People use leather for different purposes, such as clothing materials, decoration materials, furniture covers, and sports equipment. In more recent times, leather has become a slightly controversial fabric.
The most common practice in the creation of leather materials is the use of animal skin. We can trace this practice back to the prehistoric era5. The leather industry is a multi-billion dollar industry2, and with that much scale, many animal rights activists are concerned about the process of acquiring animal skin. However, more people are clamoring for a cruelty-free alternative to animal leathers.
Veganism considers more than just meat, dairy or pursuing a vegan diet. It also seeks to completely avoid the use of animal-based products. This includes advocating for a leather alternative.
The advocacy has led to the innovation of vegan leather – also called faux leather, an alternative to animal leather. In this article, we will discuss all that is there to know about vegan leather. We’ll also examine whether it’s a better alternative for the environment.
Vegan leather, as you must have suspected, isn’t real leather at all. However, it is leather-like. People also call this faux leather, artificial leather, synthetic leather, and pleather (from ‘plastic’ and ‘leather’). Vegan leather is made using alternatives to animal skin6. People have been using synthetic leather materials for a long time, especially in cheaper leather-like products because real leather from animal skins is costlier.
Vegan leather came from the efforts of vegans and animal rights activists to create cruelty-free leather production systems. These efforts coincidentally fall into the good books of environmentalists. Veganism has been gaining a lot of popularity among environmental health experts. Research carried out on the substitution of animal products with other materials found some interesting facts.
Veganism reduces an individual's carbon footprint from food by up to 73%. When we cut down on the consumption of animal products, we could reduce global farmland use by 75%. The production of meat and dairy products accounts for 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. The study finally stated veganism as the easiest way to reduce humans’ environmental impacts on earth4.
In another similar study, a professor at the University of Oxford discussed similar facts about a vegan movement in the UK called Veganuary. Veganuary could save the earth’s atmosphere from the equivalent production of CO2 as 450,000 flights from London to Berlin. It could also save 2.5 million liters of water.
These promising results about the adoption of veganism make many people advocate for vegan leather over animal-based leather. Animal rights activists believe they are not just protecting animals but also protecting our world with environmentally friendly alternatives.
You might think manufacturers entirely make vegan or faux leather from plants. This is mostly not true as many come from synthetic materials. Most times, manufacturers use polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane (PU) to make the majority of the synthetic leather or faux leather materials in the market. Each of these is a form of plastic material.
Polyvinyl chloride and polyurethane are also petroleum-based. This raises a lot of questions about vegan leather materials. These include whether they are eco-friendly, if they have toxic chemicals and if vegan leather is suitable.
Scientific inputs in recent times have led to innovative methods of using natural materials to make vegan or faux leather. Many faux leather manufacturers now use bio-based materials and plants.
Both types of leather materials are synthetic leather but with different environmentally friendly scores. People mostly use plastic leather because it is cheaper. The leather industry uses the fabric for many leather products like shoes, purses, and many other fashion items.
However, studies show that synthetic leathers that are plastic-based have toxic chemicals3. Plastic leathers may indeed be cruelty-free, but they are not toxic fumes-free. Chemicals like PVC and PU make plastic leather and involve the use of fossil fuels. Also, plastic leathers are not biodegradable, just like any other plastic product.
Plant-based faux leathers are costlier but are better eco-friendly alternatives for genuine leather. The process of making real leather is not cruelty-free, and it endangers our ecosystem. Plant-based vegan leather has none of these demerits, and unlike plastic leathers, it is toxin-free. Plant-based faux leathers often make good quality vegan leather. The big question is, “does vegan leather last as long as real leather?”
These days, you find vegan fabrics in anything that can be made of leather, especially in the fashion industry. You can find products like shoes, vegan purses, vegan leather handbags, vegan leather jackets, and so on. But how does the leather industry make vegan leather, pleather, faux leather, or synthetic leather?
Each of the types of synthetic leather has different manufacturing processes. More so, manufacturers use different types of plants for plant-based faux leathers. For plastic leather, there are two main types: PU leather and PVC leather. Each of these has a slightly different production process.
We can link polyurethane leather to a chemical-intensive production process. People manufacture it using two ways; the wet manufacturing process and the dry manufacturing process.
The wet manufacturing process includes coating a wet fabric backing with polyurethane. The product of this is called base material. Then, the manufacturer will dip the base material in a chemical called DMF (N, N-Dimethylformamide). This process solidifies the polyurethane.
The next step is washing because DMF is toxic. After the material is dry, a PU surface layer, usually half-dry and sticky, is used to coat the base material.
The final process involves putting the base material with the sticky PU surface layer in a baking oven. The manufacturers then remove the material at an appropriate time. They remove the surface layer from the base material. The base material is what forms PU leather.
