What Is Vegan Leather

By Divya Kashyap. Updated: July 2022.
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Vegan leather is taking the world by storm. With faux leather products now showing up in major retailers like Target and Anthropologie, this trend may soon be on your radar. Vegan leather was originally made as a result of animal cruelty concerns. It has since rapidly gained popularity for its eco-friendly and environmentally conscious nature.

Vegan leather is not just for gold-star vegan labels such as PETA or Greenpeace. It is also found in mainstream brands like Nike, Michael Kors, Converse, and even Hermés! You can find vegan options from everyday shoes to accessories–from gloves to belt buckles.

Veganism is growing rapidly with more and more people joining in every day. Vegans have long been part of the leather industry’s target market. But vegan leather has in many ways been a niche market, previously being too expensive for most. 

Now that it is becoming increasingly popular, here are some of the various types and quality levels you can expect from vegan leather.

The abolition of animals from the way we produce our clothing and accessories is a valuable step towards a more sustainable future. Many consumers are opting to buy vegan leather products to reduce their carbon footprint on their environment. But what exactly is vegan leather?

If you’re not vegan or vegetarian, chances are you’ve never heard the term “vegan leather” before. In this article, we explore all things vegan leather. Keep reading to find out more!

What Is Vegan Leather?

Vegan leather is a fabric that has the appearance and feel of leather but is created from synthetic or plant-based materials. Simply put, it’s leather made without the direct use of an animal or its parts.

Leather, by definition, is the skin of an animal tanned and processed into an elastic material used for clothing or as upholstery stuffing.

Vegan leather is an alternative to animal leather, which is a byproduct of the meat and dairy industry. Animal leather usually comes from cows or other animals that have been living in cruel and dirty conditions before they are killed for food.

Vegan leather is made from plant-based materials such as wood pulp, vegetable fibers, cellulose fibers, cotton, and more. It is produced in a humane way. Many studies show that they live up to the same performance standards as more traditional animal-based hides.

Why Vegan Leather?

Traditional leather is not just an object of consumption, but a consumerist product that causes harm to animals, humans, and the planet.

In order to counter this negative impact, vegan leather is being produced with new materials and processes. Many small businesses across the world are now innovating in the area of sustainable fabrics. These alternatives are a response to many ethical and environmental concerns. Animal cruelty, pollution, resource depletion, and climate change are a few of them.

The use of these types of materials is not only eco-friendly but also more sustainable when compared to animal leather. The production process can be scaled to meet demand as well as produce leather that is more durable and even hypoallergenic.

Why Not Animal Leather?

The leather goods industry is one of the largest industries in the world. It is worth over $100 billion annually and employs approximately 4 million people worldwide. Leather goods are used for a variety of purposes including clothing, shoes, luggage, furniture, car interiors, etc.

The majority of leather manufactured and marketed in the United States is derived from cow and calf skins, although leather is also created from sheep, lambs, goats, and pigs. 

Other animals, such as zebras, bison, kangaroos, elephants, crocodiles, alligators, ostriches, lizards, and snakes, are hunted and slaughtered for their skins.

Traditionally farmed animals have no access to food or water during the process of tanning and processing. This exposes them to various health hazards. 

Many animals have to be killed in order to produce a single piece of leather. Traditional leather not only causes devastating environmental impact but also involves worker exploitation.

Most people are ignorant about how leather production actually takes place. Additionally, animal groups are misinformed about it too. It’s time that we shed light on this industry so that we can make more informed decisions about what we buy and support.

Animal Cruelty In The Leather Industry

An animal dies for each piece of leather made with its skin. The damage caused by this may include hide decay, sustained abrasion from wear, skin infections, and scrapes from the teeth or claws of other animals. They may even have been killed in order to obtain their hides which are then further processed.

Worker Exploitation In The Leather Industry

The production of leather requires animal hides that have been tanned using vegetable oils or chrome-tanned using chromium salts. 

Chrome tanning is a chemical treatment applied to hides that makes them more supple and water-resistant. Hides are soaked in a solution of chromium salts and other substances for about 12 hours.

The chromium is used because it reacts with the protein in the skin, chemically altering it to make it more flexible than untreated hide.

The treatment process has long been criticized as being too environmentally hazardous. Even though officials insist that chrome tanning methods have improved over time. 

Some people who have worked with chrome-tanned hides have developed dermatitis and respiratory problems due to inhaling the chemicals in the air around them.

