Vegan leather has largely emerged as an alternative to real leather. Leather production is connected to the meat and dairy industry. It has a huge environmental impact and fashion brands play a part in this as well.
The leather behind high-quality handbags, jackets, and furniture is a cruelty-filled process. Leather is made from cowhide. The leather manufacturing industry contributes 14.5 to 18 percent to the world’s total carbon emissions.
This was when vegan leather emerged as an ethical alternative. There are different types of vegan leather. The first generation of alternatives used polyurethane and polyvinyl chloride.
These days, these synthetic forms of leather are being replaced. There are innovative plant-based alternatives such as cactus, mushroom, apple peel, and cork leather. They are sustainable for the most part, if not 100% biodegradable.
But what about the texture? As an alternative does it have the same characteristics as genuine leather? Can leather be made sustainable? Research is underway to increase the similarities between vegan leather and real leather.
What Is Vegan Leather Made Of?
The quality of vegan leather is a determinant of its durability. Plastic-based leather or pleather is an alternative, but not a sustainable one. The base is made of cotton or other fabric, followed by a top layer coating of PU or PVC.
Pleather usually mimics the texture of real leather but can be easily identified. Pleather has a textured pattern that looks synthetic. This is thinner than real leather. The durability of pleather is about two to five years compared to real leather which lasts decades.
Plant-based vegan leather is an upcoming alternative. Here, fruits, leaves, or other plant-based components are used. They are industrially processed to mimic the visual appeal and texture of real leather. The eco-friendly materials are sewn onto a base material of cotton or polyester.
Does Vegan Leather Last As Long As Real Leather?
The quality and manufacturing process determine the performance of the material. But there is an additional factor that contributes to how long vegan leather lasts. The maintenance and safekeeping of vegan leather products play a key role.
Compared to real leather, the maintenance of vegan leather is easy and pocket friendly. The major advantage is the water resistance property of vegan leather. This makes it easy to care for and leads to fewer expenses on waxing and protectants.
But in terms of durability, real leather lasts much longer than most types of vegan leather. The expense of real leather covers the quality used as well as the durability. The lifespan of real leather can last several decades.
There are different types and qualities of real leather available in the market. Of these, full grain leather is of the highest quality. With the right form of maintenance, it can last decades and sometimes even over 100 years.
Lower quality leather such as bonded leather is more affordable but less durable. Even with maintenance, this type of leather may last for 5-10 years.
When vegan leather is considered, the durability is less compared to real leather. The quality may be plastic, like faux leather. It may also be plant-based like vegan leather. But the properties of these do not entirely mimic real leather.
Vegan leather needs to be maintained well in order to have minimal durability. Faux leather lasts for a very minimal duration of two to three years. Plant-based leather and its types last for about 10 years when maintained well.
The only form of vegan leather known to have the same lifespan as real leather is cork. Corkskin or cork leather also has the same characteristics as real leather.
Why Is Vegan Leather Not As Durable As Real Leather?
In the final product, the quality and amount of synthetic materials used play a key role. In the case of faux leather or pleather, the majority of the material is plastic. The most common forms are polyurethane and polyvinyl chloride.
The plastic material is textured to look like real leather. It is patterned and thinner than real leather. It is also widely proclaimed for its water-resistant property.
But when exposed to heat or sunlight, the plastic material cracks and becomes brittle. Over time, due to regular wear and tear, the plastic material looks worn out. Pleather loses its elasticity over time and is less durable when not maintained.
When the leather material contains plastic, it becomes less biodegradable and releases microplastics. But, for most vegan leather, the top layer of plastic protects them from being easily damaged. The lesser the plastic on the top layer, the lesser the durability.
Early types of plant-based leather used polyurethane, plastic resin, or glue. This was to protect the underlying material. Hence, new and upcoming vegan leather has resorted to utilizing biopolymers.
For instance, blending cork powder with coconut fiber is used to boost the texture of vegan leather. These methods help produce plastic-free leather that does not end up in landfills. Such biodegradable vegan leather ends up in compost bins instead.
Which Type Of Vegan Leather Lasts The Longest?
The most common form of faux leather or pleather lasts for about two to three years. When maintained well, its lifespan can be extended to a maximum of five years. Pleather does not develop an antique or vintage look over time.
Pleather is vulnerable to brittleness and cracks over time. It was the least lasting compared to other alternatives. This was the mainstream during the introduction of vegan leather. The fashion industry market now had newer forms of vegan leather.
Plant-based vegan leather is an alternative where fruits, leaves, or plant-based components are used. They are industrially processed to mimic the visual appeal and texture of real leather. The major startups that have invested in vegan leather include Bolt threads, Pineapple Anam Ltd, VEGEA SRL, and so on.
Pinatex is a vegan leather product made from the parts of a pineapple plant. The core material is pineapple leaves which undergo a process called decortication. There are no additional toxins or chemicals used in this process. The final product is a mesh-like material, called Pinatex.
The pineapple fibers used in the Pinatex are biodegradable, but the resins used for the finishing are not. In the future, a bio-based coating may be used to make it entirely biodegradable. Pineapple leather has a durability of around 10 years when maintained well.
The plant-based equivalent of real leather is considered to be cork leather. Cork leather is derived from the bark of the Cork Oak tree. It is currently termed ‘the most natural and durable vegan leather on the market.
The process of manufacturing cork leather produces no waste and does not include a tanning process. The cork is flattened and rolled into the fabric, and seen onto a base material or cotton. Cork leather is completely recyclable and highly durable. Cork has the same estimated lifespan as real leather and can last several decades.
Developed by Frumat, an Italian manufacturer, apple leather is a bio-based material. The wasted fruit scraps or apple peels are crushed, dried, and blended with resin. Around 50% of the material is the apple peel and the rest is a resin that holds the material together.
The plastic addition in this case is to increase the durability. The lifespan of apple leather is around five to seven years.
Cactus leather is made from the mature leaves of a cactus. They are ground, sun-dried, and processed to form a leather-like fabric. The final material is partially biodegradable and lasts for up to 10 years.
Mushroom leather is derived from lab-grown mycelium. This forms a tissue-like construct, grown to produce different shapes and widths. Mushroom leather does not use any chemicals, and is completely biodegradable due to the natural fibers used.
Mushroom leather is also heralded for its efficient and quick growth process. Mycelium takes about 2 weeks to grow into the size of a standard cowhide. Mushroom leather also lasts for about four to five years at the most.
There are a plethora of vegan leather products available on the market. The journey to making vegan leather as durable as real leather is an ongoing one. Fashion designers are now turning to source ethical and sustainable materials as an alternative to real leather.
But, durability remains a challenge. To combat this, startups in the vegan leather industry are coming up with innovative materials. In the future, vegan leather may be versatile and durable enough to be used in the fashion industry.
Apart from the durability in the manufacturing process, maintaining vegan leather is crucial. Proper usage of the right materials to clean, use, and store vegan leather can extend its lifespan. The current forms of vegan leather may not last as long as real leather.
Current experiments and future prospects promise a natural, sustainable alternative to real leather. Widespread usage of durable vegan leather in the years to come may even replace the usage of real leather.
See also: Is Vegan Leather Durable?
Cover image credit: Matt & Nat Vegan Leather Sneakers