Faux Leather vs Real Leather: Which One is More Eco Friendly?
To say the debate between faux leather vs real leather is a hot topic is an understatement. Both sides are equally passionate about the benefits that each bring to someone trying to live a sustainable lifestyle and make responsible choices. It can be really hard to know who’s “right”.
The problem with this debate is that there are many layers to the question of sustainability and leather. And when people try to debate the issues of fake leather vs real leather, they end up comparing apples to oranges.
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Why Does this Debate Matter?
1) The demand for leather is growing. Over 22 billion square feet of leather is produced every year, roughly equivalent to the size of a small country. By 2030, it is estimated to reach just under 30 billion square feet per year.  As more and more people consume leather products, the question of which one has a greater impact on the environment, real leather vs fake, becomes very important.
2) Sustainability is increasingly important to consumers. The 2019 Pulse of the Fashion Industry report found that consumer concern for sustainability is growing. More than a third of survey respondents reported that they had “already switched from their preferred brand to another for reasons related to responsible practices,” while over half said that their next purchase would be based on sustainability criteria.
“For the first time, this data confirms that most consumers include sustainability considerations in their decision-making framework.”
This trend is likely to only grow, indicating a real shift in consumer values. On top of this, there is a growing awareness that adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet is one of the most impactful ways to reduce our carbon footprint. But, is faux leather good?
Let’s face it: we love leather, but we increasingly care about the environment, too. So, we really need to get to the bottom of the question of real leather vs faux leather.
First Things First: Let’s Get Some Terminology Straight
Some people think that faux leather is real leather, but they are not the same thing!
What’s faux leather? This is an imitation product, made to look and feel like leather, and created as a leather alternative in the production of typically leather-based products, like handbags, purses, jackets, watches, upholstery and shoes. It is made of fabric coated with a plastic polymer (polyurethane (PU) or polyvinylchloride (PVC)). (For those wondering, is PU leather faux leather, the answer is yes.)
Faux leather also goes by the terms vegan leather, synthetic leather, man made leather, imitation leather, alternative leather, fake leather, and pleather, among other terms. All terms will be used interchangeably throughout this article.
What is real leather? Real leather means leather leather. It is the genuine article – a raw material manufactured from the hides of animals, used in the production of commercial goods like clothing (leather shoes and jackets), accessories (leather bags, watches, wallets) and home goods (leather chairs and sofas, and car interiors).
We typically think of leather as cow hide, but leather products may be made from any variety of farm animals or exotic animals, including sheep, goat, deer, moose, seal, snake, crocodile and more. In this article we’ll use leather, real leather and genuine leather interchangeably.
Quick facts: Is faux leather real leather? No. Real leather is made from animal hides, while faux leather is made from plastic-coated fabric.
Is Top Grain Leather Real Leather?
Yes. Real leather comes in a variety of qualities, the top two being full grain leather and top grain leather.
As the name implies, full grain leather is the full hide – it has not been sanded or buffed after the hair is removed – used when the skin is blemish-free. It is the highest quality leather, used in luxury leather furniture, luggage and footwear.
Top grain leather is when the top layer of the hide is shaved off first before tanning. It is also known as split leather, and is the second-highest quality leather. Leather is split to make it thinner and more pliable for products like leather handbags, or to make it smoother and ready to take different finishes.
Bonded Leather vs Faux Leather
Bonded leather is like a mix of real leather and faux leather combined. The difference between faux leather and bonded leather is that while faux leather is 100% animal-free, bonded leather contains 10-20% animal hide. It is therefore decidedly not vegan.
Bonded leather – also called bicast leather – uses scraps of real leather left over from manufacturing. Instead of throwing these scraps away, they are bonded together with polyurethane and other adhesives onto a paper backing.
Comparing genuine leather vs bonded leather, bonded leather is not durable at all. Is bonded leather better than faux leather? It depends on your definition of “better”. On the one hand, bonded leather makes use of those leather waste scraps, which is good from a zero-waste perspective. On the other hand, faux leather will likely last longer than bonded leather.
Saffiano Leather & Nappa Leather
Here are two more leather terms you might come across when comparing synthetic leather vs genuine leather: Saffiano leather and nappa leather.
First: is Saffiano leather real leather? That depends. Originally, Saffiano was a signature leather marketed by Prada, made of the highest quality, vegetable tanned calf leather with a waterproof wax coating that was etched with a characteristic cross-hatch design. These days, though, the cross-hatch look is replicated in any number of split leather and synthetic leather imitations.
