Faux leather and “vegan leather products” are so hot they’ve been flying off the shelves. In recent years, the synthetic leather revolution has taken the world by storm, offering some really cool alternatives to traditional leather. From fashion to furniture, faux leather is everywhere.
But before you fill your closet with man-made vegan leather jackets and shoes or hand over your credit card for that cushy vegan lounge chair, dive into this ultimate guide! You’ll uncover the truth about PU leather and whether it’s truly the miracle material you’ve been searching for.
Discover everything you need to know about PU leather, including its manufacturing process, durability, lifespan, and potential environmental impact. We’ll also take a look at its various applications, from home decor and upholstery to car interiors and fashion accessories. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll have a clear understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of PU leather, so you can make an informed decision about using it in your daily life.
So, whether you’re an environmentally conscious innovator exploring green solutions, a higher quality, well-focused design enthusiast seeking cutting-edge alternatives, or a leather aficionado committed to staying well-versed in the field, comprehensive knowledge is vital!
What is PU Leather?
The first thing you should know about PU leather (polyurethane leather) or any vegan leather is that it is made from plastic, i.e., a thermoplastic polymer, and can also be made from recycled rubber. It is also referred to as vegan leather, faux leather, artificial leather, leatherette, and pleather, unlike real leather, it’s 100% man-made without any organic material.
PU leather is made by coating a cotton or polyester base with a thermoplastic polymer and treating it superficially to mimic real leather. China is the world’s largest producer of faux leather.
PU leather contains no animal products, so it can be considered “vegan.” or clean vegan leather. Although it falls into the category of “faux leather,” whether it can be called “leather” at all is questionable because it is not real leather or animal leather but rather a man-made imitation made to look like the animal skin of natural leather with a grain effect of animal hide.
A Brief History of PU Leather
Initially developed in the 1950s by several chemical companies, including DuPont, PU leather was created by coating a backing fabric with a flexible polymer and then embossing it to resemble genuine leather. Although more expensive to manufacture than vinyl, it soon gained popularity due to its appearance and versatility.
The use of PU in the fast fashion, furniture, and auto industries continues to grow as consumers become increasingly concerned about whether the products they buy are eco-friendly, sustainable, and safe to use. But you should know that while synthetic materials such as PU leather may be marketed as “eco-friendly” and affordable, they still have limitations and disadvantages compared to real leather.
Both real and imitation leather have their advantages and drawbacks. While real leather is natural and is also a renewable resource, it is considered to be resource-intensive. It also raises environmental concerns such as deforestation and water pollution. Some people object to real leather simply because it is derived from animals.
Synthetic materials such as PU leather can be made without using animal products or threatening natural habitats. And because it can be produced in practically unlimited colors and textures, it’s a versatile option for use in fashion industry and interior design.
Consumers who choose faux artificial leather as an alternative to real leather do so for several reasons, ranging from a commitment to veganism to environmental concerns. But they should beware: there is a lot of hype out there about faux leathers, causing a ton of confusion.
What are the Different Types of PU Leather?
There are two types of pu leathers; one is definitely not vegan leather. “Bicast” or “semi-synthetic,” and the other is pure PU leather and marketed as “vegan leather.” Bicast leather is made with a natural leather backing to which a polyurethane topcoat has been applied. Full-synthetic or pure PU leather also has a polyurethane topcoat, but its base material is fabric instead of leather, so it does not contain any animal products. Both types of PU leather are superficially embossed with a grain-like pattern to simulate the look of real leather and have the same durability.
In other words, beware! If you practice veganism and do not want to purchase products containing animal material, make sure the quality PU leather you purchase is fully synthetic!
What are the Uses of PU Leather?
PU leather can be used to make a vide variety of products, including clothing, footwear, accessories, sporting goods, and upholstery for watercraft, airplanes, and furniture. Although it requires very little maintenance, its surface may rub off over time, particularly when used in environments with a lot of wear and tear, such as automobiles.
Is PU leather Good for Upholstery?
PU leather can be used to upholster furniture. It is available in various colors, textures, and finishes and is easy to maintain. It also brings down the cost of the furniture itself because it is less expensive than leather. However, PU leather tears easily and has very little stretch or elasticity.
Pros and Cons of PU Leather
If you’re thinking about purchasing a product made from PU leather, you should first consider the pros and cons of this synthetic material. While it may be affordable and versatile, there are also potential environmental concerns to take into account. Here’s a closer look at the benefits and drawbacks of PU leather to help you make an informed choice.
- Affordability: PU leather is more affordable than real leather, making it a tempting option if you’re on a budget.
