Is Leather Sustainable? Style Thrive Handmade

Is Leather Sustainable?

If you’re familiar with the Style Thrive Handmade collection, you know each piece is made entirely from scrap leather pieces in an effort to reduce landfill waste and use our valuable resources more efficiently. All of these journals come from genuine leather offcuts produced by furniture makers, local fashion labels, and other industries during their production and design process.

Scrap Leather Journals handmade in Philadelphia - Style Thrive Handmade

Having said that, these scrap leather journals exist towards the end of the supply chain. This means I have little control over the sustainability of their original production. Enter stage left, the big question: where does scrap leather fall on the sustainability scale? Can leather be sustainable? (Spoiler: it depends!)

Diverting Leather Waste from Landfill

It's true: by definition, leather scraps will never be vegan. However, using scraps can be an effective choice in waste-reduction efforts, which does help our planet in other ways. 

In 2022, The New York Times reported that “In 2020, a record 5 million hides, or about 15 percent of all available, went to landfills, according to the U.S. Hide, Skin and Leather Association, a Washington-based trade group." Many of these wasted hides come from the beef industry, as well as other consumer goods industries.

Can Leather Scraps Be Sustainable? - Style Thrive Handmade Blog
FabScrap's leather station: where many Style Thrive journals begin.

In an effort to boost efficient material use, organizations like FabScrap aim to tackle leather and textile waste in the fashion, furniture, and home design industries by building pathways to collect and re-sell usable offcuts and scraps.

This is typically where your favorite Style Thrive Handmade journals begin; all of my materials help support eco-friendly waste diversion programs while keeping good materials out of the landfill.

Isn't Vegan Leather More Sustainable?

The short answer? It's complicated, and it depends on how wide of a view you're taking. The most commonly produced PU/PVC vegan leathers have additional environmental costs that many experts have noted as essentially on par with traditional leathers. Investigative reporter Hiroko Tabuchi writes: “The rise of vegan leather, which is typically made from polyurethane, a type of plastic that has a more favorable Higg rating, has brought unintended consequences” (2022). These consequences are specifically related to the creation and disposal of PU and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is non-biodegradable, contributes to the microplastic issue, and may cause off-gassing.

Sustainable industry group Common Objective notes that some polyurethane-based vegan leathers may even have “lower [sustainability] scores for global warming and pollution, [because] disposal of PU poses its own environmental problems” (2021). Given that these PU leathers are often used in the fast fashion context, their contribution to the landfill issue is immense.

Leather Scraps - FabScrap - Style Thrive Handmade Blog
Leather scraps sourced sustainably from FabScrap.

When compared to a long-lasting leather produced with natural tanning processes, PU vegan leather starts to lose its appeal as a sustainable end goal. In this way, considering the full lifecycle of our most commonly used materials (from production to disposal) can paint a more nuanced portrait of sustainable materials. 

Of course, vegan leathers do offer one huge benefit: they’re removed from the animal industry completely. Even when cow leather is a natural byproduct of meat production, it is still intwined with the process. For this reason, it can be worthwhile to look towards other types of sustainable vegan options. (Vegan journal collection pending...)

Can Leather Be Sustainable? Style Thrive Handmade Blog

A small sampling of FabScrap's other available materials.

Recycled Polyester & Plant-Based Leather Options

In the end, vegan leathers made with non-toxic dyes and recycled polyester (rather than the common polyurethane) may end up as the leader in our current landscape of sustainable leather alternatives, though even polyester isn’t biodegradable.

Some biodegradable, non-toxic vegan leather options might include leather made from bark fibers, plant material, cork blends, mango waste fibers, pineapple leaves, cactus leaves, and even dried kombucha scoby. To make these plant-based leathers hold together, they're often backed or blended with a secondary material or backing, which can affect the biodegradability factor. For this reason, cotton would be the best choice for backing fabric.

I hope our future is full of sustainable, eco-friendly plant-based leathers. For now, many of these alternatives are expensive to source and not super popular to produce. But who knows, maybe the future of StyleThrive includes some homemade leather alternatives!

As the landscape continues to evolve and shoppers become more curious about where their goods come from, innovation is inevitable.

FabScrap Philadelphia - Style Thrive Handmade Blog
FabScrap Philadelphia: a sustainable crafter's heaven.

What You Can Do to Shop Eco-Consciously

How you shop and what you buy is a deeply personal choice; you can choose which way to approach the issue of sustainability. The most important first step is to be curious about where your goods come from and where they end up.

No matter what, one of the best things we can do for the planet is resist fast fashion and disposable culture, regardless of what those products are made from. Shopping intentionally with the desire for long-term ownership, buying second-hand, or looking for products made sustainably from scrap, upcycled, or recycled materials all represent a step in the right direction. 

FabScrap Philadelphia - Style Thrive BlogEntry to FabScrap Philadelphia, located in the historic Bok Building.

How to Visit FabScrap

If you're interested in using sustainable scrap materials in your work, I highly recommend a visit to FabScrap. You don't have to be a business owner or art student to visit one of the FabScrap headquarters! They have locations in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, and there are materials available for online shopping. All you have to do to visit in person is schedule a 1-hour shopping appointment using the simple form on their website.

FabScrap Philadelphia - Style Thrive Blog
Entryway decor at FabScrap Philadelphia

From yarn and fibers to fabrics of all kinds, there are a lot of ways to incorporate sustainably sourced materials into your next project.

Pro tip: you can also volunteer at one of the FabScrap locations to score some free materials.

Have questions, comments, or suggestions? Please comment below or use the Contact page! 

You can also browse Style Thrive Handmade journals on Etsy.


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