What is Vegan Leather? The Full Story on Vegan Faux Leather Alternatives
As a buzz word, vegan leather is picking up steam in the fashion world. So many of us these days are looking for ways to make our lives more sustainable that we are jumping on the vegan faux leather train. In fact, a recent study projects that the market for vegan leather will skyrocket to over $85 billion by the year 2025, thanks mostly to vegan leather shoes.
But what is vegan leather, really? And where is this boom coming from?
Possibly from this: As researcher Joseph Poore put it, adopting a vegan diet is “probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth,” decreasing one’s carbon footprint by an astounding 73%. It’s a logical conclusion to think the same applies to adopting a vegan wardrobe; but does it?
It turns out, it’s complicated.
In this article we look at what vegan leather actually is, how vegan leather is made, and whether it’s truly a more sustainable option than real leather. Spoiler: to really pick the most sustainable leather out there – genuine or otherwise – you’ll have to pay close attention to how it was made.
Here’s the full story.
What is Vegan Leather?
Vegan leather is any material used to make clothing, footwear, furnishings or accessories, that looks and feels like leather, but is not made from animal skins or any animal-derived products.
Technically, vegan leather isn’t leather at all (and we may one day have to start calling it something else as national leather councils and tanning associations lobby the European Union to regulate the use of the word, to avoid consumer confusion).
In truth, the adoption of the word “vegan” to describe faux leather is relatively new. We’ve been using faux leathers for more than a century, but the term vegan leather wasn’t adopted until around 2010. That’s when some celebrity designers, like Stella McCartney, launched clothing and accessory lines – and even entire brands – built on the premise of being animal-free. There’s no room for leather in an animal-free clothing line, so they looked to the available synthetic leathers as an alternative. As so-called vegan brands adopted synthetic leather, naturally it came to be known as vegan leather.
The cynics among us might argue that using the term is a greenwashing tactic, since many people confuse “vegan” with “eco friendly,” when, really, all vegan means is that something was made without using any animal products; the eco friendly part is not a given.
Not that vegan leather can’t be eco friendly. But it requires doing a bit of research to understand whether something is truly an eco friendly vegan leather – or not.
Types of Faux Leather
Faux leather is not a new concept.
Our relationship with faux leather actually goes back a long way. The first known alternative leather ever developed was invented in the 19th Century, and was in common usage in Germany until the end of the second World War, when genuine leather was strictly rationed. Presstoff, as it was known, was made from layers of treated paper pulp. It worked well as a leather alternative for many items, but it lacked the durability needed for shoes.
Other early synthetic leather prototypes were invented almost in lockstep with early plastics, including such famous names as Naugahyde, Rexine, and Leatherette. In the US, Naugahyde was synonymous with artificial leather for decades. These materials were widespread, used in everything from furniture to cars to clothing, and favoured by many as a much more economical alternative to genuine leather. They also possessed something of a “modern” quality, which really fit the futuristic early-to-mid-19th Century mindset.
None of these early options was attractive enough to really challenge animal leather, though. Like all early plastics, early synthetic leather had terrible preservation qualities. Anyone seeking a quality product designed to last would not consider anything but the genuine article.
Why Choose a Faux Leather Alternative?
After scarcity, cost was the driving factor behind the development of early faux leather alternatives. The production of leather – from the raising and eventual slaughter of the animals to tanning and dyeing the hides, to the skilled craftsmanship of leatherworking – is a very long, resource-intense and laborious process.
Since it costs a lot more to make, it also costs a lot more to buy, and in the 20th Century (and even now), consumers and designers were hungry for a cheaper alternative – a way to achieve the look without the hefty price tag.
The last few decades have seen a growing number of people “wake up” and realise the effects of climate change, pollution and resource exploitation on our world. Less concerned with cost, eco-minded people began to demand low-impact alternatives to leather.
It’s no secret that agriculture – including livestock raising – is one of the industries with the highest carbon footprint. Intensive industrial farming is also responsible for such problems as deforestation, eutrophication, and soil degradation. This is another reason some people decided to take a hard pass on real leather products and seek a greener alternative.
