Leather is one of the most traditional materials in the history of clothing. Still, it has also been one of the most controversial due to its obvious link to the very unethical and not at all eco-friendly meat industry. This is when vegan leather makes its appearance. So let’s talk about all vegan leather related things!
1. What Exactly is Vegan Leather?
Generally speaking, vegan leather is an ethical, sustainable, and cruelty-free fabric that resembles the look and feel of traditional leather, but that is made without the use of animals. Contrary to what you might think, vegan leather doesn’t refer to one material, but a number of different materials. We’ll explain more about this later on.
Real leather, on the other hand, is made from animal skin, most commonly cow hide, but can also be made from goats, sheep, pigs, crocodiles and horses. Leather has long been prized for its durability and timelessness, and has also served as a status symbol for the wealthy. But like fur, leather has become increasingly problematic for consumers, not only for ethical reasons, but also for the environmental unfriendliness of the tanning process (which requires huge quantities of water and releases harmful chemicals, as we’ll explain later on)
2. What are Some Other Names for Vegan Leather?
There are many other names used to describe vegan leather. ‘Artificial leather', 'synthetic leather', 'faux leather', 'pleather' and 'leatherette' are words used for different types of vegan leathers.
'Imitation leather', 'alternative leather' and 'fake leather' are more generic terms which can also be used to describe vegan leathers made of natural plant-based products. 'Plant leather' refers specifically to materials made exclusively of natural plants.
3. What is Vegan Leather Made Out Of?
Much like how leather is made from the skins of different kinds of animals, “not all vegan leather is equal” as it can be made from a wide variety of non-animal materials, and some of the alternative fabrics are much better than others. And that's why it is important to know the different types of vegan leather before deciding to buy a product.
So let’s explore the different kinds of vegan leather available in the market, in more detail.
4. The Different Types of Vegan Leather and How They Are Made
There’s a whole host of vegan leathers out there. We’ve broken them into three categories, from worst to best sustainable options.
The first two ones are old-fashioned synthetic vegan leather, and the last category includes more recently developed vegan leather, made from organic and natural ingredients.
Polyvinyl Chloride Leather (PVC): This one’s pretty easy to dismiss. PVC is made with approximately 57% chloride and 43% carbons, which, you guessed it, comes from oil/gas/petrol. So this magical material is predominantly made with fossil fuels—which is far from ideal. A coating of PVC is bonded then to a base layer of fabric, and finally textured. The manufacturing process of PVC leather releases harmful chemicals like phthalates and other endocrine disruptors that continue to off-gas after the product is released for sale. Also, PVC is 100% not recyclable or biodegradable. Over time, it just breaks down into millions of little pieces, called microplastics, which make their way into the world’s food supply. As PVC is so widely used because of its affordability, it’s a material you’d find in cheap leather products.
Polyurethane (also known as PU leather): It's better, but still not great. Polyurethane is made by applying or laminating a polyurethane coating to a base material such as polyester, nylon, or cotton. The newly laminated surface is then treated to emulate the grain of animal leather, typically by running a textured roller across the laminated face of the fabric. Like PVC is a mixture of plastic chemicals and petroleum compounds. Unlike the thickness of PVC, PU utilises fewer layers and is, therefore, more bendy, soft and generally more leather-like than PVC. Polyurethane leather typically requires fewer toxic chemicals in the manufacturing process. There are some solvent-free and water-based alternatives. But it’s still not recyclable or biodegradable.
Bio-based or Plant-based vegan leather. The best option for conscious consumers! This category includes all vegan leathers made from plant-based materials (like corn, pineapple, cork, cactus, leaf leather, etc), with different percentages of bio based components being used for its manufacture. To begin with, the base materials are natural and therefore 100% biodegradable. There are different coatings used in these vegan leathers, but two types are BOPP film and polylactic acid. Both of these coatings, while not perfect, make the material really durable and are much less harmful to you and to the environment than the other vegan leather alternatives as well as than animal leather. They don’t release toxic chemicals, many are recyclable and some are even biodegradable.
5. Which Vegan Leather Do We Use?
Currently, our leather alternative is a plant based one, made from renewable resources, specifically the end of life corn. Our manufacturer in Italy extracts this starch from the corn plant fibres, breaks it down into sugars, ferments them and separates them into polymers (also known as "bio-polyols''). These polymers are then mixed with a small amount of fiber from recycled plastic bottles and converted into pellets. These pellets are heated and then extruded, i.e. forced through a die. During the extrusion process, pigments are added to give the material the desired colour. The material then passes through a set of heated rollers, then on to a cooling cylinder which smoothens and sets the surface of the material.
This bio based leather has less than half the environmental impact versus animal leather and it's not only sustainable but also biodegradable, highly durable, waterproof, light, soft and looks and feels great!
Our corn based leather manufacturer only uses organic raw materials in production, meaning an extremely low environmental impact. It has also passed ISO international standards tests for seam rupture, tear resistance, tensile strength, light and colour fastness and abrasion resistance. Although our decision to avoid animal leather enables us to have a lower environmental impact than those brands that do choose to use it, we openly acknowledge that synthetic alternatives are not without concern. For that reason we will always be researching for new and innovative alternatives, and we'll choose what is best not only for us but also for our planet. 6. Is Vegan Leather Better than Real Leather?