- Versatility: PU leather can be produced in many colors, textures, and finishes, making it a great option for fashion and design.
- Durability: PU leather is more durable than some of its synthetic leather counterparts, such as PVC leather.
- Easy to clean: PU leather is easy to clean and maintain, so it’s a popular choice for items such as furniture, automotive interiors, and handbags.
- Consistent quality: Because PU leather is a synthetic material, it can be produced with consistent quality and appearance.
- Water-resistant: PU leather is water-resistant and can withstand exposure to moisture without damage.
- Breathable: PU leather is more breathable than vinyl, making it a comfortable material for clothing and footwear.
- Hypoallergenic: PU leather is hypoallergenic, so it’s a safe choice for people with allergies or sensitive skin.
- Lightweight: PU leather is generally lighter than real leather, making it a practical choice for clothing.
There are some downsides to leather alternatives such as PU leather. Although it is an excellent option if you’re looking for true vegan products, it causes some environmental pollution and performance concerns. Among its biggest disadvantages is its potential negative effect on the environment, including the fact that it does not decompose and its tendency to show wear and tear, requiring replacement in just a few years.
- Not as breathable: PU leather is not as breathable as real leather and may cause discomfort when worn for long periods of time.
- Not as durable: While PU leather is more durable than vinyl, it won’t last as long as real leather and may begin to crack or peel after just a few years.
- Not as natural: PU leather is synthetic and may not have the same natural look and feel as real leather.
- Not as eco-friendly: While some types of PU leather may be eco-friendly, others are made from petrochemicals and can contribute to environmental concerns.
- Not as luxurious: While PU leather is usually less expensive than real leather, it doesn’t always have the same luxurious look and feel as real leather.
- Not as valuable: PU leather is not as valuable as real leather and may not hold its value as well over time.
- Limited repair options: If PU leather becomes damaged, it may be difficult to repair or restore compared to real leather.
- Limited customization options: PU leather can be produced in a variety of colors and textures, but it may not be as customizable as real leather.
- Not as timeless: PU leather may not have the same timeless appeal as real leather and may go out of fashion more quickly.
- Potential health concerns: Some types of PU leather may contain harmful chemicals, such as phthalates, which can pose health risks to consumers.
What is PVC Leather?
PVC, or vinyl leather, is made from two separate synthetic materials coated with a layer of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and plasticizers. The vinyl is melted onto its surface, sealing it closed and creating a durable finish. PVC leather can be manufactured to resemble genuine leather, but it is generally less breathable, less flexible, and less environmentally friendly than real leather.
What Is The Difference Between PU and PVC Leather?
PU leather features several layers of a polyurethane coating on a base material, offering flexibility and a smooth finish. In contrast, PVC leather consists of two layers of a cotton or polyester base onto which is melted a plastic coating, providing increased durability. While both imitate genuine leather, PU is more pliable, while PVC boasts a tougher construction.
What is Bonded leather?
Bonded leather, also known as reconstituted or blended leather, is a material made from scraps of leather, usually from cowhide, that is shredded and mixed with a polyurethane or latex binder. The resulting mixture is then applied to a backing material and embossed to resemble genuine leather. Bonded leather is typically more affordable than genuine leather but is less durable and has a shorter lifespan.
PU Leather vs. Bonded Leather
Bonded leather differs from PU leather and synthetic PU leather. In the production of bonded leather, the remnants of real leather are coated in an adhesive and bonded onto textured paper. The final product has the authentic appearance and feel of genuine leather, but it is not considered suitable for vegan customers because it contains animal products. In addition, both PU leather and bonded leather are less durable than real leather.
What is Bicast leather?
Bicast leather is a composite material made by coating a thin layer of a split leather base with a layer of polyurethane or vinyl. It has a leather-like texture and appearance but lacks genuine full-grain leather durability, aging characteristics, and breathability. It is generally more affordable and easier to maintain than full-grain leather.
PU Leather vs. Bicast Leather
The primary difference between bi-cast leather and PU leather is their composition. Bicast leather is made from a split leather base covered with a thin polyurethane or vinyl layer. In contrast, PU leather is entirely synthetic, made by coating a textile base with polyurethane. Bicast leather has a more natural appearance and texture, but PU leather offers greater durability and affordability.
What is Split leather?
Split leather is made from the fibrous inner layer of an animal hide (leather surface) that is separated from the top, or grain, layer. You may recognize it as suede, although some are treated with a topcoat to make it resemble actual leather. The type “leather” is less durable and less attractive than top-grain leather but is often more affordable. It is commonly used for lower-grade leather products, such as shoe linings and work gloves.
