If someone were to ask what real leather is made of, it would have a straightforward answer. Cowhide or animal skin is most commonly used to make real leather. But the case with vegan leather is not similar.
The primary difference between vegan leather and real leather is that the former is much more sustainable and ethical. No animals are harmed in the process and manufacturing of vegan leather. Even when real leather is recycled or repurposed, it does not fit into the criteria of ethical leather.
So how does vegan leather fit into ethical leather? The most common forms of vegan leather use plastic and are also called plastic leather or pleather for short. These formed the first generation of vegan leather to enter the market.
The current trends in the industry see the introduction of plant-based vegan leather. From cactus, pineapple, and mushroom to cork and wine, vegan leather is made of natural fibers and bio-based material. The vast improvement in the vegan leather industry may normalize the use of vegan leather in the future.
What Are The Different Types Of Vegan Leather?
There are many types of vegan leather. Here are the more common ones.
Plastic leather or pleather is one of the earliest forms of vegan leather. Designed as an alternative to real leather, pleather uses polyurethane and polyvinyl chloride. The base material is cotton or similar fabric, coated with a layer of PU or PVC plastic on top.
The production and manufacturing of this form of leather are damaging to the environment. It may be animal cruelty-free, but pleather is non-sustainable. Disposal of PU or PVC leather is done at landfills, where they take 300-500 years to decompose while releasing microplastics.
Frumat or apple leather is a concept similar to Pinatex. Rather than the leaves, Frutmat uses leftover apple peels and resin to create vegan leather. The leftover peels are a byproduct of the juice industry.
The wasted fruit scraps are crushed and naturally dried into a fine powder. The powder is blended with synthetic leather such as polyurethane resin. Frumat is half biodegradable and lasts for about three to five years when maintained well.
The main advantage of cactus leather is the ease of developing the raw material. Cactus requires minimal irrigation. The mature leaves of the plant are sun-dried and processed to form a bio-resin.
Cactus leather is soft, durable, and partially biodegradable. This vegan alternative has an estimated lifespan of about 10 years when maintained well.
Known to be a 100% degradable product, Mirium is a composition of sustainable, natural fibres. Ingredients such as waste coconut oil, vegetable oil, waste cork, and hemp are used to make a leather-like product.
Coconut leather or Malai, is the brainchild of two designers. Using waste coconut water, organic bacterial cellulose is grown. The water which would be discarded before is now repurposed to grow cellulose.
This type of leather does not use any plastic product. Using natural gum, resin, and dyes in their manufacturing process, it is 100% biodegradable. The material is also water resistant and lasts for 4-8 years.
Mushroom leather is made using mycelium grown in a lab. Praised for its fast growth, mycelium uses minimal resources to grow. Substrates such as cellulose are fed to grow mycelium to the required shape and width.
Mycelium takes about 2 weeks to grow to the same size as cowhide used for real leather. Mushroom leather is 100% biodegradable. This type of sustainable leather lasts about 5-10 years.
Made from the accumulated waste in wine production, wine leather was an idea born in 2018. The core and shell of grapes are the raw material. They are mixed with chemicals and compounds to create vegan leather.
Possibly the closest to real leather in terms of characteristics is cork leather. It is made using the bark of the cork tree. The bark is boiled, dried, and turned into sheets that can be used as cork leather.
The manufacturing process produces zero waste as all byproducts are sustainable. Cork leather is water resistant and lasts just as long as real leather. It is the only type of vegan leather that develops a unique and vintage look over time, similar to real leather.
What Is The Best Vegan Leather?
Choosing the best type of vegan leather includes a lot of factors. The durability, thickness, sustainability, and versatility vary based on the type. The best vegan leather may depend on the product, the use case, or the customer.
Considering durability, PU leather lasts the least number of years. Cactus, mushroom, wine, or other types of plant-based vegan leather last for about 4-10 years at the most. The only form of vegan leather known to last for decades is cork leather.
For fashion brands, the title of ‘best vegan leather ‘ may change based on the product. Some forms of vegan leather may be best suited for jackets or handbags. For instance, PU leather has been in usage for furniture in the past decades.
For the customer, the ‘best vegan leather’ may depend on their affordability and need. It may also depend on the amount of maintenance. As conscious customers, it’s advised to always research the type of leather before purchasing.
Beyond these, there are upcoming vegan leather fabrics made from wood, hemp, and recycled rubber among others. Brands are experimenting with creative methods to bring vegan leather to the market. Customers may have more options to choose from in the coming years.
In terms of sustainability, the best vegan leather is one that is eco-friendly. If the vegan leather mimics all the characteristics of real leather, it is a bonus. So far, cork leather has been the only alternative that fits all these criteria.
With more ideas and products hitting the market, there is room for improvement and development. As eco-conscious customers, buying the best vegan leather requires the right research. Sourcing from vegan and sustainable brands is the first step toward contributing to ethical fashion.
See also: How To Care For Vegan Leather?
Main image credit: Frida Rome Cactus Leather Handbags