Environmental Impact From The Leather Industry

The leather industry has been shown to have an enormous negative environmental impact. This includes polluting air and waterways with toxic chemicals and heavy metals. The practice continues to contribute largely to species extinction.

The leather industry also contributes to the destruction of forests and arable land. It is responsible for the displacement of millions of wild animals.

Leather is treated with a number of chemical preservatives, colorants, stiffeners, and modifiers. These additives make leather almost impossible to biodegrade. This means that these goods might pollute the Earth for thousands of years.

Leather requires more water than any other natural material in order to produce. In addition, the waste chemicals used in tanning are pumped into groundwater through wells that leak into streams and rivers.

This can contaminate groundwater supplies. These chemicals can cause liver damage and cancer in humans over time as well as affect aquatic life such as fish and crustaceans.

How Is Vegan Leather Made?

The most common type of vegan leather is polyurethane (PU). The chemicals are mixed with liquid silicone and then pressurized to create a rigid gel that easily molds into geometric forms.

PU can be dyed and is heat resistant to several different colors without harming the integrity of the material.

The production of bio-leather uses microorganisms like bacteria to ferment in a solution. This creates a semi-solid material known as bio peel which is then treated with chemical agents to form the bio-leather product.

Plant-based leathers made from mushrooms, cork, fruit waste, and leaves follow distinct stages. The material is extracted and then processed to create a plant-based fibre resembling leather.

What Is Vegan Leather Made Of?

There is a lot of confusion in the market regarding vegan leather alternatives. There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding vegan leather. For example, people often think that all vegan leathers look plastic or PVC-like, but this is not true. 

Yes, vegan leather can be made from PU (polyutherene) and PVC. But it is also made from bio-based and organic materials like cork, fruit waste, mushrooms, coconuts, and more.

Polyutherene or PU

Polyutherene leather is a commonly used material for products labelled as “faux leather”. It is a polymer based fabric made from a type of plastic. PU leather usually has a synthetic, plastic, or chemical appearance, texture, and odour.

PU leather is one-thirds the cost of animal leather. It is frequently used in everything from clothing to automobiles. Unlike animal leather, it doesn’t require tanning. It can be produced in a wide variety of styles. It is also easy to clean and more breathable than PVC leather.

It’s worth noting that PU leather isn’t always completely vegan. It is frequently referred to as bi-cast or double-cast leather when blended with animal leather. It’s best to do your research on the label before you buy an item made from PU.

Polyvinyl Chloride or PVC

PVC leather is made from one of the most common man-made materials in history. It comes from polyvinyl chloride which is liquid plastic. Synthetic leather made from PVC has a wide range of different fabrics and can be fashioned into a variety of products. 

This type of material is created from polyvinyl chloride resins that are heated and mixed with fillers, pigments, dyes, and stabilizers. PVC has been used for more than 150 years for various purposes including flooring and pipes due to its resistance to stains.

PVC is made using fossil fuels like petroleum, gas, and oil. The leather itself takes over 500 years to decompose. This makes it unsustainable. It’s worth nothing that PVC leather was invented as a cheaper form of leather. As such, it’s not considered vegan leather even though it’s non-animal derived.

PVC leather is widely accessible and affordable. It’s used for everything from clothing to furniture with upholstery that is easy to clean and maintain.

Cork

Cork leather is made using the bark of cork oak trees native to Mediterranean regions. It is a type of natural material used to make wine stoppers, coasters, cork boards and now leather. Cork leather is one of the best vegan and eco-friendly leathers out there.

Cork fabric is light, porous, and pliable. It is also hypoallergenic, anti-fungal, and waterproof. It has been used to create handbags and accessories. It is a good alternative for animal leather, due to the fact that cork is a natural and renewable resource, unlike leather.

Fruit Leather

Apple leather is currently the most popular fruit leather on the market today. But many other types of fruit are processed into a similar material in terms of both taste and appearance. 

They can be made from a variety of fruits, including apples, pineapples, and coconuts. It is possible to produce apple leather from scraps left over after juice production has been done. 

Banana and cacti leaves are other plant-based bio-materials being used to create leather. The finished product resembles a lot like leather and can be extremely durable.

Mushrooms

Mushroom leather is gaining popularity as an environmentally friendly textile. MuSkin is an organic textile made from a species of fungus. 