Another fairly recent motivating factor is the rise of vegetarianism and veganism, and the drive to be animal-free or cruelty-free. Those who follow this lifestyle avoid consuming any products derived from animals in any way, from everything as obvious as eating steak to the more subtle things like not using natural cosmetics coloured with cochineal, an insect-based pigment.
For animal activists, vegans and vegetarians, the idea of using animal leather is a non-starter, hence the demand for a cruelty free leather alternative.
What is Vegan Leather Made Out of?
Now let’s get to the real question: what is vegan leather? That is, what is faux leather made of?
Up until very recently, all vegan leathers were made by coating a textile substrate (often cotton or polyester) with a plastic polymer.
This usually involves heat, chemicals and/or pressure to make sure that the polymer permeates the fabric, reducing the likelihood of delamination (i.e., the layers coming apart). The material may be dyed using synthetic dyes, and undergo other processing treatments to impart textures and grains to help it mimic the look of natural leather.
The plastic coating is what gave rise to the popular ‘90s term for faux leather, pleather – literally, plastic leather.
There are two main types of plastic polymer used to coat fabrics in the making of vegan leather: polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU). (So, if you were wondering, is PU leather vegan?, the answer is yes.)
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
The history of PVC goes all the way back to 1872 when it was first invented by German chemist Eugen Bauman. It wasn’t until the late 1920s, though, that new innovations made PVC a more attractive material to work with.
PVC, also called vinyl, has been a popular material because of its versatility, durability and ease of use. It is used in a wide array of industrial and commercial applications, from plastic bags, credit cards and garden hoses to children’s toys, window frames, pipes and shower curtains. It is currently the third-most commonly produced plastic in the world (after polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP)).
Polyurethane was developed a few years later, in the 1930s, by another German chemist, Otto Bayer. Polyurethanes can be produced from various monomers, making them a class of polymers, rather than one distinct compound. This allows different polyurethanes to be made with a variety of physical properties – rigid, flexible, thermoplastic or thermosetting.
As a result, PU can be used in a huge variety of applications including insulating foams, adhesives, varnishes and other coatings, and even fibres like spandex, without the addition of plasticizers (unlike PVC).
Plant-based leather and more
There are some truly exciting non-plastic based materials being used today to develop new leather alternatives. Aiming for greater sustainability and a smaller ecological footprint, scientists have experimented with recycled rubber, corn, stone, silicone and more in order to create a better faux alternative to PU leather and PVC leather. Most of these alternatives come with their own set of problems, though, from their cost, durability and attractiveness, to their ability to biodegrade.
But probably the most promising and most exciting development is happening in the area of plant-based leathers. These faux leathers are derived from natural plant materials, many of them waste products from other industries, solving two problems at once. Materials include everything from cork leather and leaf leather to coconut and cactus leathers. Amazing! Read more about the promise of plant-based vegan faux leathers here.
Is Vegan Leather Sustainable?
In absolute terms, no. In comparative terms, it depends. Before we actually compare the ecological footprint of vegan leather to that of real leather, let’s look at some of the problems with PVC and PU vegan leather.
Toxic Chemicals: Dioxins, Phthalates and More
The dangers of PVC have been known for a long time. Once described by Greenpeace as the “single most environmentally damaging type of plastic,” PVC releases harmful chlorine as it degrades, and can leach dioxins into the environment.
Dioxins persist in the environment, and are especially dangerous if burnt (which is often the fate of non-recyclable plastic materials). They are also infamously linked to developmental and reproductive issues in humans and animals, and are believed to cause cancers such as leukaemia and lymphoma. Thanks to the prevalence of plastics in our environment, dioxins can be detected in almost every single modern human, increasing our risk of cancer tenfold.
In addition, PVC uses phthalates as a plasticizer which have been found to be carcinogenic and endocrine disruptors. Read more about the problem with PVC plastic here, or watch this video on the dangers of PVC manufacture.
