The Environmental Implications of Leather

| Words by Madeline Myers

As environmental awareness grows, many consumers are moving away from genuine leather and instead opting for animal-free alternatives. Over the past few years, we’ve seen leathers made from a range of interesting and unexpected materials, from mushrooms and cacti to rubber and polyurethane. While these alternatives are new and exciting, their environmental impacts compared to those of genuine leather are often not as eco-friendly as people think.

Here’s an in-depth look at how genuine leather and vegan leather stack up and what your leather options are here at Nomad.

The Production Process

Genuine leather is made from the hides of cows that are a byproduct of the meat industry. After slaughter, the cow hides are tanned and processed into leather. This makes use of more of the animal and reduces waste. Plus, the vegetable tanning process used at traditional tanneries like Horween Leather Company utilizes all-natural tannins found in bark and plants.

In contrast, many vegan leathers contain plastics like polyurethane and polyvinyl chloride. These fossil fuel-derived materials are mixed with other chemicals and then applied to a fabric backing. The entire production process is completed much faster than traditional tanning, but it relies more heavily on harmful chemicals.


When sourced ethically and tanned with natural agents, genuine leather can be an environmentally sound material. It cuts back on waste in the meat industry and biodegrades after disposal. Plus, if tanned using vegetable agents, the tanning process itself has relatively low emissions.

On the other hand, the plastics used to make many vegan leathers can have serious environmental consequences. The production and disposal of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, releases carcinogenic dioxins, which gradually accumulate in natural systems and the food chain. And when vegan leather does end up in landfills, it persists for hundreds of years without breaking down. Though marketed as “eco-friendly,” vegan leathers made of plastics last in our environment much longer than genuine leather.

Durability and Waste

Genuine leather develops a patina over time that gives it that unique vintage look. With care, genuine leather gear can last for decades longer than vegan alternatives which often crack and peel within a few years of use. Leather alternatives need to be replaced more often, contributing to textile waste and fast fashion trends. Though often billed as animal-free, the short lifespan of vegan leather undermines its eco-friendly aims.

Ethical Considerations

Avoiding genuine leather due to animal welfare concerns is understandable. However, dairy cows destined for the meat industry provide leather as a byproduct, so leather production does not directly require animal slaughter. Choosing real leather makes use of more of each animal and reduces overall waste in the industry.

On the other hand, substances used in the manufacturing of some vegan leathers – including polyurethane and polyvinyl – have detrimental effects on the environment. These pollutants can persist and accumulate, leading to soil and water contamination. As these synthetic materials degrade over time, they release hazardous compounds that disrupt local ecosystems and endanger wildlife.

What Now?

Genuine leather and leather alternatives have complex sourcing stories that consumers should research carefully. When produced using ethical practices, genuine leather can be a long-lasting natural material with relatively low environmental impact. On the other hand, the plastic used to make up many vegan leathers often have serious environmental implications. These are just some of the pros and cons that shoppers should weigh when deciding where to shop for their leather.

Here at Nomad, we’re dedicated to minimizing our environmental impact while providing high-quality products. We understand the complexities surrounding leather and have selectively established relationships with tanneries that share our values of quality, durability, and environmental awareness.

Our iPhone 15 cases and Apple Watch bands are available in leather from two tanneries: Chicago's preeminent Horween Leather Company and world-renowned Danish tannery Ecco. Learn more about these tanneries and the differences in their leathers here.

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