This innovative material is softer than suede and antimicrobial and is one to watch for in the near future. Waterproofing is required, but it may be accomplished without the use of toxic chemicals. Mushroom leather is a biodegradable, eco-friendly alternative to leather.

Is Vegan Leather Plastic?

Some vegan leathers are plastic. Vegan leathers made from PU and PVC contain plastic polymers. Many brands also make vegan leather out of recycled PET bottles which contain plastic.

Additionally, certain bio-based leathers may also contain some amount of plastic. The percentage varies from one manufacturer to another.

A lot of brands use eco-PU which can be water-based or plant-based. It has a smaller environmental impact than both plastic and animal leather. It’s best to buy from sustainably-forward brands that are conscious about product footprint. 

Is Vegan Leather Sustainable?

Vegan leather can be sustainable, certainly more sustainable than animal leather. As a conscious consumer, there is a lot to think about when it comes to the ethical and sustainable standards of the leather business. Unfortunately, whether vegan or not, leather may be a highly toxic fabric at different stages of the supply chain.

PVC leather does not use any animal products in its production. But it uses environmentally unfriendly materials that are non-biodegradable and chemicals that are toxic.

That said, PVC requires far fewer resources in manufacturing compared to genuine leather. The material’s production processes also cause less pollution than those needed for genuine leathers.

Recycling waste materials such as old car tires and other plastic polymers could be used in an industry like this. There is such high demand for the material. It also explores how ethical consumerism is important, as we are all accountable for our decisions as consumers, no matter how small they may seem at first glance.

Today’s vegan-friendly alternatives to traditional leather can be found in their own niche industry while still providing top-quality products at much lower costs than their counterparts.

Is Vegan Leather Bad For The Environment?

While the phrase vegan leather may indicate a product that is friendly to the environment, this is not necessarily the case. When analyzing the sustainability credentials of vegan leather, we must analyse both its raw materials and the production process. These differ between varieties of vegan and faux leather. 

Faux leather is a popular type of vegan leather since it never uses materials derived from animal skins. Plastic’ toxins make production less environmentally friendly than leather even if it uses less water. PU and Polyvinyl based leathers are made from plastic polymers which take over 500 years to decompose.

Hazardous dioxins are released during the production and disposal of PVC-based synthetics. These can have negative developmental effects. Human cancer is also known to be brought on by these substances.

The vegan leathers utilised by many businesses today do not fully biodegrade. Instead, when they decay, they release phthalates and hazardous particles. These are likely yo harm animals’ health or the ecology of our planet.

Overall, leather created from virgin plastic is much less sustainable than recycled PET. The production of recycled plastic-based leather is much less harmful to the environment than traditional leather. 

But not all vegan leathers are made the same. Cactus, cork, and coconut leathers are completely biodegradable. Pineapple, grape, and apple leather is made using fruit waste which is a by-product repurposed to create fabric. Not only are they sustainable and create a closed-loop system but also support farmer communities.

Is Vegan Leather Durable?

There isn’t a one size fits all answer to whether vegan leather is durable. Vegan leather can be made from a variety of materials, from synthetic to natural. The durability of the material may differ depending on the grade, thickness, and nature of the fabric itself.

Vegan leather is thinner and lighter than real leather. This takes away from its durability while offering more flexibility. Good quality vegan leathers can last up to 5 years with good care. Natural vegan leathers like cork or coconut leather that are biodegradable can last anywhere from 3-5 years if maintained well.

Compared to animal leather which can last decades with proper care, vegan leathers are not as durable yet. But new innovations and further refinements are underway as vegan alternative leathers become more mainstream.

How To Care For Vegan Leather?

New vs. old— Vegan leather can age nicely over time, just like regular leather. However, older used pieces are likely to be weaker and less robust than newer pieces, meaning that you should be careful about how you care for them.

Cleaning— Cleaning vegan leather isn’t too different from cleaning regular leather items. Professionals recommend using soapy water to rub the fabric with a clean cloth. It’s not advisable to soak the fabric in water as it can affect the material.

Storage— Storing your vegan leather neatly in a dry place can ensure they last longer. Handbags and shoes can be stored inside a box or cloth bag. This will prevent any friction or accumulation of dust.

Is Vegan Leather Of Good Quality?

Vegan leathers come in all shapes, sizes and of course, qualities. Some can seem more ‘leather-like’ than others. Any high-grade vegan leather can be extremely resilient whilst being stylish.

