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The vegan leather dilemma

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Vegan leather has long been championed as an ethical alternative to leather by environmentalists and animal-rights activists.

In recent years, high-street staples like H&M, American Apparel and Topshop have thrust the material into the mainstream by releasing a succession of eco-leather fashion collections; Adidas even dropped a vegan sustainable leather Stan Smith in 2018. A recent study predicts the vegan leather market will be worth $89.6 billion by 2025.

To keep you updated with developments, we’ve created a helpful guide to vegan leather. Zoning in on the material’s pros, cons and uses, as well as its complex position in the world of sustainable fashion.

First we’ll start with a central question: what is vegan leather?

Leather belts of different bright colours

What is vegan leather made out of?

While there is no universally accepted definition, any material that mimics the look and feel of leather but is not produced using animal hides can be considered vegan leather. Instead, a wide array of synthetic materials and natural fibres are used.

The vast majority of vegan leather is produced from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU). Each is a type of petroleum-based plastic — meaning it can take thousands of years for PU and PVC leather to biodegrade.

PVC is the earliest form of imitation leather, first manufactured in the 1920s. It’s made by combining polyvinyl chloride with a selection of toxic chemicals that give the plastic its leather-like appearance and texture. Cheap, readily available and possessing a selection of desirable characteristics — from durability, to extreme weather resistance and relative non-flammability — PVC has been a staple part of the consumer goods market for nearly a century. However, the material has received much criticism in recent decades for the chemical additives integral to the production process, which are harmful to both humans and the environment.

Social-environmental concerns around the nature of PVC has allowed other vegan leather alternatives to gain momentum, and the obvious winner is PU. Although PU is also created using petroleum by-products, industry experts consider it a more eco-friendly substitute, and there are strides being made in the pursuit of greener production methods. PU leather offers greater flexibility and breathability, making it an ideal choice for the fashion industry.

But vegan leather can also be produced from a plethora of organic and sustainable materials. Technological advances mean you can now source natural vegan leather made from cactus plants in Mexico or agave leaves in Sri Lanka; and buy mushroom-based vegan leather bags and luxury vegan leather shoes constructed from discarded pineapple leaves.

Pineapple and black pineapple leather purse

Characteristics of vegan leather

Not all animal leather is created equal. A strict grading system exists that spans premium full-grain varieties to mass-produced genuine leather. Each type of leather has a unique set of characteristics — and this diversity extends to vegan leather. For example, a vegan leather jacket crafted from a synthetic material will have different physical properties to one made out of apples.

While qualities certainly vary, there are a few traits that are typical of vegan leather. Start with smell. Part of the allure of quality animal leather lies in its rich and earthy aroma: a product of the tanning process. In contrast, synthetic leather has a pungent, ‘fishy’ scent owing to the chemicals employed during manufacturing. Unsurprisingly, vegan leather produced from organic materials can often smell similar to the matter used to make it.

So is vegan leather durable? By the lofty standards of high-quality animal leather: no. Expect a shelf life of between 2-5 years for consumer goods. As vegan leather is normally thinner, it’s more prone to general wear and tear, as well as discolouration. That said, developments in vegan leather are being made all the time, so longevity should diminish as an area of concern in the future.

As quality animal leather ages over time it begins to absorb moisture and oils from its environment, causing it to take on a richer complexion. Patina, as the phenomenon is known, is revered by leather aficionados; for some it is the ultimate indicator of quality. Far from porous, synthetic leather is actually water-resistant, meaning it is unable to develop a patina (although water resistance is certainly a welcome perk).

Vegan leather certainly boasts desirable properties, as well. It’s easy to work with, thin and stretchy — an ideal material for creating anything from upholstery to clothes. Water and stain resistance are two more beneficial traits for manufacturers and consumers alike. Pleather can also be treated with different finishing treatments and dyes that alter the texture and colour of the material, ensuring an unrivalled degree of versatility.

Roll of grey faux leather

Table comparing vegan leather vs real leather

Vegan Leather Real Leather

Durability

Everyday vegan leather products are prone to deterioration, tears and discolouring. They last between 2-5 years

Premium leather is extremely long-lasting (up to a lifetime)

Price

Synthetic leather has a chemical, 'fishy' aroma. Natural leather often smells like the matter it is made from

Lower grades are affordable and higher grades are expensive

Smell

Soft and velour-like in raw state, but appearance varies depending on finishing treatments

Rich and earthy scent

Physical
Properties

Waterproof, thin, stain-resistant, heat-resistant

Flexible, permeable, varying thickness

Patina

No patina development

Premium leather develops a patina as it ages

Overall
Quality

Low-mid

Low-high

Uses of vegan leather

Vegan leather is an adaptable material that is employed to create a diverse range of goods. This includes everything from sports gear like baseball gloves and American footballs, to watch straps and book bindings. Upholstery is another key segment given the material’s often thin and stretchy texture. Tesla recently joined other luxury car giants like Ferrari and BMW in announcing optional vegan leather seating.