The dry manufacturing process is similar to the wet process. It involves a more protracted process of coating PU with release paper and letting them dry. This leather, as mentioned earlier, is toxic and has negative health implications for the factory workers and also consumers.
The manufacturing process of PVC leather includes mixing PVC, pigment, and some chemicals. These form the raw material. The next step is coating the fabric with mixed chemicals. The product of this is called base material. Next, the manufacturers send the base material into a foaming machine followed by embossing the material with texture.
At this point, the PVC leather is ready. It often goes through a final step called surface treating. Surface treating simply involves the manufacturers adjusting color and printing designs on the PVC leather.
The PVC leather is the more toxic version of pleathers. Medical experts have linked PVC to the cause of many chronic ailments7. These include cancer, infertility, heart and liver diseases, type II diabetes, CNS, developmental disorders, and several respiratory disorders. Neither PU and PVC leather biodegrade.
Some of the common natural vegan leather materials are mushroom, apple, cork, waxed cotton, and pineapple leather. The major difference in their production processes is the raw materials that manufacturers use. The techniques of processing the raw materials also differ.
Manufacturers make this out of the caps of the Phellinus ellipsoideus mushroom. After undergoing the manufacturing process, it needs to be waterproofed. Most leather manufacturers do this with natural ingredients without fossil fuel or chemical usages. This makes mushroom leather eco-friendly and healthy. Mushroom leather is also 100% biodegradable. We can mainly find mushroom leather in fashion products like vegan leather handbags, vegan leather shoes, and vegan leather jackets.
It may sound surprising that apples can be turned into leathers. You may be wondering which part of an apple the producers use for leather. It is primarily the apple peel. We get apple leather from recycled apple peels or apple cores. This leather is like a by-product of other major goods made from apples, such as juices or apple pie. Apple leather shares the same environmentally friendly features as leathers made from mushrooms.
Cork leather is another vegan material. People get it from cork oak trees. We can find these trees in the Mediterranean, Portugal specifically. Farmers harvest cork from cork oaks with a process that involves shaving away the bark. An advantage of cork leather is that this process enhances the cork oak tree’s regeneration processes. That means cork leathers increase afforestation which improves rather than degrades the eco-system.
The next step in making cork leathers is boiling the cork in water. This gives the cork the necessary pliability so manufacturers can properly soften it into sheets, at which point the process of making cork leathers is complete. Some manufacturers also add plant-based dyes.
A demerit of cork leather is the fact that many consumers do not like its appearance. It does not have the same aesthetic value as other vegan leather materials. However, it is safe to use and even better for the ecosystem.
Waxed cotton is the easiest of all-vegan leather materials to make. You can make waxed cotton by yourself. But you should know that using waxed cotton for the large production of leathers takes a lot of effort. Manufacturers make this type of vegan leather by applying wax to cotton. Unlike natural leather or many other types of vegan leather, we can wash waxed cotton. It is also pliable and waterproof.
Pineapple leaves or bush are by-products of the fruit industry. Manufacturers make this leather from the wasted part of the pineapple bush. Using pineapple leaves for leather requires no additional agricultural input or water, and the resulting pineapple leather feels like cowhide leather. It is also durable and watertight.
A major demerit of pineapple leather is that it is coated with petroleum-based materials. This process gives pineapple leather greater durability. But it also makes the material non-biodegradable. Pineapple leaves leather is a big catch in the vegan leather fashion niche.
Whereas production processes differ, what usually concerns many people is whether vegan leather comes to par with animal leather. Many vegan leather alternatives target environmental concerns.
We’ve established that not all vegan leather materials are eco-friendly. Some are even dangerous to human health. Whereas, while animal leather defeats the cruelty-free movement purpose, it is not dangerous to human health. Generally, natural leathers biodegrade, and the decomposing rate depends on the tanning material.
The vegan leather industry keeps growing and developing. This includes researchers discovering and creating new vegan leather raw materials. It also includes applying vegan leather materials to more products. The growth of this aspect of the leather industry is fast. Research places its value at $89.6 billion come 20251.
The qualities of faux leather and natural leather can vary too. Vegan leather is generally thinner and lighter compared to genuine leather. This makes them easy to use and carry, especially when used for fashion items.
The thickness of real leather is one quality that aids its durability for longer life. However, the downside of the thinness of vegan leather products and synthetic leather products can make their quality inferior to animal leather. In addition, vegan leather is more vulnerable to tears, cracks, and punctures compared with animal or real leather.
