Vegan leather vs real leather for the merch industry


What’s in your next promotional product marketing box? If you plan to include leather-based products in your branded-merch strategy, there are a few things worthy of consideration, especially when looking at the impacts that leather manufacturers have on the environment. Animal and cowhide leather creates huge environmental ripples in our environment.

If you are thinking about using leather products for your branded merch, consider taking a more ethical approach by sourcing leather products from certified and accountable manufacturers that source their materials responsibly. In this article, we’ll explore the effects of traditional leather on our environment and look at what to consider when picking ethical leather alternatives.

Environmental Impacts of Traditional Leather Production

Leather comes from animals’ skins (hides). Most leather produced for the US market is made from cattle and calve hides that go through a process of tanning, crusting and finishing. Some leather goes through a process of waxing to better withstand water exposure.  As you will see below, there are effects of leather manufacturing on the environment that should be considered.

Trickle-down effects

Did you know that cattle ranching is the top culprit of deforestation in the Amazon region? It accounts for 80% of the current deforestation and 3.4% of the current global emissions. These ranches also increase the risk of fire and degrade river systems as well as other aquatic ecosystems leading to soil erosion, river siltation and contamination with organic matter.

Carbon Impact

The environmental cost of producing goods made from real leather is staggering. If you compare the carbon emissions created to make leather boots, the difference is clear:

Cow skin boots66kg of CO2e
PU synthetic leather boots9.5kg of CO2e

A common misconception is that cowhides are a waste by-product of the food industry and therefore are considered by some to be ethical and eco-friendly. However, it’s not the case because, as illustrated in the boots example above, the emissions produced to prepare textiles and wear from the hides are staggering.

Digitally printed full-colour imprints on Vegan leather. Lychee and Crosshatch textures are available.
Digitally printed full-colour imprints on Vegan leather. Lychee and Crosshatch textures are available.

Fresh Water Impact

Cattle leather production is a labour-intensive process that uses a significant amount of water. It takes about 17,128 litres of water to produce one leather tote bag. A pair of leather boots uses 12,370 litres.

When comparing water usage of leather to leather alternatives like Polyurethane Vinyl (PU leather), cowhides use as much as 14x as much water. The liquid waste from the hide tanning process can leach into local waterways, polluting the natural environment.

Solution: Working with ethical manufacturers and sourcing leather alternatives

The type of environmental impact that we’ve highlighted above is the reality of many traditional conventional leather manufacturers. The good news is that there are manufacturers that are disrupting the conventional approach to leather production, taking accountability for their processes to ensure that their products are made responsibly.

There are sustainable alternatives to using traditional mass-produced leather. These alternatives can be made from a variety of non-animal sources, including:

In the corporate merchandise industry, PU, PVC and Cork are the most common alternatives. We hope that over time we’ll see some of the other new and innovative materials added to our product option.

Answering the question of “What is a better choice?” is complex, as we will explain below. Here are three tips to help you find the best leather products that are sustainable and responsibly made.

Apeel Notebooks
ApPeel® Pico Journal. The eco-peel cover and paper are made from apple pulp and fibres that are emulsified into organic material, making it eco-friendly, animal-friendly, sustainable and all-natural! 160 Pages, and it’s FSC Compliant.


Before purchasing leather from a supplier, do your research. Are they being held accountable for their sustainability claims? See if they’re a member of the Leather Working Group, a global multi-partner community committed to building a sustainable future with responsible leather. The not-for-profit drives best practices and positive social and environmental change for responsible leather production.

The Leather Working Group works with farmers, environmentalists, and industry reps to use data to ensure accountability and standardization within the leather industry.

But what about alternative leathers? What is Vegan leather made from? Is it plant-based, a mixture of materials, or is it mostly plastic?

Most leather alternatives that are labelled Vegan leather are vinyl made from PU or PVC. Sounds like an environmentally better material when you consider the carbon and water impacts of the cattle industry. However, PU and PVC are plastic-based materials that tend to have a shorter life span and do not biodegrade. Leather biodegrades typically in 10-50 years, depending on the tanning treatments, and some won’t biodegrade at all.  Be wary of Green Washing, ask for the material details and decide what’s important to you and how you’d like the material to perform.

Plant-based leather goods

Trending leather alternatives are made from plant waste (like discarded pineapple leaves, cactus, mushrooms, and apple peels). These are amazing new materials; however, they are still scarce and expensive. Over time we will see these materials appear in branded merchandise products, but until then, they are only available in the fashion and retail product streams.

Try out the Cactus Leather Bound JournalBook, featuring a uniquely crafted cover made of 20% of cactus components and 80% bio polyurethane. Colour-matching elastic closure, pen loop and ribbon page marker and 80 sheets of FSC® Mix cream lined paper.

Merchandise Strategies

Leather, even vegan leather, requires care to keep it looking like new. Your merchandise strategy could be to source a fruit leather alternative like the Apeel journals or a PU/PVC Luxury Vegan Leather (LVL) option. Not all fake leathers are created equally, so pay attention to care instructions to ensure your products hold up to wear.  If it’s vegan material you desire, be sure the words like ‘leather alternative,’ ‘vegan,’ or ‘100% synthetic’ are used in your material descriptions. Depending on your values, either could be a genuine option to elevate your brand.

LVL is an animal-free, ethical alternative to real leather with full-colour customization possibilities and an attractive price point. It has a fashionable cross-hatch texture and feels just as luxurious as it looks. This material is easier to wipe clean than traditional pebbled leather, so your full-colour designs will stay brighter and last longer.

luxury vegan leather


Sustainable use of leather in branded merch

If you’re considering adding a leather product to your custom branded merch strategy in 2023, Fairware has researched for you to present your best, most environmentally friendly options.

Wilson and Reilly Leather’s line of promotional products is LWG certified. This brand offers Pantone-matched colours made from the highest-quality full-grain leather, so each piece is one of a kind. Their merch line includes:

leather items

Make responsible leather sourcing a part of your sustainable and ethical promotional product strategy

As a company with a strong Corporate Social Responsibility promise, you owe it to your community and the environment to source ethical and sustainable promotional products to minimize waste and negative environmental impacts.

Whether you choose vegan leather or other sustainably sourced merch, you can make sustainability part of your promotional product strategy. Fairware can help you find the right products that are on-brand and that your prospects, customers, staff, and collaborators will love.