In recent years, there’s been a contentious debate in the fashion world between the use of animal (i.e. leather and fur) and synthetic vegan materials. Some say that, while using parts of animals in order to make clothing is neither ethical nor environmentally sound, it is preferable to use a vegan alternative. Others vehemently argue the opposite.
Currently, most vegan leather goods are still made from plastic, either PVC or PU. These items are not all biodegradable, and often end up in landfills when they are no longer wearable. That said, buying vegan leather, even if it is one of the plastic-based alternatives, is still more environmentally friendly than leather items made from animals, for several reasons. For one thing, many resources are needed to raise animals for leather, including huge amounts of land, water, and feed; livestock (especially cows, which are often used for leather) emit significant amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas; and their feces pollute the air, soil, and waterways, putting local communities in danger, according to the NRDC.
The meat industry, where most leather comes from, has been one of the largest polluters ever. It’s responsible for approximately 14.5% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. It’s worth noting that it not only pollutes the air but also contaminates waterways with chromium and other highly toxic chemicals when processing and curing leather. It can even generate health problems in both workers (underpaid, as well) and nearby communities.
According to the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, created by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, leather from cows is nearly three times as harmful to the environment as polyurethane-based vegan leather.
The 2017 Global Fashion Industry Report directly compared the environmental impact of animal leather with a variety of popular textiles.
The results are clear: animal leather is worse for the environment than any other material, including the worst vegan leather options.
As if this definitive report wasn’t enough evidence, cattle ranching for meat and leather products is one of the main causes of deforestation and fires in the Amazon rainforest.
On the other hand, animal-based leather is not the "natural" material that many make it out to be, due to tanning. After the animals are slaughtered, their skin is treated with tanning agents including formaldehyde and chromium, both of which the EPA classified as human carcinogens, as per the American Cancer Society. Because of all the chemicals used to tan leather, the material is actually filled with too many chemicals to ever biodegrade.
As Stella McCartney put it in an interview with Vogue: “An animal decomposes when it’s natural, but after all the chemical treatments [applied] to a leather handbag, it isn’t going to decompose in your wardrobe. That product is staying alive because of the chemicals that have been put on it — because if you just had a dead animal in your closet, it would be a very different situation.”
So, let’s just say goodbye to animal leather for good.
7. Is Vegan Leather Eco Friendly or Sustainable?
Now that we know what vegan leather is and how it’s made, let’s find out if it really is environmentally friendly. The truth is, some vegan leathers are clearly more sustainable than others.
When it comes to PVC, the answer is, unfortunately, no. The first issue is the amount of energy, not to mention chemicals, that it takes to produce it. When PVC is made, the process itself releases harmful dioxins. It is also treated with chemicals known as phthalates. This PVC isn’t biodegradable at all. This is made worse by the fact that PVC clothing and accessories are treated like they are disposable because they are so cheap and flimsy. This means that they are thrown away at an incredible rate, where they end up in landfills. As they start to break down slightly in the sun, this then releases its own set of chemicals.
PU, is inherently more eco-friendly than PVC. It also doesn’t contain any chemicals that interfere with endocrine and hormone systems, nor does it contribute to PH change in soil or water. It lasts for longer and it can many times also be recycled and used again. However this doesn’t mean we should use it for cheap, fast fashion. As with all consumer purchases, buying less and buying well should always be the approach to fashion purchases.
But when choosing a favourite vegan leather, there is no doubt that the newest Bio based leather alternatives are more sustainable and earth-friendly than the “real” thing, as they don’t involve nasty plastics, they are good quality and durable, don’t pollute our precious natural resources, and many of them are biodegradable (at different percentages).
The goal for plant-based technological advancements and innovations is to make 100% natural vegan leathers completely accessible and on a mass scale. When and if this will happen, only time will tell.
8. Is Vegan Leather Ethical?
It’s no secret that most of the meat industry doesn’t have a shred of ethics, especially when it comes to leather production. This is where the worst cruelty of the human being rises to the surface. Particularly taking into account that leather is not only made from cowhides, where leather is usually (not always) a by-product of the meat industry, but also from exotic animals such as snakes, ostriches, and crocodiles.
Vegan leather, however, is quite the opposite. It mimics the feel and look of leather but is cruelty-free and therefore absolutely ethical. This alternative offers us good quality without spilling a single drop of animal blood.
9. Is Vegan Leather Durable?
Quality and durability are important factors that the customer takes into consideration when purchasing a handbag, or any other fashion items. They often compare vegan to real leather. Vegan leather is often a lot thinner than real leather and much more lightweight which is great for fashion as it makes it potentially easier to work with. Vegan leather can come in different standards of quality and as with real leather, the higher the quality, the longer it will last. Faux leather, when cared for properly, is very durable.
10. What's the Future of Vegan Leather?
By now it should be clear that the future of vegan leather is a fully sustainable, earth-friendly, quality product designed to last for years! The exciting thing is that plant-based vegan leather is already a good sustainable option that is constantly being improved.
While no vegan leather is perfect, we hope that you’re now armed with the knowledge to make the best decision possible when you’re shopping for new products.
As more and more well established fashion brands pledge to eliminate fur and animal skins used on their runways, i.e. Prada goes fur- free, Chanel is offering a gold boater hat made from Piñatex. We can say that the future of luxury is not animal leather.
If you want to learn more about our own line of vegan footwear, bags, and card holders made from plant based leather, click here or have a look below.