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Vegan Leather-Exploring Quality Sustainability and Trends

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No doubt you’ve heard the term “vegan leather,” often touted as a cruelty-free, eco-friendly alternative to natural leather. As the use of synthetic leather continues to rise in the “sustainable” fashion and lifestyle industries, it’s tempting to jump on the bandwagon and purchase a product it’s made from.

But before you do, it is important to consider the differences in vegan leather. The more research you do, the more you’ll discover different definitions and opposing viewpoints.

Some say vegan-friendly leather is a great example of eco-innovation, while others claim it’s just a fancy term for plastic. The answer to the question? It depends on whom you ask.

The term “vegan leather” refers to artificial leather, such as pleather, leatherette, PU leather, PVC, and man-made leather. However, it’s important to note that not all artificial leathers are vegan leather. Suede, bonded, and patent leather may be mistaken for vegan leather, but they are derived from animal hides or contain animal products.

As so-called sustainable vegan leather alternatives or eco-friendly materials become increasingly popular and trendy, many people are turning from traditional leather. But how sustainable and durable is this plant-based material, “vegan leather,” compared to the real thing? In this article, we provide an in-depth analysis of the differences in sustainability between those who prefer vegan leather and traditional leather and a comprehensive examination of what “vegan” leather truly is (and isn’t), its benefits, and drawbacks.

 

What is Vegan Leather or Faux Leather?

Image of vegan leather concept with how vegan leather is made with ladybugs and green grass background

Vegan leather and faux leather products are synthetic materials created to replace real traditional leather made from animal hides. Vegan leather is made produced using either polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane (PU), two types of plastic polymers. Synthetic leather has become popular in industries such as automotive seating, fashion, and furniture due to its easy maintenance and perceived eco-friendliness compared to traditional leather. However, it’s important to note that the term “vegan” when it comes to synthetic vegan leather fabric and materials has no official definition or regulation, leading to inconsistent usage and confusion.

PU vegan alternatives are often considered superior because of their realistic-looking wrinkled texture. Even though this material can be made from sources such as pineapple leaves, cork, apple peels, or recycled plastic, it may not always be 100% plant-based. Moreover, some man-made products used in the production of this material can contain animal-derived ingredients such as glues made from animal bones or fat. This means that even if the final product doesn’t contain animal skin, it may not be entirely “cruelty-free.”

As more consumers become conscious of their environmental impact and ethical practices, vegan leather has emerged as a popular alternative to traditional leather. While there may seem to be clear benefits to using vegan leather, it’s important for consumers to do their research and exercise caution when making purchasing decisions, particularly for those who prioritize sustainability and ethical practices.

The lack of an official definition for vegan leather can create ambiguity and lead to misleading labeling by some manufacturers. Therefore, consumers should remain vigilant and look for certifications or evidence that a product is truly free of animal-derived ingredients. By doing so, they can make informed decisions that align with their values and contribute to a more sustainable future.

The Future of Vegan Leather

Close-up view of grunge vegan leather and pu leather with gold metallic textile samples swatch in various shades of grey, beige, and brown, showcasing the future of faux leather interior finishing materials.

 

As consumers become increasingly aware of the environmental impact of their purchases, the search for sustainable and ethical materials has become a priority. While vegan leather has become a popular alternative to animal-based leather, it’s important to approach these options with a critical eye because not everything is promoted truthfully.

Popular materials used as substitutes for traditional leather in fast fashion include polyurethane, Pinatex or pineapple, PVC, mushroom, cork, kombucha, and cactus leather. Each material has different sustainable and eco-friendly properties, but it’s important to note that not all vegan leather is created equal. Some types of faux leather, such as those made from PVC, may contain harmful chemicals and microplastics that can negatively impact the environment. Others made solely from plants may lack the necessary durability.

It’s important for consumers to do their research and choose high-quality, sustainable materials that align with their values and priorities. Certifications or evidence that a product is truly free of animal-derived ingredients can help guide purchasing decisions.

As the demand for sustainable and “cruelty-free” fashion grows, vegan leather is gaining popularity, especially in the fast fashion industry. From polyurethane to cactus, these “eco-friendly” materials offer a range of options suitable for any season and style. However, it’s crucial for consumers to remain vigilant and make informed decisions that prioritize sustainability and ethical practices, as many of these options lack the quality and durability demanded in these areas.