Is nappa leather real leather? No. Nappa leather is a more eco-friendly faux leather than typical PU leather, which uses a recycled polyester backing coated with as much as 50% vegetable oil in addition to polyurethane.
Sustainability Factors for Comparing Faux Leather Versus Real Leather
What’s the carbon footprint of leather? Is faux leather durable? What about toxic chemicals? These are just a few of the factors to consider when assessing the pros and cons of faux leather vs genuine leather.
Next, we examine one by one all the typical factors mentioned when it comes to assessing which is the more sustainable leather, real vs fake leather. And for each one, we’ll declare a winner.
At the end of the article, we’ll look at some more sustainable alternatives for both types of leather.
Quick facts: Is faux leather bad? There are many variables to weigh when comparing vegan leather vs real leather, and hard to say whether one or the other is truly “bad”.
Which is better? Faux leather
Faux leather wins this one hands-down, that’s why it’s called vegan. It is the only truly cruelty free leather out there. There is no denying the fact that in order to make genuine leather, animals die, and with faux leather, they don’t. Simple as that.
Pollution & Toxic Chemicals
Which is better? It’s a toss
Let’s not mince words: PVC leather is really, really bad. PVC has been described as the “single most environmentally damaging type of plastic” for multiple reasons:
It contains dioxins. These chemicals have been infamously linked to cancer and developmental and reproductive issues. They persist in the environment, and are especially dangerous if burned.
PVC uses phthalates. On its own, PVC would be really rigid, so to make it softer and more malleable, phthalate plasticizers are added. Phthalates are considered carcinogenic and endocrine disruptors.
PU leather is certainly better, but high levels of toxic chemicals like dimethylformamide are still used during its manufacture, which have also been similarly linked to various cancers and birth defects.
What about real leather? The real culprit here is the tanning process. While traditional tanning techniques are relatively low-impact, the vast majority of leather (around 80%) is produced using chrome tanning.
The hexavalent chromium (chromium VI) used in the chrome tanning process is monstrously toxic – for humans, animals and the environment. Chromium VI is another carcinogen and can also affect the eyes, heart, lungs, kidneys and blood.
To make matters worse, more than 50% (!) of the chromium used in leather tanning is discarded as liquid or solid waste. Chromium levels in waste are strictly regulated to minimize harmful environmental effects, but if it does get into the environment, it can contaminate water sources leading to birth defects or infertility.
Which is better? It’s a toss
At first glance, when comparing the carbon footprint of synthetic leather vs real leather, it seems like synthetic leather wins. In 2015, the global annual impact of the leather industry was estimated to be 130 MT CO₂e (carbon dioxide equivalent) – about the same as 30 million passenger vehicles!
Looked at another way, the total carbon footprint of a pair of leather shoes (~1.7 sq ft of leather) is equivalent to roughly 10 kg CO₂ emissions, including the upstream, manufacturing and downstream production phases.
The vast majority of the leather industry’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from raising the animals. The methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide that cattle produce accounts for an astounding 14.5% of total global GHG emissions – higher than those of all transportation systems combined!
Those stats are pretty damning. But the reality is, animals aren’t raised exclusively to make leather; they are also used to make other products, including meat, dairy, and pet food products. While many vegan leather advocates don’t like this argument in genuine leather’s favour, the truth is that it’s hard to attribute 100% of the emissions from cattle farming to leather alone.
While it takes fewer resources to produce synthetic leather, when it comes to carbon emissions, you can’t escape one fact: conventional faux leather is made of plastic.
And plastics are made from petroleum, natural gas or coal. They are a product of the fossil fuel industry.
Faux leather depends on the fossil fuel industry, something most sustainability and climate activists are trying to put an end to. If sustainability is your goal, it can be hard to reconcile the use of fossil fuel-derived materials to make a supposedly eco friendly, sustainable leather alternative.
Environmental Impact During Manufacture
Which is better? Faux leather
While synthetic leather scores higher for abiotic resource depletion and use of fossil fuels (and third highest compared to all raw materials), cow leather has a dramatically higher impact on eutrophication and water scarcity. 
