What Is Suede, and Is It a Sustainable Fabric? Environmental Impacts

Get all the facts on suede, plus some vegan alternatives.

Blue Suede men's shoes on boardwalk
Andrija1 / Getty Images

It has been nearly 70 years since the song "Blue Suede Shoes" hit the music scene, increasing the iconic status of both the shoes and the fabric. Lyrics from the song paint a picture of luxury while describing the financial costs associated with suede shoes, along with how difficult they are to clean. Another challenge absent from the song's message is suede's environmental impacts.

This napped material is made from the skin of animals, usually sheep. It is considered to be a subgroup of leather, known for its softness, durability, and ability to keep in heat on cooler days. Suede is also versatile in its applications and has been used in upholstery, clothing, and accessories.

Yet our big question remains: Is this fabric a sustainable choice?

History of Suede

The first known use of suede came in the form of women's gloves from Sweden. The word "suede" is derived from the French phrase "gants de Suede" which translates to "gloves of Sweden." Swedish leather workers had developed a new way of working with leather and thus created a softer material. The fabric soon became popular with the nobility.

When artisans in other countries saw the value of suede, its uses quickly moved beyond gloves. Throughout Europe, accessories such as belts, shoes, and jackets were produced and sold. Next, there were suede furniture, curtains, and bags. Today, in addition to these products, the fabric is sometimes used as a lining for other leather products.

How Is Suede Made?

Suede is a split leather made from animal hides that have already been processed. While the animal hide or skin is usually from sheep, skins can be used from any animal such as deer, goats, and cows. The skin is then salted to prevent decomposing. Often using lime, it is cleaned to remove any dirt, debris, or hair. This step softens the skin of the material and can take up to two days. The hides may be split at this point or after the tanning process.

After the hide has been cleaned, it is tanned, a process that stabilizes the skins and makes them durable. The skins can then be split for different uses. The underside is used for suede. Sometimes, the hide is not split in order to give a suede-like feel but still have the sturdy disposition of leather. This is not technically suede as it does not have the split leather distinction.

Environmental Impacts

For decades now, environmental activists have denounced the negative impacts of animal agriculture and leather production. While efforts continue to reduce the processes involved in tanning leather, around 90% of leather is still tanned using chromium. Chromium is a heavy metal that exists naturally but is also dangerous at low concentrations.

The use of chromium as a leather tanner is especially problematic because of the ease at which it gets into waterways. When chromium gets into the soil, it alters the communities of microbes and can inhibit their growth. Likewise, when it gets into the water, it threatens aquatic life.

Contaminated areas have been found to put over 16 million people at risk for exposure. Around 75% of these contaminated sites are located in South Asian countries.

Vegan Alternatives to Suede

Genuine suede is made from animal skins so it cannot be vegan. However, they are a few other fabrics being developed that resemble the softness and luxuriousness of suede.

Microsuede

Microsuede is an artificial suede fabric often made from synthetic fibers such as nylon. It is distinguished by its flexibility and lightness, both of which make it more comfortable to wear than traditional suede.

Though microsuede is a vegan option, it may not be the most eco-friendly alternative. When choosing microsuede, be sure to be mindful of microfibers and use ways to reduce microfiber pollution.

Eco-Suede

Eco-suede is marketed as a vegan and environmentally friendlier version of suede. Often, this material will be made from recycled or plant-based plastics. Recycled plastics use less energy and produce fewer carbon emissions during production than the manufacturing of virgin plastics. Microfibers could be an issue here as well. To avoid this, find a brand that uses exclusively plant-based plastics.

Mushroom Suede

Mushroom leather is the newest kid on the block and most easily resembles suede. Though it doesn't perform as well as leather in terms of strength and flexibility, its ability to breathe makes it a useful material for shoes and apparel.

Is Suede Sustainable?

One major component of sustainability is a garment's ability to last long term. This puts suede at the top as it is an extremely durable material. However, this is quickly negated by the environmental impact and the ethical treatment of animals.

Even though leather is often considered a byproduct of the meat industry, that doesn't immediately dismiss the negative effects animal agriculture has on the environment. Raising livestock accounts for nearly a third of the greenhouse gas emissions within the agriculture industry, and 14.5% of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions globally.

Treehugger Tip

If you prefer the performance and characteristics of genuine suede but are looking for a more sustainable option, shop for secondhand suede fabrics rather than buying new ones.

The Future of Suede

The future of suede appears to be synthetic. While the leather industry is showing steady growth due to a rise in consumers' disposable income, those same factors are attracting buyers to imitation leather and suede at an even higher rate.

Though polyurethane still reigns in the synthetic leather market, there is a growing demand for more environmentally friendly bio-based alternatives. As technology develops, methods for increasing the strength and performance of sustainable alternatives are likely. The viability of biogenic options will continue to thrive as long as there is continued demand for a circular economy.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What's the difference between suede and leather?

    Both suede and leather are traditionally made from animal skins. The difference between them is that suede undergoes the additional process of splitting, which gives it its characteristic softness.

  • What's the most eco-friendly suedelike material?

    Mushroom suede, while arguably the rarest and most expensive type of "suede," is perhaps the most eco-friendly. Because it's plant-based, it doesn't involve animal agriculture, evades the polluting production process of plastics, and doesn't release damaging microfibers into the environment.

  • How long does suede last?

    One benefit of suede is its longevity. Unlike synthetics and even plant-based fibers like cotton, suede is incredibly durable (slightly less so than leather) and can last decades if properly cared for.

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