Vegan leather is essentially an umbrella term for all types of leather that aren’t made from animals.
The only qualification for a leather material to be considered vegan is that it doesn’t come from animal products. Alternative names for vegan leather include synthetic leather or pleather.
Today, we are seeing a steady increase in vegan leather use in fashion. Notably also due to how vegan fashion is becoming more relevant.
But while vegan leather is, technically, vegan, the reasons why synthetic leather is popular today also come from nonvegan reasons.
For one, most synthetic vegan leather products are made from plastic (pleather like PU and PVC). Thus, they are cheaper to make compared to the ‘genuine’ thing. Plus, you can find them anywhere in the world.
Alternatively, vegan leather is made from plants. Without a doubt, this is the best option. These kinds usually don’t involve a nasty chemical process that pollutes and harms.
What Is Vegan Leather Made Of?
First, let’s talk about the materials that are most often used in vegan leather.
Of course, we know that it isn’t made of animal skin. But what is vegan leather? More specifically, what is vegan leather made of?
We can create two broad types of vegan leather: plastic and plant-based vegan leather.
Plastic dominates the top of this list.
PVC and PU leather are very common synthetic leather alternatives, and you can source them virtually anywhere without a struggle. Many affordable fashion and apparel brands use them since they are cheap and versatile.
Next, we have plant-based leathers.
This kind of vegan leather is much more sustainable and ethical, as we will see later on.
Plant-based leathers can be made of a variety of things, including but not limited to, pineapple leaves, mushrooms, apples, cork, and more recently, wine by-products.
Why Vegan Leather Is Important
Most of us think that leather can be damaging because of the effect it has on animals. And yes, that is, undoubtedly, true.
Animals go through terrible living conditions and are killed just to become bags, shoes, and other leather products.
Even though some skins like cowhide are just by-products of food production, a person who uses animal leather is still supporting a cruel industry.
The Tanning Process
The processing of animal leather itself is also incredibly damaging to the environment.
The process of turning skin into leather is called leather tanning, and it involves plenty of chemicals that harm the workers involved and pollute the locality.
First, the skin needs to be stripped off of the animal. Skin for leather processing is usually a by-product of the meat industry, but it could also come from exotic animals such as alligators or snakes.
Then, this skin is preserved through salt or freezing. Once the skin is free of dirt and hair, it can now go through the process of tanning.
This is the part where it gets really ugly. Tanning involves plenty of chemicals, one of which is chromium, a known carcinogen.
The hide soaks in this tanning solution for a time until it is ready for the next step: dyeing. Once the hide is removed from the solution, it is then dried and dyed to the desired color.
By the end of this whole process, there will be tons of solid and liquid waste. The excess waste from the tanneries will pollute the nearby water sources if not managed properly, and the solid waste from the process also needs to be disposed of.
All in all, tanning animal hide is a chemically intensive and damaging process to nature and human health.
Vegan leather, ideally, is a much less resource-intensive process and does not kill animals in the process. While the fact about not killing animals is a given, we’ll find out in a while why vegan leather isn’t perfect.
Yet, the fact that vegan leather does not require the sacrifice of animals is already a pretty good start. And as of writing, there are continuous developments and innovations on how we can make vegan leather in a more sustainable and ethical manner.
The Quality of Vegan Leather vs Animal Leather
One of the most important inquiries people have about vegan leathers is whether or not they compare to animal leather.
Many people debate that vegan leather isn’t actually real leather. And, of course, it’s not!
If we go by the textbook definition of leather, then faux leather definitely does not make the cut. After all, leather is always made from animal skin.
But, the point of vegan leather is to emulate and create the appearance of leather without using animal skins.
The question now is does it do a good job at that?
Faux leather can look very similar to real leather, although the feel may be slightly different. Since there are so many different kinds of vegan leather, the answer to that question largely depends on what material you are comparing to real leather.
Durability is also a very common issue. Since real leather is touted for its durability and its capacity to last decades, the first thing people want to know about vegan leathers is if they last as long.
Again, it largely depends on the type of vegan leather. Plastic leathers are usually not as durable as real leather.
In many cases, synthetic leathers don’t bring the same effect and they don’t last as long. Plastic, while it doesn’t break down easily, is not a material best-known for its quality.
On the flip side, the plant-based alternatives to real leather may have much higher quality than plastic faux leather.
Since plant-based alternatives are almost always produced mindfully, creators tend to put a lot of thought and effort into making sure they are creating materials that last.
Indeed, many innovations on plant-based, sustainable, vegan leather focus on using a closed-loop system for their production.
Of course, that system would be difficult to implement if manufacturers just churned out vegan leather that lasts three to five uses and then starts to deteriorate.
Overall, yes vegan leather CAN be as good as animal leather. But, that isn’t always the case, especially with plastic leather.
Is Vegan Leather Eco Friendly?
It can be quite misleading when these materials are called vegan leather since they are not always the eco friendly and ethical materials we often connect to veganism.
Without a doubt, vegan leather is not always eco friendly. In fact, it probably isn’t in most cases.
But before we get into the details, let’s get one thing clear first. We aren’t trying to advocate not using vegan leather, as that would be even worse!
Instead, we want to promote being more thoughtful consumers. Focusing not only on something being vegan, but also to take a look at whether it’s environmentally friendly and ethical.
To become more conscious consumers, we must be mindful of our effects on animals and the planet, it isn’t enough to look at just one aspect.
Let’s go back for a bit to the roots of veganism. We know that using non-animal leather is important because it helps curb animal cruelty and it also helps the environment.
In other terms, being vegan is more than just about swearing off any animal product and altering one’s diet. Veganism is a lifestyle of ethical consumption and sustainability.