PU vegan leather is somewhat better. When fully reacted, polyurethane is considered chemically inert – meaning that it won’t react chemically with its environment. But the manufacture of PU still requires the use of high levels of toxic substances like dimethylformamide (which has been linked to birth defects and cancer).
In an effort to reduce the environmental impact of PU, some companies like Stella McCartney’s are using alter-nappa leather, a PU leather that uses a recycled polyester backing and as much as 50% vegetable oil in addition to polyurethane in the coating.
Shelf Life: Is vegan leather durable?
PU and PVC are among the “top 4” worst plastics considered by art conservators thanks to their poor preservation qualities, alongside cellulose acetate and cellulose nitrate (which is known to spontaneously combust). Early to mid 20th Century museum objects (including faux leather garments) made from PVC and other plastics can become brittle, deformed or discoloured, or leach plasticizers, making them hard to conserve. They also off-gas as they decompose, contributing to the degradation of other nearby objects.
While modern plastics are more durable than their early ancestors, plastic-based vegan leather is still much less durable than real leather. Depending on the quality of the faux leather (cheaper ones use calcium extenders which make it more vulnerable), it may crack, break, stiffen, or become sticky or discoloured. Unlike the patina that genuine leather can develop over time, the discolouration of faux leather is not considered attractive ageing.
Vegan leathers also tend to be thinner than animal leather. This makes them more prone to wear and tear and becoming scuffed. And while real leather is porous and breathable, synthetic leather is not. This makes plastic-based leathers, particularly PVC leather, less comfortable to wear and can also contribute to it cracking or peeling.
Unlike real leather, vegan leather does not easily decompose in landfill. Plastic needs UV light to decompose, but the way landfills are designed doesn’t allow that UV light to reach it. Plastics can take nearly 500 years to decompose, and as they do, they can release toxic chemicals. Also, though the plastic itself may be inert, as in the case of PU, as it degrades it is transformed back into its composite parts, thus releasing the toxic chemicals used in its manufacture back into the soil and water.
Worse, as they do degrade, plastics break into ever smaller pieces called microplastics which persist in the environment, are consumed by animals, accumulate in their bodies and biomagnify up the food chain. Microplastics are currently considered one of the most nefarious environmental problems of our time, as they end up in the food chain where they can wreak havoc on animals’ endocrine and reproductive systems (including humans’). The impact on oceans is especially alarming, but microplastics have also been shown to damage soil ecosystems on land.
And it’s not just about what happens to something when it is thrown away. Synthetic leather and textiles can shed microfibres during use, adding to the prevalence of microplastics in the environment.
Plastics are derived from petroleum, natural gas or coal; they are a product of the fossil fuel industry.
Since the dawn of the environmental movement in the 1970s, awareness has been growing about the dangers of chemicals released into the environment (see, for example, Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring) and the effect of the fossil fuel industry on the climate. This affects synthetic fabrics of all kinds, including faux leather.
If sustainability is your goal, it can be hard to reconcile the use of fossil fuel-derived materials to make a supposedly eco friendly vegan leather.
The Leather Dilemma: Faux Leather vs Real Leather. Which is “better”?
“Leather is a love-hate story,” sustainable designer Jourdan Norcose of Boyish Jeans told Harper’s Bazaar. Conventional leather production has massive impacts on the environment, from carbon emissions to water consumption, deforestation, eutrophication and the heavy metals used during tanning – not to mention that animals are killed in the making of leather; it is impossible to make leather without killing the animal first.
A point in leather’s favour? It is a co-product of the meat industry. If animal skins were not made into leather, we would have a waste issue on our hands. So, as long as we produce meat, there is an argument for using the whole animal, and that includes tanning the hides to make leather.
Synthetic leather, on the other hand, has been shown to have a lower overall environmental impact during its manufacture compared to cow leather , and of course, no animals are directly killed in the making (hence the adoption of the term “vegan”). But the issues of chemical toxicity, microplastics, low durability and slow decomposition mean it comes with its own set of problems.