But the most prominent vegan leather brands exist in the fashion industry. Over a third of shoes produced by the French ethical sneaker brand, Veja, exclusively use vegan leather. While in the luxury end of the market, leading female designer, Stella McCartney, has championed the look and eco-friendly nature of vegan leather through her pleather-only collections. The budding fashionista can even buy vegan leather designer bags from Bottega Veneta and Dolce & Gabbana.

Brown vegan leather pillow

The eco-friendly leather?

Consumers are increasingly concerned about the social, moral and environmental impacts of their personal consumption. Within the world of fashion, in particular, vegan leather has gained a reputation as a sustainable alternative to animal leather. Yet the reality is more nuanced than this.

In rejecting animal hides, vegan leather producers certainly distance themselves from the environmentally-damaging implications of the cattle industry, which leads to deforestation and up to 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Even though animal hides are regarded as by-products of the cattle industry, we should accept that most tanneries have a high carbon footprint. That’s why we’re proud to work with a Tuscan tannery that belongs to the Vegetable-tanned Leather Consortium: a bloc of tanneries committed to social responsibility and sustainable manufacturing.

As aforementioned, the majority of (synthetic) vegan leather is effectively plastic. It will eventually become landfill waste that takes thousands of years to biodegrade. But perhaps the most pressing environmental issue is microplastics. These are small fragments of plastic that naturally break off from synthetic products as they wear down. Microplastics find their way into oceans and are ingested by aquatic creatures, damaging precious eco-systems. Exposure to microplastics can also affect humans: harming organs, causing inflammation and leaching chemicals.

Drawing of microplastics in the ocean

The production of synthetic leather involves using fossil fuels (which release CO2 when burned) and toxins like phthalates that can harm workers and cause pollution. There is also the question of longevity. As a general rule, a vegan leather wallet will have an inferior shelf life to a real leather substitute. The latter option encourages consumers to buy less frequently and less wastefully.

Of course, the production of real leather poses other risks to eco-sustainability. Chrome tanning — the dominant method of leather production responsible for 90% of output worldwide — involves using highly toxic chemicals with carcinogenic properties. In underdeveloped countries, dangerous chemical by-products infiltrate local rivers, killing marine life and animals, and also place workers at risk.

How to clean vegan leather

One of the benefits of vegan leather is that it is very easy to clean. Unlike with animal leather, there are no pores to soak up unwanted stains and water. Instead, most types of vegan leather are stain and water-resistant.

Should your vegan leather item start looking worn and dirty, start by rubbing it with a soft, non-abrasive cloth to remove dust and surface dirt. Next, lightly wet a fresh cloth under warm water and apply it to the leather, cleaning it in small circular motions. Should the product have a textured surface, you can use a toothbrush to access hard to reach areas. Follow up by drying the product with a microfibre cloth. You can then apply a protective treatment, which will act as a temporary shield to dirt.

Is vegan leather right for me?

This is a complex question and the answer will ultimately depend on a host of (often contradictory) ethical and environmental considerations. You might, for example, look into purchasing a vegan leather backpack to show support for the Cruelty Free movement. But should the item be manufactured from a synthetic plastic, there’s also the question of microplastics and the knock-on effects on marine and human life.

As such, it’s always best to do your research on leather-based consumer goods. Understanding production processes will help you to make an informed decision. This kind of research extends to real leather, where we would encourage you to consider a brand’s tannery, their preferred tanning method (e.g. natural vegetable tanning vs synthetic chemical-based chrome tanning) and the grade of leather before you opt to buy.

Leatherworker sewing a wallet

FAQs

How is vegan leather made?

Vegan leather is manufactured using synthetic plastics like PVC and PU or organic materials, including plants, fruits, fungi and tree bark. Real leather is produced using animal hides.

Is vegan leather durable?

Vegan leather products have a shelf life of approximately 2-5 years. The material is generally not as long-lasting as real leather.

Is vegan leather plastic?

Some types of vegan leather are made by binding a plastic to a fabric backing, hence the label ‘pleather’. The two most common are PVC and PU.

How to protect vegan leather?

Spraying a vinyl protectant onto the surface of your vegan leather product is a great option. This will help safeguard it from dirt and dust.

Is synthetic leather vegan?

Yes — synthetic leather is regarded as vegan because animal hides are not used in the production process.

Is PU leather toxic?

PU leather is considered a less toxic alternative to PVC leather. Yet strictly speaking, hazardous toxins are still released during the production of PU.


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