Leather is one of the oldest and most popular materials used for clothing, footwear, accessories, and furniture. It is valued for its durability, versatility, and elegance. Commercial leather is made from the skins of animals, such as cows, sheep, and goats, who are killed for their flesh and hides. Leather production also involves a lot of chemicals, water, and energy, which cause pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and resource depletion.
But what if there was a way to enjoy the look and feel of leather without harming animals or the environment? That’s the promise of vegan leather, a material that mimics the properties of animal leather, but is made from plant-based or synthetic sources. Vegan leather is also known as faux leather, artificial leather, or alternative leather. 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 leather Stan Smith in 2018. A recent study predicts the vegan leather market will be worth $89.6 billion by 2025 (Infinium Global Research).
What is vegan leather? How is it made?
Vegan leather, or faux leather, imitates actual leather by using synthetic materials or plant-based fibers like pineapple leaves, cactus, cork, and apple peels to get a similar consistency. However, the majority of vegan leather is made out of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU), both of which are petroleum-based plastics. First produced in the 1920s, PVC was the earliest form of faux leather. It is created by combining polyvinyl chloride with certain chemicals that give the plastic a leather-like appearance and texture.
Socio-environmental concerns surrounding PVC have allowed other vegan leather alternatives to gain momentum, and here the clear winner is PU. Industry experts see this as a more environment-friendly alternative and are making steady progress in finding greener production methods. PU leather offers greater flexibility and breathability, making it an ideal choice for the fashion industry.
Vegan leather can also be produced from a plethora of organic and sustainable materials. Advances in technology mean vegan leather can be collected from nature around the world, from cactus plants in Mexico or agave leaves in Sri Lanka; buy vegan leather bags and luxury vegan leather shoes can be made from mushrooms and also from discarded pineapple leaves.
Characteristics of vegan leather
- Aroma: 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 plastic-like smell (owing to the chemicals employed during manufacturing) or no scent at all.
- Durability: As vegan leather is normally thinner, it’s more prone to general wear and tear and discoloration. That said, developments in vegan leather are being made all the time, so longevity should diminish as an area of concern in the future.
- Absorbency and longevity: Far from porous, synthetic leather is water-resistant, meaning it is unable to develop a patina (as the phenomenon is known, is revered by leather aficionados; for some, it is the ultimate indicator of quality)
- Affordability: Common PU or PVC vegan leather is generally inexpensive whereas the higher average real leather is really expensive.
- Finishing treatment and end usage: Vegan leather is an ideal material for creating anything from upholstery to clothes. Water and stain resistance are two more beneficial traits for manufacturers and consumers alike. PU leather can also be treated with different finishing treatments and dyes that alter the texture and color of the material, ensuring an unrivaled degree of versatility.
Faux VS Real leather; Benefits and drawbacks
- Raw materials:
The majority of vegan leather is made from two types of polymers (PU and PVC). Real leather is produced from animal hides, which are considered a byproduct of the livestock industry.
Commercial animal farming contributes 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions and there is an ongoing debate about the extent to which demand for cowhide contributes to this phenomenon. A recent EU directive concluded that less than 1% of this amount should be allocated to the leather industry, due to the low monetary value of hides compared to other parts of the cow, such as meat. We also need to consider the additional costs and environmental impact of using alternative materials without leather by-products. It goes without saying that if using non-animal products is the future motto, real leather clearly can’t compete with vegan leather.
- Production Process:
Producing both vegan leather and chrome-tanned animal leather requires a significant amount of energy. This adds to the carbon footprint of each material, as fossil fuels are required and CO2 is then released into the atmosphere.
There are other negative factors in the production process of real leather. Chromium tanning – the main method of leather production, which accounts for 90% of global production – involves the use of extremely toxic chemicals with carcinogenic properties. In underdeveloped countries, dangerous chemical byproducts such as sulfides and lime sludge seep into local rivers, killing marine life and animals and putting workers at risk. The same can be said about toxins like phthalates that are exploited to make vegan leather.
- End usage and degradability:
Real leather has a far superior shelf life to vegan leather, which to a certain degree makes it a more sustainable option, encouraging consumers to buy less frequently and less wastefully. But while vegetable-tanned leather will naturally biodegrade, chrome-tanned leather products will spend hundreds of years in landfill sites. This is also true of vegan leather, but perhaps the most pressing environmental issue associated with this type of material 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 ecosystems. Exposure to microplastics can also affect humans: harming organs, causing inflammation, and leaching chemicals.
- Flourishment of Vegan leather usage in fashion industries:
The fashion industry has seen an increase in alternative leather options, from fish skin to pineapple leaf to cork leather. High-end fashion brands such as John Galliano, Prada, Christian Dior have experimented with choosing fish skin materials for their products; The practice itself originates many centuries ago and originates from several indigenous groups around the world. Meanwhile, brands like Nanushka and Hugo Boss have sought to use completely vegan leather alternatives. Sustainable fashion aims to reduce pollution and waste during production while combating overproduction and reducing CO2 emissions. Sustainability is a complex concept, and faux leather plays just one role in the sustainable fashion mechanism. While brands like Allbirds and Sojo are transparent in managing their environmental impacts, other brands engage in greenwashing, promoting environmentally friendly products to consumers as well.
Vegan leather has become increasingly popular in recent years, as more consumers are looking for ethical and sustainable choices in fashion. Many brands, designers, and celebrities have embraced vegan leather as a way to express their style and values.
Nowadays it’s affordability and accessibility is raising the audience of it. Brands are increasingly seeking vegan alternatives in response to the growing demand for environmentally friendly clothing. The sustainable fashion market is currently valued at approximately $6.5 billion, and it is anticipated to increase to $10 billion by 2025. By 2030, that figure is expected to reach $15 billion.