So, there’s really no easy answer to the question “which one is better;” both involve trade-offs.
Instead of looking at it as a competition, whether you are shopping for real leather or buying vegan leather, there are things you can look for to help make sure you make the most sustainable choice.
Here are some tips on what to look for:
Natural plant-based leathers are environmentally superior to PU or PVC. If it says apple, pineapple leaves, cactus, grape or cork, this is a good first step.
Faux leather made from recycled, or even better, repurposed materials can also be more sustainable than one made from virgin synthetic materials. 457 ANEW, a new brand by Inger Bedi, the founder of famous vegan brand Matt & Nat, used old aircraft seat leather in a line of backpacks and duffel bags.
For real leather, the Sustainable Apparel Materials report (2015)  recommends choosing goat leather over cow leather, as goat farming is less intensive and contributes less to the environmental problems associated with industrial farming.
Also, regenerative farming practices show promise for reducing the carbon footprint of agriculture through soil carbon sequestration, laying the groundwork for a more sustainable leather industry.
Even some plant leathers still use plastic-based coatings to help give it structure and increase its durability. Try to look for ones that use natural binders instead.
Look for leathers rated by the Leather Working Group. These tanneries are rated on their carbon emissions, energy, chemical and water use, as well as the traceability of their supply chain, all the way back to the slaughterhouse.
When possible, choose vegetable tanned leather instead of chrome-tanned leather. Vegetable tanned leather doesn’t use the toxic chemicals we normally associate with leather tanning, and many sustainable leather producers also use natural dyes to colour the leather, rather than chemical dyes.
Support sustainably-minded brands. These days, many brands are making commitments to source only sustainable materials. For instance, Valentino and the entire Gucci Group (now known as Kering) have committed to using only natural dyes, natural tanning processes and will not purchase leather sourced from rainforest-destroying farms; they are also both phasing out PVC from their faux leather collections.
One of the problems with vegan leather products is that they tend not to last as long as products made from animal leather, meaning that they have to be replaced more often. Look for those brands who have done testing on their materials which show them to last at least several seasons of regular use.
This is one factor where animal leather wins hands-down. A well cared-for leather garment or accessory can last generations, let alone seasons, and they only get better with age. If you invest in real leather, choose classic designs that will outlive trends, and plan on passing them down to friends or family members when you’re done with it.
For any environmentally-friendly product to be sustainable in the real sense, an assessment of its entire life-cycle is essential – from extracting the raw materials, processing them, and turning it into a final product, to the product’s distribution to end consumers, total usable life and end-of-life disposal.
Some faux leather brands actually have programs where they will take back any product you purchase from them when you’re done with it. For example, 457 ANEW will take your worn-out garment for a 25% credit, refurbish it and donate it to a Montreal-based organization for homeless youth.
The more ‘natural’ your real leather product, the more easily it will break down when it finally ends up in a landfill. This means – looking for vegetable-tanned, undyed or naturally-dyed leather as a matter of preference.
What is Vegan Leather? A Recap
How is vegan leather made and what is it made from? Other than the new, innovative plant-based leathers, most vegan leather is made from cotton or polyester fabric coated in a plastic polymer.
There are lots of reasons to choose faux leather vs real leather, from cost to wanting a more eco friendly or cruelty free leather.
But not all vegan leathers are created equally – and neither are all animal leathers. When searching for sustainable leather options, consider all steps in its manufacture, from the raw materials to end-of-life disposal.
Hopefully you now know all there is to know around the question, what is vegan leather!
About the Author
Vidya is an environmental lawyer from India, with special interests in biodiversity, climate change and sustainability issues. She is a fellow at the Guarini Center, NYU after graduating as a Vanderbilt scholar with a masters in environmental law at the NYU law school. Previously, she advised the UNDP, India, the Indian Ministry of Environment and worked with IDLO, Governments of Namibia and Vietnam on interesting environmental legal and policy issues. She enjoys travelling, bird watching and wildlife photography. In her free time, you can find her playing at the beach or convincing her friends to go vegan.
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