Now that we’ve explored the increasing popularity of the vegan leather market and its “eco-friendly properties,” let’s take a closer look at the different types of vegan leather available on the market today.

Types of Vegan Leather

Image of different types of vegan leather products including cork, pineapple, mushroom, and apple leather

 

In the quest for sustainable fashion, many people have turned to plant-based vegan leather as an “eco-friendly” alternative to traditional leather. While some options are indeed biodegradable and safe for the environment, others may contain harmful chemicals. That’s why luxury fashion brands are now exploring innovative sources such as mushrooms, pineapple fibers, and grape waste to create vegan leather that is both eco-friendly and safe.

These new materials offer a unique look and texture while still being durable and soft. However, it’s important to note that some synthetic leather products may contain plastic polymers ranging from 10% to 60%. So while some may feel great about moving away from animal products, it’s also crucial to be aware of what exactly goes into the products we choose to buy. We can help support a more sustainable and ethical fashion industry by staying informed and making conscious choices.

 

Fashion: Exploring Synthetic Leather and Animal-Free Alternatives:

Apple Peel Leather– Made by Veerah, it comes from apple peels left over from the apple juice industry, but its composition is 50% polyurethane.

Cereal Crop Leather– This is made from – you guessed it – cereal crops, but it contains a mixture of polyurethane and bio-oil.

Corn Leather- Made by Veja, it is derived from corn. It’s a waxed canvas coated with resin from the corn waste industry that looks and feels similar to traditional leather.

Mushroom leather- A leather-like material made from the root structure of mushrooms, it is known for its durability and softness.

Wine leather skin- This vegan leather-like material is made from grape waste, known for its texture and durability.

Desserto- This plant-based leather is grown from cactus leaves in Mexico. Although it doesn’t contain PVC, toxic chemicals, or phthalates, it requires using specific binding agents. It is considered “partially biodegradable.”

Flower Leather- “Fleather” is made from leftover temple flowers, although it’s not yet on the market.

MuSkin– This one is made from mushroom caps. It’s a type of vegetable-tanned leather alternative with non-toxic ingredients and is advertised to be softer and more water-repellent than real leather.

Pineapple leather- It’s a leather-like vegan leather material made from the fibers of pineapple leaves, known for its breathability and strength.

Piñatex®- Original Pineapple Leather is a byproduct derived from the pineapple bush. It is said to be very durable. However, Piñatex is coated with a petroleum-based resin, meaning it’s not biodegradable.

 

Alternatives to Real Traditional Leather:
For Clothing, Accessories, and More

Image of various vegan leather products in the fashion industry made from synthetic materials showcasing the future of faux leather

 

Leather alternatives are not just for clothing and accessories anymore – they are now used in a variety of products, including furniture and sporting goods. Even rock stars are turning to faux leather pants as a fashion statement.

While synthetic leather is widely used in the luxury sector, including the fashion and automotive industries, some of the less expensive products are made from cheap-to-produce plastics. This can be particularly problematic in the footwear industry, which heavily relies on synthetic materials. In fact, according to a leading international research company, the footwear segment accounted for over 33% of the global synthetic leather market revenue in 2021.

It’s important to note that the use of is not without its controversies. Some products are made from harmful plastics that can be detrimental to the environment, and the production process can also have negative impacts. As the demand for sustainable and ethical alternatives continues to grow, it’s important for companies to prioritize high-quality and eco-friendly materials in their products.

However, the question remains: Is there such a thing as truly plant-based “leather?”

Guidelines for Identifying Vegan “Leather” Products

  1. Check the Label: Pay close attention to their labeling to identify legitimate vegan “leather” items. Look for descriptions such as “100% Synthetic,” “Man-Made Materials,” or “All Man-Made Materials.” Be wary of phrases like “Real Traditional Leather” or “Made with Real Traditional Leather,” as these typically indicate the use of animal hides.
  2. Feel the Texture: The vegan “leather” texture is generally more uniform than real traditional leather. Expect a smooth, consistent surface throughout, while real traditional leather usually has a more irregular, organic texture.
  3. Look for Certifications: Some vegan “leather” products may carry certifications like “PETA-Approved Vegan”. These certifications provide assurance that the items meet specific vegan-friendly standards.
  4. Consider the Price: Typically, vegan “leather” tends to be more affordable than real traditional leather. If a “leather” item’s price seems unusually low, it’s likely a vegan “leather” product.
  5. Smell It: Real traditional leather has a unique scent that is difficult to replicate. If the product lacks a strong, natural aroma, it’s likely that it’s vegan “leather.”

