Just over 100 years ago, the first faux leather was made at a rubber plant in Connecticut. Since then, various manufacturers have introduced a variety of faux leathers. Less expensive than real leather, they have made their way into a wide range of industries. Recently, there has been renewed interest in faux leather because many people believe that it is friendlier to the environment and better in other ways than real leather. But is that really true?
In this article, we explore faux leather: what it is, the different kinds of faux leather, and how it compares to real leather. If you read on, you will learn more about how the production, use and disposal of faux leather affects the environment.
What is Faux Leather?
Let’s start with the definition of “faux.” According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, faux means “not real or genuine; imitation, fake; made to look like something else that is usually more valuable.” It has also been defined as “not real, but made to look or seem real.”
Get the idea? Faux leathers, also called imitation leather, vegan leather, artificial leather, leatherette and pleather, are not the same thing as real leather. It is 100% man-made from synthetic products, containing no organic materials or leather parts.
What are the Different Types of Faux Leather?
There are two main types of faux leathers: polyurethane (PU leather), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC leather or vinyl). Both are 100% synthetic and both are derived from fossil fuels.
The production process of making PU leather is coating a fabric base with a thermoplastic polymer and then treating it to mimic real leather. PU leather is considered “greener” than PVC because it doesn’t contain dioxins.
PVC leather is produced by fusing vinyl with a fabric base. It derives from crude oil. PVC is known to release polluting compounds called dioxins. In addition, the manufacturing process includes adding plasticizers to make it supple. Greenpeace calls it the “single most environmentally damaging type of plastic.”
What is Genuine Leather?
Real leather is a material made from the hide or skin of an animal. It is tanned to preserve it and then finished to convert it into a usable product. Most leather used worldwide comes from cattle, a group of animals that includes cows, buffalo and bison.
Where Does Leather Come From?
Leather is a by-product of the food industry. Raw material, or leather, that has been removed from the cow and de-haired but not yet tanned, is bought and sold as a commodity on the world market. It is produced practically everywhere in the world, including North and South America, Africa, Europe, Australia, the Middle East and Asia. The United States and South America are the largest producers of raw material in the world.
How is Faux Leather Different Than Genuine Leather?
Real leather holds many advantages over faux leather material. Here are just a few:
- Increases value
- Durable and long-lasting
- Renewable resource
- Resistant to wear and tear
- Reduces landfill waste
- Comfortable and luxurious
Here is how faux leather stacks up:
- Less valuable
- Short lifespan
- Made from plastic or other chemicals
- Petroleum based
- Environmentally wasteful
- Susceptible to cracking, bubbling and wear
- Not biodegradable
- Lacks the luxury of leather
- Less breathable
- Produces dioxins when burned
What is Faux Leather Used For?
Many faux leathers are used by the same industries as real leather, primarily to reduce production costs. They include furniture upholstery, garment, accessories, shoes and sporting goods such as saddles. PU and PVC have their own unique characteristics so that each one is better suited for particular uses
Because PU leather is more breathable and has a more realistic appearance, it is a better choice for making clothing. Because it can be tufted, and is less inclined to peel or crack than PVC leather, it is also used for upholstery.
PU leather is more suitable for producing accessories such as handbags because it is more durable than PVC leather, doesn’t crack or peel as easily and is more flexible.
PVC is less flexible and better at repelling moisture, so you often see it on cases for electronic devices or as book binding. However, because it is easy to clean and maintain, it is also used for furniture found in hospitals and restaurants. It is also used for automotive components, including interior door panels and seat coverings.
Is faux leather good for upholstery?
Both PU and PVC leather can be used for upholstery. Because PU leather breathes and can be tufted and made into welts, it is the better choice for upholstery leather, although it is more expensive than PVC leather. PVC leather is favored in environments where cleanliness and easy maintenance are required, such as hospitals, restaurants and hotel lobbies.
How Long Does Faux Leather Furniture Last?
Unfortunately, faux leather does not have a very long lifespan, typically 3 to 5 years, depending on use. It looks its best when it is newly installed, unlike real leather, which continues to become more beautiful with use. Over time, faux can crack, peel and bubble. It does not perform well compared to genuine leather, which is known for its durability and longevity, often lasting for 50 years or more.
Faux leather can tear at the seams, is prone to being punctured, and cannot easily be repaired. As a result, the furniture it is applied to will have to be discarded or reupholstered after just a few years. This causes millions of tons of faux leather and the furniture it is on to end up in landfills, where it can sit without decomposing for hundreds of years. Real leather, on the other hand, is a natural product that decomposes in landfills in a much shorter period of time.
Is Faux Leather Toxic?
That’s the million dollar question. The answer is, despite the popular belief that fake leather is better for the environment than genuine leather, in fact it can be very damaging. One problem is that the manufacturing of plastics creates large amounts of toxic chemical pollutants including dioxin, hydrochloric acid and vinyl chloride, which can be harmful to people and animals.
There are three ways to dispose of faux leather, each with its own disadvantages:
- Recycling is difficult because it is hard to separate the different compounds and additives used to make synthetic leather, and when remelted and reused, its purity tends to degrade. Because it has a low value, this method is unprofitable.
- Placing faux leather in landfills has its own drawbacks because faux leather is not biodegradable. Not only that, it can leach out chemicals that can contaminate both soil and water.
- The incineration of PVC produces dioxin, one of the most toxic substances known. Although it is flame resistant, it releases harmful hydrogen chloride gas when heated.
The choice is yours based on your personal preference whether to buy a product made with synthetic leather or real leather. Factors to consider are how long you plan to own it, how you want it perform, and how you would like it to look. But beware – do not believe everything you read about the benefits of faux leather. And when you decide to make your purchase, make sure you are buying what you paid for and not a substitute.