Vegan leather is also easier to work with than animal leather due to them being lighter and thinner. Although they aren’t as long lasting as animal leather, they can prove to be extremely flexible.

The materials used, the manufacturing process, and the brand can all affect the quality of vegan leather. There are high-quality vegan leather items available that are made from superior materials. 

They also produce less toxic byproducts, unlike polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Although they cost more, these kinds of vegan leather are frequently softer, more flexible, and more breathable than their PVC counterparts.

Alternatively, you can discover vegan leather items that are of low quality since they are made of leatherette or pleather, which is an inferior material. While not as strong, lasting, or comfortable to wear, these are sometimes significantly much cheaper.

Is Vegan Leather Biodegradable?

Natural fiber vegan leather that is plant-based is known to be biodegradable. For e.g. coconut or grape leather. Natural fiber vegan leather is considered 100% animal friendly and biodegrades in the right conditions.

The two main types of plastic-based faux leathers are Polyurethane (PU) and Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC). They are actually artificial or synthetic leather. 

When it comes to biodegradation this particular material is not considered vegan since it is not 100% animal friendly. It does not biodegrade naturally. To be fair, all synthetics do indeed take thousands of years to decompose in landfill.

PU is considered environmentally friendly, non-toxic, and BPA-free. It is incinerated or buried at certified landfills. It can be burned but will not decompose as fast as natural fiber vegan leather, which also takes time to break down. All these factors can present a problem for a company hoping to dispose of faux vegan products properly.

Is Vegan Leather Waterproof?

Not all vegan leathers are waterproof. But vegan leathers are all water-resistant because they are not made of any animal and usually consist of one or more materials like plastic, fabric, rubber, etc.

Vegan leather made from PU and PVC is completely waterproof but can show water spots. Vegan leather garments can handle light rain. But the material should be protected when stepping into a puddle of water or getting caught in a sudden downpour.

Additionally, the fabric lining inside a vegan leather purse, for example, is likely to not be waterproof. If your vegan leather items become wet, let them air dry. Some vegan leather products can be dried in the dryer, however it is not normally suggested.

Does Vegan Leather Smell Bad?

PVC or PU-based vegan/faux leather can have off-putting chemical odours. Some find the smell to be fishy or plasticky. It can be difficult to get rid of this scent without ruining the material. 

Another disadvantage of PU leather is that it retains mold odors if the item gets wet. PVC has the ability to release toxic chemicals with a bad odour. However, this odour often goes away as some time passes.

What Is The Difference Between Faux Leather And Vegan Leather?

Faux Leather is typically made from molded plastic. It’s considered a cheaper substitute for animal hides so common in the fashion world. It’s often used when the firmness of leather is needed but an animal hide isn’t possible or cost-effective.

If you’re looking for something that has the look and feel of leather but is more ethical and affordable, your best bet is to go with faux leather. Whether it’s made from plastic or a synthetic material such as polyurethane, faux leather uses all the same design elements and texture as its animal-based counterpart but doesn’t contribute to animal cruelty.

Vegan Leather, on the other hand, may or may not resemble traditional animal leather. It is also more eco-friendly and made from bio-based materials like cork, leaves, or mushrooms. Because it’s vegan it doesn’t contain any animal byproducts. 

In addition to being ethical, it can also be much more eco-friendly in its production process and disposal. It can be much more expensive but worth it for the high quality and durability of the material.

Summary

Most individuals are worried about the impact they have on animals while deciding between vegan and genuine leather. Even while some vegans might believe their goods are more eco-friendly (or at least less destructive), this isn’t always the case, especially when compared to alternatives like paper or plastic bags.

As a conscious consumer, there is a lot to think about when it comes to the ethical and sustainable standards of the leather business. Unfortunately, whether vegan or not, leather can be a toxic fabric at numerous stages of the production chain.

Even so, both PU based leather and vegan leather make for a better alternative to traditional animal leather.

PU may be the cheapest ethical alternative to traditional animal leather. Vegan leather like cork, mushroom, or coconut leather may be the most sustainable choice despite being expensive.

We highly recommend doing your research on the specific product you’re looking for. The details on sustainable sourcing may vary from one brand to another.

Divya is a content crafter at Vegan Avenue. She is a long-term happy vegan who is also enthusiastic about slow, mindful living in the company of cats.