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Usually made with bark extracts, leaves, fruit and roots - all vegetable tannins contain the aromatic, organic compound Phenol, which is required for tanning leather. Vegetable tanning is a long and intricate process; taking more time than chrome tanning, which can be done in a day, but arguably far more worth it environmentally.
The first step in the vegetable tanning process is prepping the hides, rehydrating and removing the hair.
The next step is to tan the hide. Historically this was simply done with a series of pits containing different concentrations of tannin. Today this is most commonly done with the addition of drums to speed up the penetration of the tannin. The pelts will then undergo a series of different strength tannins until the process is finished and they are dried.
Finally, the leather is finished with different oils, waxes and sealants to keep it protected. We use our own unique oil-based dye to finish the leather.
This process is far safer than the use of chrome tannin. Chromium can be incredibly harmful to those working with it and process waste can be devastating to the environment.
History of Vegetable Tanned Leather
Having been around for over 5000 years, vegetable tanning is the oldest and most sophisticated method of tanning. There is evidence of vegetable tanned leather being used in ancient Egypt from ornaments left on stone coffins.
Historically, each country used the materials locally available for its tanning process. For Europe this was chestnut and for the UK this was oak.
Is Leather Sustainable?
The mass production of leather can have serious environmental impacts, as can any mass manufactured product. However, there are more sustainable leather manufacturing options. By using the by-product of meat and dairy farming, making to order and not using harsh chemicals to tan the leather, the reduction in environmental impact is significant. Mix that with it being a natural and non-synthetic product, vegetable tanned leather becomes the most sustainable leather you can get.
The main environmental impact from leather, besides the use of chromium in the tanning process, is the amount of water required to tan. MAHI is partnered with the FRANK Water charity, donating a portion of our sales to help clean water causes. Also, as it is a by-product of the meat and dairy industry you could argue that it is included in that environmental impact as well. However, this industry is essential to the livelihoods of communities all over the globe and as long as we continue to have a meat and dairy industry, the alternative of turning the hides into leather is to send them to landfill. In turning these hides into leather to make products such as bags and jackets, the waste of these industries is greatly reduced.
The main environmental impact from vegan leather, is the use of synthetic materials, like PVC, that derive from fossil fuels like petroleum. Synthetic materials are one of the leading factors to fast fashions severe environmental impact. Also, water waste and sometimes toxic dyes are additional environmental impactors of the faux leather industry. There are many new strides being made into more eco-friendly faux leather options made from cork or pineapple leaves. However, these still require plastic based adhesives to hold the fibres together and in no way hold the quality and durability of real leather.
Real Leather vs Vegan Leather
With an ever-growing call to take action on climate change, more and more people are considering sustainability with their everyday choices. Many fashion retailers are now offering a sustainability line and the demand for items like sustainable leather bags is ever growing.
The name ‘vegan leather’ (also known as faux leather) is generally misleading as it implies that it is environmentally friendly. As faux leather is primarily made using synthetics such as PVC and PU, this is indeed not the case. Synthetics do not biodegrade and when sent to landfill, stay there for a very long time.
Yes, you do not have to send the item to landfill, you can take good care of it and keep it for a long time. There are also more and more options to reuse and recycle unwanted products, all of which help to reduce the carbon footprint – but not by much. Some would argue that it is far better to support smaller businesses practicing a more sustainable manufacturing of real leather, i.e. vegetable tanned leather over chrome, than it is to buy a faux leather bag from a major high street retailer.
Real leather is also more durable than vegan fast fashion options. Fast fashion is designed to be just that, fast and disposable. Many synthetic clothing items are not made with longevity in mind and are so cheap that it is more effort to take care of them that it is to simply replace. What happens when it breaks, and you cannot take it to charity? Over a million kilos of textiles are sent to landfill each year in the UK alone. The amount of faux leather bags that will need replacing within the lifetime of a real leather bag will cost more to the environment (and your pocket) in the long run.
Another reason to choose real leather over vegan leather is the natural, unique and vintage appearance that it will develop over time. This is more prevalent with full grain and vegetable tanned leathers. The natural patina a leather bag will develop only enhances the product while vegan alternatives are unlikely to age quite so well.
The Benefits of Vegetable Tanned Leather
All in all, the main benefits of vegetable tanned leather are:
That it is more eco-friendly than its siblings - Synthetic Faux Leather and Chrome Tanned Leather.
The process is natural and has worked for thousands of years.
The process is traditional and safer for those tanning the Leathers.
The Leather produced is more natural and eventually develops its own unique patina, meaning that it only gets better with age!