What is Fake Leather and How Does it Compare to Real Leather?

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Should You Choose Fake Leather over Real Leather Because You Think it is More Eco-Friendly?

When artificial leather was first introduced in the United States as Naugahyde in 1920, it had a pretty bad rap because of its cheap looks and resemblance to plastic. First used for handbags, it didn’t come close to having the beautiful properties of real leather.

Since then, manufacturers began to create newer versions of faux leather. Also known as leatherette (any type of synthetic leather consisting of a fabric base and plastic covering), imitation leather, artificial leather, faux leather, vegan leather, PU leather, and pleather, there was no getting around the fact that it often looked, felt and smelled like plastic, didn’t wear well and didn’t last very long.

different colored leather material rolled up

However, thanks to aggressive marketing campaigns, public perception was that fake leather was superior to real leather in many ways, but especially because it was “better” for the environment. But people should not be misled.

These days fake leather can be quite authentic looking, thanks to advances in technology, yet its popularity comes with huge downside: it does not look, feel or perform like real leather, but even worse, it is harmful to the environment because of how it is made, the chemicals used and the facts that it emits toxins when burned and does not easily decompose in a landfill.

In this article, we explore the differences between real leather and artificial leather, as well as their respective advantages and disadvantages. Most important, we will bust the myth that fake leather is “better” than real leather.

Where Real Leather Comes From

Real leather is made from animal skin – it is a by-product of the meat and dairy industry. It comes primarily from bovine hides from all over the world, particularly the United States and South American. It can also come from sheep, goats and pigs. Leather production involves “tanning” the hides to preserve them from rotting and making them supple and pliable. The manufacturing process continues with coloring the hides by dyeing the leather with aniline dyes in a rotating vat. Real leather is often sprayed superficially to add color and protective agents, and then split to the desired thickness, depending upon its intended use.

In addition to having natural beauty and inherent elegance, real leather is known for its durability and longevity, and for developing a patina, becoming more appealing and valuable over time.

To learn more about how where leather comes from, how it is made, and the difference between full grain leather and top grain leather, click here:

Image of different leather belts

Where Faux Leather Comes From

Manufactured to look like real leather, faux leather is man-made. Unlike bicast and bonded leather, it contains no leather parts or by-products. The production process involves applying a plastic coating a textile base with plastic.

The Difference Between Bonded Leather and Faux Leather

Also called reconstituted leather, bonded leather is made from a layer of shredded leather fibers combined with a rubber or polyurethane binder and then glued to a paper or cloth backing. It is embossed with a leather-like texture, and top-coated with dye that it does not penetrate below the surface of the material.

The Difference Between Bicast Leather and Faux Leather

The term “split leather” is used to describe the middle and bottom cuts hide. It is also called bicast, bi-cast or bycast leather. It’s made by taking the horizontal center split of the hide, coating it with a layer of polyurethane and then embossing it to make it look like “real” leather or an exotic skin such as alligator, ostrich or snake.

Originally produced for the shoe industry, bicast leather has been used extensively in the furniture industry because it brings down the cost of the finished piece.

Split leather is sometimes called “genuine leather,” a term used to describe lower-quality split leather. If you come across this term and are not sure what it means, don’t hesitate to ask the retailer or vendor what exactly is meant when they use the term “genuine leather.”

The Two Types of Faux Leather

People inspect various leather product catalogs.The primary types of plastic leather are polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU). Vinyl is derived from ethylene, or crude oil, and is made by fusing vinyl with a textile base such as polyester. PU is an artificial leather made by coating a fabric such as cotton or polyester with a thermoplastic polymer, then treating it with a topcoat and embossing it to mimic real leather. China is by far the world’s largest producer of fake leather.


The Cost of Fake Leather Compared to Real Leather

In addition to trying to respond to the demands of animal rights advocates, one of the driving forces behind the development of faux leather is its cost: in general, it is less expensive than real leather.


PU leather costs about twice as much as PVC vinyl, and about 25% less than real leather. While real leather is supplied by the hide, vinyl is sold by the linear yard. Because leather hides are irregularly shaped, it has a substantial waste factor, so extra square footage often needs to be purchased, especially if the leather is being applied to furniture. Synthetic leather has much less of a waste factor because it is sold on rolls. However, real leather will last much longer than its synthetic counterpart, so amortized over a lifetime it is actually less expensive in the long run.


Fake leather generally costs between $10 – $25 per yard. Leather can be sold by the hide, but usually it is sold by the square foot, ranging in cost between $3.00 and $30.00 per s.f. Because there are 18 s.f. of leather in a yard of fabric based on a height of 54”, taking the waste factor into consideration, leather that sells for $5.00 per s.f. would be the equivalent of $90 per yard. That’s substantially more expensive than fake leather.

The Look and Feel of Fake Leather vs. Real Leather

One of the most beautiful things about leather is that each hide is unique, with individual characteristics that remind us that leather is a natural material. It has a luxurious appearance, and its distinct aroma and hand cannot be replaced by man-made substitutes. Imitation leather simply cannot come close: it will not develop a patina, often has a chemical odor, can feel like plastic and may start to crack or peel after only a couple of years of use.

While PU leather often has a more realistic look and feel of leather than vinyl, faux leather lacks the aroma and physical characteristics of leather. Because it is embossed with a leather-like pattern with a repeat pattern, giving its surface an artificial look, it appears almost too perfect, and certainly not natural.

To learn more about how where leather comes from, how it is made, and the difference between full grain leather and top grain leather, click here:

Cleaning, Repair and Maintenance

Both real and fake leather are easy to clean. They are also water-resistant, except for naked leathers such as suede and nubuck. Most leathers, especially those with protection added to the topcoat, can be cleaned with soap and water. While faux leathers can withstand heavy-duty cleaning, they wear over time, and crack and fade after only a year or two of use.