PU Leather vs. Split Leather
The primary difference between PU leather and split leather is their composition and properties. PU leather is a synthetic material coated with polyurethane, offering durability and a leather-like appearance. Split leathers are less valuable than the top split and are made from the fibrous inner layer of a hide. It is less durable and attractive than top-grain leather. Suede, which is the center split of a leather hide that is brushed to enhance its nap, is 100% genuine leather, whereas some are treated with a synthetic topcoat to mimic real leather.
What is Faux Leather?
Faux leather is a generic name for artificial or man-made leather. Other names for faux leather products are imitation, vegan, artificial, leatherette, and pleather. Depending on how it is manufactured, it may partially contain animal products.
The two basic 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.
PU Leather vs. Faux Leather
PU leathers and faux leather are both synthetic materials designed to imitate genuine leather. PU leather, made from polyurethane-coated fabrics, is a type of “fake” leather. In contrast, faux leather encompasses a broader range of artificial leathers, including PU, PVC (polyvinyl chloride), and other alternatives to real leather.
How Large is the Synthetic Leather Market?
Image from Polaris Market Research
According to Grand View Research, the global synthetic leather market size was valued at USD 33.7 billion in 2021. PU was the most widely produced synthetic leather, capturing 55% of the global revenue in 2021. https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/synthetic-leather-market
Why Choose Real Leather?
Real leather is the hide of bovine animals or cattle. A byproduct of the beef and dairy industry, the hides are tanned to prevent putrefaction and then dyed to the desired color. Learn more about genuine leather in our blog, “Everything You Need to Know About Leather.”
There are many different qualities and types of real leather. The various qualities include full-grain, corrected-grain leather, and top-grain leather. Different types include grain (surface) leather, suede, nubuck, and distressed leather.
What are the Benefits of Natural Leather?
Genuine leather has many desirable qualities. Any leather product will look more beautiful and become more valuable over time.
Here are some other features of leather that make it such a sought-after product:
- Smells and feels natural
- Develops a patina over time
- Has a long lifespan
- Is very durable
- It breathes, making it comfortable in cold or hot conditions
- Resists tearing and puncturing
- Biodegrades in a landfill
- Is a byproduct of the food industry
- Is a natural resource
- It is inherently flame-resistant
Pee-Ew! The Shocking Environmental Impact of PU Leather
It is an undeniable fact that both PU leather and PVC have a negative impact on the environment. PU leather is a petrochemical-based polymer that depends on raw materials such as oil.
Here are some reasons why PU leather should not be considered “eco-friendly:”
Because PU leather has a lifespan of just 3 – 5 years, unlike genuine leather, items made with it are disposed of much more frequently than those made with real leather.
It is a substantial downgrade from leather, which will last for decades, becoming worn and cracked over time. The only place to discard it is in a landfill because it emits toxic chemicals when burned.
PU leather is generally considered to be more environmentally friendly than PVC leather (vinyl) because it does not contain dioxins.
In addition, PU leather is combustible and, when burned, will produce carbon monoxide and other gases.
PU leather is made from fossil fuels, resulting in carbon dioxide emissions into the environment. PU leather causes micro-plastic pollution due to the amount of chemicals used to produce it. The plastics released toxins during manufacturing can find their way into the air and water supply.
PU leather is capable of releasing toxins during use. When washed, faux leather garments shed microplastics that end up in our oceans. PU leather is combustible and, when burned, will produce carbon monoxide.
After PU leather is discarded, it can take 500 years to decompose, meaning it is not biodegradable. However, over a period of time, it starts to break down into microplastics, causing the polyurethane to release phthalates into the air, which can irritate the lungs of all living things.
The Key Takeaways
The key takeaways of this guide include recognizing the distinct advantages and disadvantages of real and faux leather products. While PU leather is often touted as a sustainable and animal-friendly alternative, it has its own drawbacks, such as being non-biodegradable, potentially containing animal-derived materials, and having a shorter lifespan than real leather.
Therefore, assessing a product’s environmental impact, ethical implications, and durability is crucial before making a purchase.
Choosing between genuine and imitation leather is a personal decision that requires careful consideration. This guide provides valuable insights into PU leather, equipping readers with the necessary information to make informed decisions about future purchases.
Ultimately, the products you purchase depend on your preferences and values. It’s important to consider factors such as materials used, manufacturing processes, and environmental impact when selecting to purchase products. By considering these factors, you can make informed decisions that align with your values and contribute to more sustainable and ethical consumption of products.
Gaining a deeper understanding of PU leather’s limitations, such as its lack of sustainability, shorter lifespan, and potential use of animal-derived materials, encourages a more critical perspective before committing to a purchase.