What is vegan leather?
Vegan leather, also known faux leather, synthetic leather or an artificial leather that resembles the aesthetics of animal leather, which does not use animal skin, it is made to look and feel like ‘real’ leather. As normal leather is made from the tanned hides of an animal, vegan leather is made from number of synthetic and natural materials to emulate the appearance of animal leather without the need for the death or suffering of an animal.
There have never been more alternatives to real leather on the market than there are today. From fruits to vegetables to rocks, manufacturers are getting creative with materials, and there are tons of options available, with more in production.
What Is Vegan Leather Made of?
Vegan leather is made from a range of different materials. There’s a whole host of vegan leathers out there. Synthetic leather is produced with different chemicals and a totally different industrial process to real leather. Bonding together a plastic coating to a fabric backing is the most common way to make faux leather; the types of plastic used in these coatings vary and this is what defines whether or not it is eco-friendly. Vegan leather can be made from vegetan, pineapple leaves, PVC, glazed cotton, cork, apple skin, polyurethane (PU) and even cactus!
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU) are plastic based materials. PVC releases dioxins, which are potentially dangerous in confined spaces and especially dangerous if burnt. It also uses plasticisers such as phthalates to make it flexible. Depending on the type of phthalate used, they’re extremely toxic. It has been described by Greenpeace as the “single most environmentally damaging type of plastic”. The more modern and slightly less damaging plastic is PU which is made out of a type of polymer known as polyurethane which is basically plastic. PU is a common ingredient in vegan leather because polyurethane is easy to form and mass produce. Another term for fake leather is “pleather” which comes from the term plastic leather.
These two commonly used synthetic materials in particular have raised questions about the safety and dangers of vegan leather to the environment as it has negative environmental impacts from the production and use of this material, which is considered to be the most toxic of all the plastics. In addition, it does not break down naturally, causing major problems for the planet.
Luckily there are now a variety of innovative plant-based leathers being produced that reduce consumption by utilizing waste organic matter, like leaves and fruit peels. eco-friendlier products made from materials like cork, kelp and even pineapple leaves. Cork is harvested from the cork oak tree (Quercus suber). This tree can be found in southwest Europe and northwest Africa. The cork is taken from the bark without harming the tree or its development. Cork is also covered in suberin which acts like a water-resistant wax! Perfect for vegan leather shoes and vegan leather handbags.
Another new plant-based vegan leather material which is biodegradable is cactus skin! Recently entrepreneurs, Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez from Mexico, developed vegan leather made with nopal (a cactus). This is incredibly exciting as cactus needs very little water to grow, making this a wonderful sustainable alternative. They wanted to create biodegradable vegan leather which does not include any toxic chemicals, phthalates and PVC. What a world we live in where cactus can be made into vegan leather!
What does Vegan Leather Look and Feel Like?
Vegan leather is designed to replicate real leather. Vegan leather comes in several different forms and qualities, so some are more ‘leather-like’ than others. Generally speaking, and focusing on good quality vegan leather, there isn’t that much difference to real leather. However, as vegan leather is synthetic, it doesn’t form a patina like real leather does when ageing and it is much less breathable as the pores that are printed onto the surface of pleather are artificial. Also, real leather has a rather distinctive smell which vegan leather does not have!
What does Vegan Leather smell like?
Vegan/Faux leather that is made with PVC or PU often has a very strange smell from the chemicals. It’s often described as a ‘fishy’ smell and can often be very hard to get rid especially while trying not to ruin the material. PVC can also outgas dangerous toxins that give off this nasty smell.
What to Watch Out for When Buying Vegan Leather?
There are a couple of things to look out for when you are buying vegan leather products.
If it is labelled PU-coated leather, it is not vegan! As it sounds, PU has just been used on the finishing.
If an item states it has PU, you should consider some of the negative environmental impacts. PU is made of polyurethane, which is a plastic product. Often, harmful chemicals are used during the process of manufacturing PU leather. These are toxic to the environment, especially our oceans. Also, some cheap PU leather products are not very durable meaning they often end up in landfills and take centuries to disintegrate.
Is Vegan Leather Good Quality?
The question as to whether vegan leather is good quality or not depends on the company and the item. Many of us have been buying faux leather for years from high street stores. Cheaper vegan leather jackets and fake leather shoes can be found in many wardrobes across the world.
Some of these items have contributed to the idea that real leather is much better quality than other leather alternatives. However, there are many vegan leather items out there that are good quality or even better than traditional leather.
Is Vegan Leather Better Than Real Leather?
Quality and durability are also important things to consider when comparing vegan and real leather. Vegan leather is often a lot thinner than real leather and much more light weight which is great for fashion as it makes it potentially easier to work with, however it also makes it less durable than real leather. A real, good quality leather can last decades when cared for, whereas you might only get a year or so out of a pair of shoes made from good quality faux leather. This is an important factor when deciding between fake leather and real leather as the environmental impact of replacing a fake leather product multiple times is arguably more damaging than the purchase of one real leather item.
Synthetic leathers also wear out very unattractively whereas real leather ages over time and forms a patina, which is considered to add character to leather.
Faux leather, especially PVC based, isn’t breathable either whereas real leather has pores through which skin is able to breathe. So for clothing items such as jackets, vegan leather can be uncomfortable when worn for long periods of time.
In addition to environmental factors, faux leather is typically a lot cheaper than real leather products. This is because it’s cheaper to produce synthetic plastic leather than it is to produce real leather. The craftsmanship of leather products is a highly skilled job and bespoke leather products such as sofas, jackets and luggage can be thousands of dollars. Manufacturers are able to command these prices because they are considered both high quality and highly durable.
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