Real leather ages well, often becoming softer and developing a patina over time. It is tougher than plastic and because it is puncture resistant, it is less likely to tear. Both leather and vinyl can be repaired either professionally or with a do-it-yourself repair kit.

Comfort Considerations

Thanks to real leather’s complex structure, it “breathes.” The tiny pores on the skin surface allow the hide to absorb and expel oxygen as well as moisture in the form of vapor. Because leather is porous, it is cool to the touch in warm conditions, and absorbs body heat and feels warm when there’s a chill in the air. Bare skin won’t stick to leather it like it does to vinyl, which can feel more like plastic in direct sunlight.

Synthetic materials made from plastic will trap heat against your skin. When used for shoes, it can make your feet sweat; when used on furniture, it can feel sticky and unpleasant.

The Benefits of Real Leather Vs. Fake Leather

While synthetic leather products would like you to believe that faux leather is better than real leather in every way, real leather has numerous advantages over its fake counterparts. In addition to its natural, organic look and feel ability to breathe, there are other reasons why you should choose real leather over fake leather. Here are just a few:

  • Any item made with real leather becomes more valuable over time, while synthetic leather decreases in value 
  • Leather is durable and long-lasting, lasting for decades if not hundreds of years; fake leather has a short lifespan, often less than 5 years
  • Leather is incredibly durable and resistant to wear and tear, whereas faux leather is susceptible to cracking and peeling after just a few years of use
  • Genuine leather is a natural material, a renewable resource and a by-product of the food industry; fake leather is made from plastic
  • Real leather reduces landfill waste because it decomposes over time, whereas artificial leather remains in landfills for hundreds of years
  • Items made with real leather will last a lifetime, without the need for constant replacement; this is not the case with fake leather

Are There Faux Leather Alternatives?

Attempts to make artificial leather less harmful to the environment by using alternatives to PVC have largely been unsuccessful. Here are a few examples of alternatives to faux leather:

Vegetable Oil Leather

Some manufacturers have tried to avoid using PCV by making their fake leather products using vegetable oil. While this type of artificial leather is being explored, its high cost makes it prohibitive for use in most industries.

Biofabricated Leather

Recently, there has been some success in manufacturing real leather without the use of animals through the process of biofabrication. The process involves DNA editing that grows collagen from yeast. It starts with taking skin cells from a cow to which a gene-edited yeast is added, causing the material to consume sugar and produce collagen. The collagen is harvested as a liquid, purified and then poured into any shape or pattern as it turns into a solid, fibrous material.

The finished product yields zero residual waste, reduces petrochemical content by 50% compared to faux leathers, and has an 80% lower carbon footprint than leather. Just as leather biodegrades, biofabricated leather is biodegradable.

The Environmental Impact of Real Leather Compared to Fake Leather

Because of pressure from the environmental movement, there has been an effort by the manufacturers of fake leather to create the belief that it is somehow better for the environment than real leather. But vinyl is a petroleum product, and therefore is not considered “green.” It releases dioxins both during its production and when it is incinerated. Leather, on the other hand, is a natural product, a by-product of the meat and dairy industries, and a renewable resource.

leather sofa discarded on the roadside

Those who are opposed to the use of animal hides for food and clothing might have a preference for a made-made alternative to leather, even though actual leather is a by-product and no animals are slaughtered for its production. In fact, animal life on the planet can be harmed by the accumulation of plastic into the world’s eco-systems. This is because the production of fossil fuel derivatives releases toxic substances into the environment. In addition, petroleum is a limited resource that is removed from the ground by drilling, which can harm plant and animal life.

Faux leather is known to have a negative impact on the environment. Even though it requires fewer resources to produce than leather. The production of faux leather requires more use of fossil fuels than genuine leather. In addition, it takes PU and PVC between 200 and 500 years to biodegrade. And lots of fake leather in the form of shoes, handbags and furniture ends up in landfills because it doesn’t last very long – it contributes to the throw-away culture. Because genuine leather lasts longer than synthetic leather, ultimately less of it is used because it does not need to be replaced or discarded.

Human Rights Concerns

As we mentioned, the vast majority of fake leather is produced in China, a country whose government is known to not make human rights a priority. Instead, workers are often exploited and may work under unsafe and unhealthy conditions.

Added to that is the fact that China is notoriously lax in its environmental oversight. In fact, a survey done in 2019 shows synthetic leather as China’s most polluting industry, even more so than iron and steel.

The Bottom Line

There are many manufacturers of different types of fake leather that would have you believe that it’s better than real leather for a number of reasons. But just calling a product “vegan” doesn’t necessarily make it good for the environment or comfortable to wear. And because those manufacturers often give fancy or misleading names to its fake leather products, it is also possible to be led to believe what you are purchasing is real leather when in fact it is fake.

If you are tempted by fake leather, do your homework to discover why real leather is he better choice.  


Meryl Siegman is a published author based in New York who has written numerous articles for trade magazines. With a B.A. in English Literature from Middlebury College and a certificate from the University of Cincinnati Leather Research Laboratory for completing its leather orientation course, Meryl brings a unique blend of education and experience to her work in the leather industry. Currently, she consults and writes content for clients in various sectors of the leather industry, including furniture and accessories. As the former owner of Cortina Leathers for over 30 years, Meryl gained extensive knowledge of leather making in Arzignano, Italy, where she lived for three years as a leather purchaser. During her tenure at Cortina Leathers, she taught sales reps and clients about leather technology as a certified Continuing Education Unit (CEU) instructor. She served as a guest lecturer at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Website: https://www.merylsiegman.com/
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