Picture of shoes in the woods

Decoding Leather: Exploring the Pros and Cons of Genuine and Synthetic Variants

Leather is an excellent choice for outdoor and sports footwear due to its many characteristics that meet the demands of these activities. Over the years, this natural material has proven to offer numerous benefits that enhance both the comfort and functionality of footwear.

Recently, however, leather has come under increasing criticism. This relates to various aspects of the leather industry that raise environmental, ethical and social concerns:  Lack of transparency in global supply chains, the use of harmful chemicals in the tanning process and precarious working conditions, particularly in tanneries in the Far East, are just some of the reasons.

The industry is responding to these concerns by increasingly switching to vegan synthetic leather. In recent years, many new materials have come onto the market to replace conventional and synthetic leather. However, this development raises an important question: are synthetic leathers really more environmentally friendly than real leather?

Switching to synthetic leather does not necessarily mean that the material does not cause animal suffering. Most synthetic leathers today still contain a significant amount of petroleum-based components, the production of which has far-reaching negative environmental impacts. This includes the potential creation of microplastics, which are harmful to humans, the environment and animals. Leather is made from the hides of farm animals raised for meat and milk production. Whether you agree or disagree with raising animals for human consumption, it makes sense to use these hides rather than discard them.

Another consideration is the performance of the materials. Studies have shown that synthetic leather performs much worse than real leather in terms of tear resistance, breathability or durability. This underlines the need to consider not only ethical and environmental concerns, but also the functionality and quality of products.

The right choice between real leather and synthetic leather therefore depends on a number of factors. Responsibly produced leather, which takes into account the entire value chain from hide to finished product, could be a sustainable option. However, it is also important that the development of synthetic leather continues to minimise its environmental impact while improving its performance. In any case, the debate around leather and its alternatives highlights the complexity of the challenges facing the fashion industry when it comes to sustainability, ethics and quality.



Nina Conrad

About the Author

Nina Conrad

bttr GmbH

Nina Conrad has been working as a sustainability consultant in the textile and leather industry for many years, specializing in traceable and local supply chains. Her core business is the production of leather and leather goods that originate from animals from certified organic farms. She has established several leather supply chains in Switzerland, Germany and Italy and has worked as a Sustainability Manager, Product Manager and Project Lead for various smaller and larger companies in the apparel, accessories and footwear sectors. Besides she is a founding partner of the Sustainable Leather Foundation, and a co-founder of the Fibershed affiliate DACH.

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