It’s no secret that conventional agriculture – including monoculture crop cultivation and livestock raising – is having a huge impact on the environment. In addition to water use and eutrophication, conventional agriculture is degrading our soils (leading to a need for ever-more fertilizers) and is a leading cause of deforestation as forests are cleared to create crop or grazing lands. This has been especially damaging in South America, where acres of rainforest have been cleared in Brazil in order to increase land for cattle ranching and growing soy.
Durability & End of Life Cycle: Is Vegan Leather as Durable as Real Leather?
Which is better? Real Leather
It’s always a good idea to assess sustainability credentials throughout a product’s entire lifecycle – not just its manufacture.
In this sense, faux leather has some real knocks against it.
1. Faux leather is not as durable as real leather. Even the best quality faux leather is less durable than genuine leather, and rather than developing an attractive patina as it ages, it can scuff, tear, stiffen, break, or even become discoloured or sticky over time. What does this mean? You have to buy more, resulting in more waste in landfills.
2. Faux leather does not easily decompose in landfill. Plastic-based leathers degrade like other plastics. They can take up to 500 years to decompose and as they do, they break down into nefarious microplastics and can release toxic chemicals. Synthetic plastic-based fibres and leather can also shed microplastics during use, not just after they are discarded.
By contrast, high quality leather products can last years. While you might need to replace a faux leather item every couple of years, an authentic leather product can last you a lifetime.
Although chrome-tanned and dyed leathers can take much longer to degrade once thrown out than natural leathers, they will still degrade faster than plastic.
This is for worn-out leathers that are buried in landfill. If they are instead incinerated, chrome-tanned leather can be very damaging for the environment, as the burning leather can release that toxic chromium (VI) into the atmosphere.
Which is better? Real Leather
“Zero waste” is another buzz word in the sustainability movement these days. The goal is to choose products made from materials that either biodegrade or can be reused for other purposes, thus creating no waste once it’s served its original purpose. When it comes to raw materials, it’s about finding a use for all of the parts, rather than using the highest value part and throwing away the rest.
This is a point in genuine leather’s favour: it is a co-product of the meat industry. Although there is a clear argument for reducing our production and consumption of meat (for sustainability and health reasons), as long as the meat industry exists, there is a benefit to using the whole animal, and that includes its skin.
Summary: Is Vegan Leather Better than Real Leather?
Pollution & Toxic Chemicals
Environmental Impact During Manufacture
Durability & End of Life Cycle
So, which is ultimately the more sustainable leather, real leather vs fake leather? It’s almost a dead heat, and probably comes down to two main factors: the use of animal products and durability.
If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool vegan (forgive the pun!), the search for a leather alternative is about finding a non-animal based, cruelty free leather. For vegans and some vegetarians, this is the deal breaker and where the buck stops. Faux or vegan leather will always be your go-to choice.
For those whom the impact on the environment is the greater concern, then real leather may be the better leather for you. The sustainability movement is driven by the push to end fossil fuels and our reliance on plastic. It’s hard to do that and still support conventional vegan leather.
But! There are some amazing sustainable leather options and plant-based leather alternatives that are kind of a win-win for both camps.
Here are some tips you can use to make more sustainable choices when buying leather, whether real or faux.
Things You Can Do to Make More Sustainable Leather Choices – Whether Faux or Real
Sustainable Faux Leather Alternatives
By far the best thing happening in faux leather right now is the exciting new frontier of plant-based leathers. Just like it sounds, plant-based leather is a leather-like material made from plants, often waste plant material from other industries. Everything from pineapple, cactus and apple skins to grape, leaves and cork are used to make plant leather. And what it might lack in durability it makes up for in biodegradability (watch out though: some manufacturers do use plastic polymers, while others use natural resins).
The next best thing to look for are faux leathers made from recycled materials. Recycling extends the life of an original resource, reducing our need to extract new raw materials to produce new products. It’s a bonus when nuisance plastic – like, plastic recovered from the ocean – is used to create new materials. Getting plastic out of the oceans is a huge step in the right direction, as ocean plastic is devastating for the animals who live there.
Recycling can be just as energy- and water-intensive as processing virgin materials, though, so an even better choice is repurposed materials – like how Inder Bedi, the founder of famous vegan brand Matt & Nat used leather from old aircraft seats in a line of backpacks and duffel bags for his new brand, 457 ANEW.
Another thing to look for are brands that will take back any product you purchase from them when you’re done with it, giving it a second life and keeping it out of the landfill. 457 ANEW provides a 25% credit when you return old garments, which they refurbish and donate to homeless youth in Montreal.