What is Vegan Leather? All You Need to Know Before You Buy

Category: Products

Author: Sarah Breeze

May 18, 2020

As we all become more aware of how our spending choices impact the planet, vegan leather has made huge gains in popularity.

As conscious consumers, you know that the choices you make now can bring you seriously good karma and positively impact the planet in years to come. You’ve probably heard about the environmental impact of animal leather production and want to find a sustainable, ethical alternative.

But you’re probably wondering—

What exactly is vegan leather? Is it really more sustainable than animal leather? And how does it hold up? These are important questions for a conscious consumer, so we created this ultimate vegan leather guide to answer your frequently asked questions.

So, What is Vegan Leather?

vegan leather examples

Vegan leather has its origins in late 19th century Germany. With two wars looming on the horizon, animal leather was rationed. So German manufacturers got busy and developed an alternative.

They came up with a material made from layered and treated paper pulp called Prestoff. This leather alternative could be used almost anywhere leather could—in bags, belts, cases, and other items.

Prestoff had durability issues and it eventually fell out of favor. The first synthetic leather to gain international popularity was Naugahyde, created by the U.S. Rubber Company in 1920. Consumers favored it for its durability and leather-like look.

But wait—when did synthetic leather become vegan leather?

The term vegan leather emerged in the fashion world around 2010. Celebrity designers like Stella McCartney started creating high-quality clothing and accessories without animal leather. Because these designers embraced an ethical, vegan lifestyle, synthetic leather naturally came to be known as vegan.

Today, vegan leather is made with a wide variety of materials, and goes by many names:

  • Leatherette
  • Faux leather
  • PU leather
  • Pleather
  • Mushroom leather
  • Leaf leather

It’s generally accepted that vegan leather is any material designed to mimic the look and quality of animal leather, without using any animal products in the process.

How is Vegan Leather Made?

The basic process of making vegan leather goes like this:

  1. Choose a base material—this is usually cotton or polyester fabric.
  2. Decide what plastic to use as a binder. Typically either polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane (PU).
  3. Bind the material to the plastic. The plastic is melted and overlaid on the fabric.
  4. Cut the fabric to be used in consumer goods.

synthetic leather examples

Here’s the thing, though. Not all vegan leather is made equally. The process above is the most common, as well as the most harmful to the environment. These vegan leathers, while somewhat durable and waterproof, use toxic chemicals and aren’t recyclable.

Vegan leather was originally developed for one reason: cost. Using fabric and plastic was cheaper for manufacturers and cheaper for consumers.

These days, conscious consumers don’t just care about cost, but also want to reduce their environmental impact and avoid the exploitation of animals.

The exciting thing about today’s vegan leathers is that many are made from all-natural materials, like:

  • Mushrooms
  • Tree leaves
  • Banana leaves
  • Pineapples
  • Paper
  • Cork

Our own leaf leather is made from teak leaves and banana leaves, you can read more about it here.

Is Vegan Leather Sustainable?

Now that we know what vegan leather is and how it’s made, let’s find out if it really is environmentally friendly.

(Spoiler alert—we gave away the answer above.)

The truth is, some vegan leathers are eco-friendly, but many aren’t.

First, let’s put to rest the idea that animal leather is more sustainable than vegan leather. Some believe that animal leather is more environmentally friendly because it is durable and biodegradable. While this is true, the environmental cost of raising cattle and producing leather is far more harmful.

The (somewhat dry) 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 vegan leather.

environmental impact of materials

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.

Let’s just say goodbye to animal leather for good.

Now. What about vegan leathers? Well, it’s helpful to break them into three categories, from worst to best sustainable options.

PVC leather. This one’s pretty easy to dismiss. 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.

PU leather. Better, but still not great. Polyurethane leather typically requires fewer toxic chemicals in the manufacturing process. But it’s still not recyclable or biodegradable. Some companies are now using alter nappa, a polyurethane-based leather that uses 50% vegetable oil in the coating.

Plant-based vegan leather. The best option for conscious consumers! This category includes all vegan leathers made from plant-based materials (like pineapple, cork, and leaf leather). 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, are much less harmful to you and to the environment. They don’t release toxic chemicals and some are even biodegradable.

Is Vegan Leather Durable?

The earliest types of synthetic leather weren’t designed with quality or durability in mind. Fortunately, today’s PU and plant-based vegan leathers are not only durable but good quality and easy to care for.

Because vegan leather is made by compressing layers of the base material, then coating it in a durable, water-resistant outer layer, these products will last a long time. Especially if you treat them well.

Here are a few tips to keep vegan leather beautiful for years:

  1. Avoid drying vegan leather out. Some types will crack with excessive heat and exposure to the sun.
  2. To protect it even more, use a soft cloth and gently rub the vegan leather with a small amount of baby oil or even commercial leather conditioner. Do this every six months, or sooner if your leather looks dry. Warning! Test a small inconspicuous area first to make sure the color won’t be affected.
  3. Beware that some types of dye can transfer color onto other materials. For example, dark wash jeans could discolor a light-colored vegan leather bag.
  4. To clean vegan leather, use a drop of gentle soap mixed with lukewarm water. Rub gently with a soft white cloth, then wipe the soap/water mixture off with a separate damp cloth.

What’s the Future of Vegan Leather?

woman with leafBy 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.

If you want to learn more about our own line of vegan leather wallets, bags, and journals made from leaf leather, click here.

Author: Sarah Breeze


Nature lover, foodie, eternal optimist. I split my time writing, cooking up delicious vegan creations, and getting lost in the Pacific Northwest woods. In the winter I trade my hiking boots for cross country skis. Loving the slow life.

Favorite nature spot: Hoh Rainforest, Olympic Peninsula, Washington State.

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