Over the years, leather makers have continued to innovate. To reduce the environmental impacts of producing animal leathers, many manufacturers now make vegetable-tanned leather. Vegetable tanning is not vegan leather; instead, this leather tanning approach attempts to reduce the environmental impact of the regular leather production process.
The process is simply processing an animal hide into the leather using natural tannings derived from trees. The result of this is genuine leather that has more sustainable qualities while retaining its durability.
An argument some people have in support of real leather is that it’s a by-product of the meat industry. This makes them ask, “why isn’t leather vegan?”. Following this argument, it would mean that animal leather production is an eco-friendly venture. That is, it recycles waste products from the livestock industry into useful items.
Is it true that animal leather is a by-product of the meat industry? This is a controversial question that many people seem to agree on and disagree on. If the meat production industry were to drop animal skins as garbage, this would significantly add to the earth’s waste management problem.
Many animal rights activists say that wearing real leather is just as unethical and cruel to animals. Some also claim it is merely a flimsy justification to say genuine leathers are by-products. The borderline is the choice each consumer makes. Real leather can help with managing waste from meat production if it comes as a by-product. There’s still concern about the general waste that this industry produces due to demand. Real leather also offers biodegradable and recyclable leather materials.
Some vegan leather materials reduce the negative environmental impacts associated with animal leather production. Also, all vegan leather materials are free from animal cruelty.
Evaluating the sustainability value of vegan leather involves considering many factors. Factors like what it is made from, the production process, environmental impact, and life cycle.
We’ve examined the fact that vegan leather can either be plant-based or plastic-based. Plastic-based leathers have poor sustainability values considering their health and environmental effects. Furthermore, plastic leather can be toxic to both human health and the earth.
While sometimes its production may have lesser environmental impacts, its life cycle has significant negative impacts. Pleathers, as people call them, release dioxins and toxic fumes during production. If you dispose of them improperly after usage, knock-on environmental problems ensure like other plastics because they do not biodegrade. Similarly, pleathers are also not very suitable materials for recycling.
Faux leathers are generally not as strong as real leathers. On the other hand, plant-based vegan leather materials have a good sustainability level. However, they come at a very high price. All the same, with growing demand for a reduction in animal-based products, we’ll no doubt see the industry continue to develop plant-based vegan leathers closing the gap to leather-like durability.
One of vegan leather’s big advantages to the environment is regardless of the required inputs harvesting plants for production will always prove more sustainable. The production takes a lot of agricultural input, and as a result, strong vegan leather remains expensive. A sustainability report in 2018 by Kering supports this claim. The report stated that the impact of vegan leather production could be up to a third lower than real leather.
The life cycle of plant-based vegan leathers is positive, and it keeps getting better thanks to technology. Most plant-based leathers have no toxins or negative health implications. It is, however, necessary to know about a specific vegan leather product before buying it. Pineapple vegan leather, for example, gets its strength from petroleum chemicals that manufacturers add to it. This makes it toxic to an extent. Vegan leathers that are plant-based are also often biodegradable. But they are hardly recyclable given their frail quality.
Plant-based vegan leather materials and products are your best chance at enjoying vegan fashion. These products are good for you, good for your environment, and are stylish.
Nowadays, you can find vegan leather across the range of fashion choices you may covet. They include vegan leather bags, vegan leather shoes, vegan boots, vegan leather watches, vegan leather backpacks, and vegan leather jackets. Most brands that use the term “vegan leather” often ensure that they're committed to being fully vegan.
Below, we’ve highlighted some of the biggest and most common vegan leather brands and what they offer.
This is a brand you find in every list. Nanushka is based in Budapest, Hungary. This brand offers stylish and beautiful vegan leather jackets.
You can find luxurious vegan leather bags from McCartney. The designer uses solvent-free polyurethanes. 50% of the coating comprises vegetable oil.
If you are in search of stylish and minimalist vegan leather wristwatches, Nordgreen is the brand for you.
Will’s Vegan Shoes has been making vegan leather shoes since 2012. The brand uses bio-oils from organic crops for its vegan leather.
Vegan leather or real leather for your fashion items? The decision is really yours as leather goods come in various forms. However, for the right choice for the environment, you’re best-placed forearmed with knowledge about your options as a consumer. This includes the impact of your choices and how they align with your values.
There are many things to uncover when switching to sustainable fashion. Not all vegan leather is the same. So, a rule of thumb is to avoid those made from plastic-based materials. Most vegan leather products made from natural organic materials are better alternatives. So, always do your research when buying various fashion items like clothes and shoes.
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Gromer, K., Ruß-Popa, G., & Saliari, K. (2017). Products of animal skin from antiquity to the medieval period. Annalen des naturhistorischen Museums in Wien, Serie a-119, 69-93
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Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. (2021, February 10). Public Health Statements. CDC