That said, some vegan items are not the best examples to emulate this kind of lifestyle, which is incredibly unfortunate. Vegan leather is one such item.
Not all vegan leather is bad for the environment though. There are plenty of plant-based leathers that are great for the environment and provide stacking benefits to the communities it supports.
However, it remains a fact that the most common vegan leathers are plastic. Namely PVC and PU.
Different Types of Vegan Leather
Let’s start with the worst type of vegan leather—PVC. Leather made from polyvinyl is quite thick and isn’t as pliable as genuine ones.
It also has a very distinct smell, smelling kind of rubbery. It is cheap, easily accessible, not very durable, and it is also incredibly destructive for your health and the environment.
Polyvinyl chloride leather is made of a combination of stabilizers, lubricants, and plasticizers and then attached to a base material.
All these different components make PVC leather softer and more flexible to work with.
The part that makes PVC so destructive and dangerous is its life cycle. Even as PVC is already processed and turn into the final product, the chemicals in PVC do not perfectly bind to each other and constantly leak in a process called off-gassing.
Today, using polyvinyl chloride in developed countries is discouraged. But in developing countries where the issue of PVC may not be so prevalent, that isn’t the case.
PU leather is now one of the most popular types of pleather. Like its cousin, polyvinyl, PU leather, or polyurethane leather is also plastic. PU comes at a much higher price than PVC, but still cheaper than animal leather.
Polyurethane is now the standard for faux leather, and this is what you would consider the most common vegan leather.
It has a very similar look to animal leather, and it can be difficult to tell that it’s synthetic, especially if you have no prior experience.
This type of faux leather is usually made by attaching polyurethane to base materials; a fabric backing usually made of fiber. In other cases, polyurethane is attached to real skin, so beware of polyurethane leathers as some aren’t vegan.
This type of faux leather is more durable than PVC and is much more pliable.
There are also some types of PU that are more eco friendly in terms of the production process. If you can only access polyurethane, then try and make sure it was created in a fair trade environment.
Pineapple leather is an innovative type of plant-based leather that makes use of pineapple leaves to create a leather material. The fibers from pineapple leaves are used to create a nonwoven material.
The material was developed by Dr. Carmen Hijosa for her company Ananas Anam.
Motivated by the excess waste from pineapple harvests she witnessed when she was in the Philipines to observe the country’s leather industry, Dr. Hijosa set out to create sustainable, plant-based leather.
Right now, Pinatex is not yet fully biodegradable as it is still finished with some form of resin. However, the Pinatex team is working on making the product fully biodegradable soon.
With a focus on circular economy and a closed-loop system, the making of pineapple leather does not require many additional resources to produce.
As an extra bonus, Pinatex also supports rural farmers and indigenous communities in the Philippines. The production of this leather gives them an additional source of income and supports their livelihood, creating a multi-level impact on the community.
Cork is a product that comes from the bark of the cork oak tree. Recently, it has become one of the materials we can use as an alternative to leather!
Because the oak tree where the cork comes from doesn’t die out from the harvesting process, it makes cork leather incredibly sustainable. As long as sourced responsibly, cork leather proves to be an incredibly sustainable and eco friendly vegan leather alternative.
Plus, cork doesn’t need fertilizers or pesticides to grow in forests. They can be left in their natural habitat, and then responsibly stripped of the cork bark without any harm done. Cork forests also support a lush ecosystem and are home to many species.
Other Plant-Based Leather Alternatives
There are so many other vegan alternatives out there that we can’t cover every single one of them. That said, some other common ones are apple leather, mushroom leather, cactus leather, paper leather, and even wine leather!
Brands That Use Vegan Leather
By now, you’ve had a primer on the many kinds of vegan leather, both the good and bad kinds. But where can you get vegan leather? What fashion companies and clothing brands use vegan leather in their products?
Fashion doesn’t have to come at an ethical cost. From designers like Stella McCartney to small indie fashion labels (some of which we’ll mention below), the world of vegan alternatives is growing. Let’s take a look at a couple.
Ahimsa Collective or just ‘A_C’ is a bag brand that makes all of its products from vegan leather. They make use of pineapple leather, cactus leather, and washable paper to create their bags. The brand is fully vegan and they have a focus on ethics and sustainability.
They ensure that their products are made fair trade under good working conditions.
On top of that, they also use recycled materials in their production and they’ll take responsibility for their products at the end of the product’s life.
A mantra for the brand is not only to be environmentally-friendly but environmentally-beneficial as well.
Established in 2005, B_Boheme is a vegan footwear brand led by a podiatrist! The brand uses materials like cork and Pinatex to make their shoes.
Ever since its inception, the brand has been focused on being more sustainable. As of this moment, they are actively working towards creating a more transparent supply chain that will minimize their environmental impact and make them a more sustainable brand.
Svala is a vegan accessories and bags brand that specializes in vegan fabrics to create their products. They use Pinatex as well as cork in their production.
We should note that Svala also uses PU, but they tout that the material comes from an eco-conscious factory.
All their products are made fair trade in downtown Los Angeles under favorable working conditions. They are PETA-approved vegan and they also give back to the community by donating 10% of their profits.
From the brand name, you can already tell what this brand is all about: cork! Founded in 2017, StudioCork is a Portuguese vegan bag brand that uses cork as the main material in their bags.
The company takes pride in its sustainable use of cork and how it can provide this new innovative alternative without contributing to a negative impact.
There isn’t much you can find on the ethics of the brand’s supply chain, so that’s something they can hopefully improve on in the near future.
Vegan leather is definitely a topic that you should know well if you are starting out your vegan journey.