine to provide an increase in horsepower. In the case of the Porsche Tycan, there is no internal combustion engine, therefore no actual turbocharger. The use of the moniker "Turbo" in the name is for marketing purposes only. It's pretend. 

The same is true for vegan leather. If the creators or marketeers called it vegan fabric, vegan cloth, vegan material or vegan vinyl, which would be a much more honest way to describe the material, they'd have a really hard time convincing people their goods are worth the thousands of dollars they are charging for this so called, "eco-friendly" material. It doesn't change the fact that calling it leather is dishonest. It is. 

rolls of vegan leather

What is Vegan Leather Made From?

Vegan leather is made from a plastic substrate, usually polyurethane or polyvinyl chloride which are both petroleum-based materials. Sometimes this is all it's made from. Recently, manufactures have begun adding recycled plastics and natural plant scraps and fibers to offset some raw plastic content.

Up until the introduction of vegan leather, bonded leather was the latest alternative to traditional leather. What is bonded leather? It's similar to vegan leather in that it's made up of a petroleum based, plastic substrate but bonded leather actually contains some real cow leather. Scrap leather that would normally be thrown away is ground into the mix and used to create thin sheets of material that is cut and sewn. 

Just based on the fact that bonded leather contains some actual leather makes it a much more honestly named material than its vegan counterpart. 

The reality is, most vegan leather is made from oil. Many chemical processes go into creating the different versions of the material and many of them are harmful to humans. So while vegan leather may be kinder to animals, it's not necessarily kinder to the people who are actually living with and  using products made from it. 

Moreover, like all other plastics, vegan leather is not biodegradable like natural leather. It will not break down in a landfill over time. When cared for, natural leather can last a lifetime. Plastic based fabrics break down relatively quickly and deteriorate over time, especially with exposure to the sun. 

Not all the news about vegan leather is a marketing shell game, though. Yes, the majority of the vegan leather sold to the mass market is based on plastic, is harmful to the environment and potentially to the humans using the products as described above. 

But there are some genuinely sustainable leather alternatives out there. They are being developed by creative people looking to offer a true alternative material and not marketing hype. They have developed materials made from waxed cottons or recycled rubber that solve many of the problems posed by the vegan leather used by the mass market. These folks should be applauded for being innovative and supported if not using real leather products is important to you. 

Vegan Leather Bags

As a consumer, one must be very judicious in choosing a product made from a non-traditional material such as vegan leather. If you are shopping vegan leather bags, it will be important to see which version of vegan leather is being implemented. 

Is it just another vinyl bag masquerading as something eco-friendly with a traditional leather price tag? Or is it made by a company that is genuinely doing something innovative that aligns with your values, and should you support it? 

Manufactures use the mass market, plastic based, vegan leather is because is much cheaper to use than the real stuff. If you can use a much more cost effective material but charge the same price or more (because of your trendy marketing message), you can see a big increase in profits. 

If you are shopping a vegan leather bag and it's important to you to not buy one made from vinyl, leatherette, faux leather, genuine PU leather or pleather, ask questions before you buy. An educated consumer will learn to read about and see through the marketing hype. 

 

samples of ethically sourced leather

Ethically Sourced Leather vs. Vegan Leather

As with many things in life, this is not a simple black and white issue. There is a gray area in the traditional, vegan and ethically sourced leather worlds. Even the best intentions of ethically sourced leather can be undone if environmentally sound practices are not used in the tanning process. 

Given this, what are the pros and cons for each type of material? Let's take a look starting with traditional leather. 

Traditional Leather

Pros:

• Look, smell and feel of real leather

• Durable, long product life

• Biodegradable

• Consistent supply

Cons:

• Hides sourced from animals raised to be slaughtered for their skins or are a by-product of the beef or other industries. 

• Expensive relative to imitation leather 

• Tanning process can be dangerous to the environment

 

Ethically Sourced Leather

Pros:

• Look, smell and feel of real leather

• Durable, long product life

• Biodegradable

• Hides sourced from animals from the dairy or agricultural industries and only become available after the animals passes in a natural way

• Tanning processes are designed to be more environmentally friendly 

• Sense of contentment in supporting a supply chain you believe in

Cons:

• Can be more expensive than traditional leather

• Expensive relative to imitation leather 

• Tanning process can be dangerous to the environment

• Inconsistent supply

 

Vegan Leather

Pros:

• Cheap to produce 

• No animals are harmed 

• Consistent supply

• Can contain plant based and or recycled materials

• Looks like the real thing

Cons:

• Non-Biodegradable

• Doesn't have the warmth, feel or smell of real leather

• Petroleum based chemicals can be harmful to humans

• Can be pure vinyl with a different name

• The finished product can be expensive for what it is

• Can be expensive if it's a true leather alternative, low-volume plant based fabric

 

In Conclusion

So how does this affect the products we buy? If you are a fan of real, natural leather, the option of purchasing a product made from ethically sourced leather gives you an opportunity. If purchasing a leather product whose hides were sourced from cows not raised for their hides is important for you, now you have that option. 

For someone interested in a leather alternative, the waters are a bit murkier. Are you purchasing the same old petroleum based, PVC or polyurethane material under a new name? Or is the leather alternative truly something innovative and less harmful? If you are concerned, call the company and speak to someone about your concerns. Get your questions answered. 

We all vote with our wallets each day. The places we spend our money are a show of support for how those businesses operate. At MacCase, we've been ethically sourcing our leather since day one. Yes we sometimes have to wait longer, but we sleep more soundly knowing we honoring our values. 

Please let us know what you think in the comments below. 

 

Jody K. Deane
by Jody K. Deane May 27, 2021

Comments

James Perkins

James Perkins said:

Great article!! I actually didn’t know some of this, thanks for taking the time to write this.

Jody

Jody said:

James -

You’re very welcome. I’m glad the article was helpful.

JKD

Frances Samide

Frances Samide said:

I have avoikded leather for years and have switched to vegan aka faux leather.
Recently, I went into my closet and found that several of my best handbags were deteriorating before my eyes and pieces were falling off sometimes like dirty dust.

Shoe-wise, I have been buying non leather shoes for ethical reasons , but they don’t have the comfort and give,, especially the give that leather has and do not conform to the foot as well. I thank you for getting me up to date, and I will start looking for ethically sourced leather.
I am passing this info on to my two vegan daughters . Thanks again.

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