 

Is There Such a Thing as Truly Plant-Based Leather?

Image of synthetic leather materials, plant-based materials, including mushroom leather and pineapple leather, being used to create vegan leather products, clothing and accessories, under the heading 'Is There Such a Thing as Truly Plant-Based vegan Leather

 

While some Vegan plant-based leather on the market is truly plant-based, it can’t be used for clothing or accessories because it’s not durable enough.

Other types of “leather” made from paper, canvas, cork leather, recycled plastic, and upcycled rubber hardly resemble genuine leather, so calling them “leather” can be a bit of a stretch. However, it’s important to note that these materials can still be sustainable and eco-friendly alternatives to traditional leather.

 

Are Plant-Based “Vegan Leather” Really Environmentally Friendly? Let’s Explore The Answer

Some vegan leathers contain fossil fuel-based plastics, which can be harmful to the environment. In fact, some of these “vegan materials” can even release microplastics into the environment, causing further damage.

Understanding the sustainability debate between real and vegan leather products in the fashion industry is crucial for making informed decisions about our clothing purchases. Let’s dive into the details.

 

The Sustainability Debate:
Comparing Real and Vegan Leather In The Fashion Industry

Image comparing the sustainability of real and vegan leather in the fashion industry, featuring cowhide and vegan leather made from recycled materials.

 

As the world changes, so too does our approach to fashion. Consumers are becoming increasingly environmentally conscious, and the sustainability movement has become a hot topic in the industry. But sustainability is more than just a trendy buzzword; it’s a movement that has the potential to make a real difference.

However, the question remains: Are we moving in the right direction, and will this movement positively impact our planet? As sustainability becomes a top priority in the fashion industry, the question of real versus faux leather takes on even greater significance. Understanding the environmental implications of these materials is key to making informed choices as consumers.

If you have ever bought a new car, shoes, handbag, purse, wallet, or furniture, you probably intentionally made a choice between a product made from genuine leather and one made from a fake leather alternative.  Consumers always face this dilemma but need to be made aware of what truly goes into manufacturing these products. As a result, they are surprised when they learn the truth regarding the sustainability of leather and vegan (faux leather) products.

Not all alternatives are created equal. Whether or not it’s sustainable depends on how it was made and what it is made from. Some consist of plant-based materials, while others are produced from artificial ones. Don’t forget: a product isn’t necessarily sustainable just because it’s made from raw materials or doesn’t contain animal products.

Most leather substitutes, including “vegan” alternatives, are plastics-based. In other words, they are derived from fossil fuels. For example, pleather, a substitute for real leather used in products such as faux leather jackets, is considered by some to be vegan because it doesn’t contain any animal products.  Vegan leather is made by coating a fabric base with polyurethane coating or polyvinyl chloride and imitates the texture and appearance of genuine leather through embossing or texturing.

When considering purchasing vegan leather, it’s important to do your research and ensure that the alternative you are about to buy is truly sustainable and eco-friendly. Once you discover that the “vegan” alternative you are about to buy is made from plastic, you’ll realize it is not “sustainable,” so you may change your mind. With that in mind, have you ever wondered about the longevity and durability of vegan leather?

How Long Does Vegan Leather Last?

Vegan leather has to be durable in order to be used for clothing, shoes, or furniture.  But its lifespan depends on what it’s made from and how well you take care of it. Maintaining it properly can last for years – although not as long as genuine leather. So make sure you know what your vegan material is made from and how to take care of it to get the most use out of it.

Always check the label before throwing your vegan leather garments in the washing machine. Only some are machine-washable. Others need to be hand-washed with mild cleaners. For everyday cleaning, use gentle cleansers when hand-washing; apply a conditioner once a month to keep the fabric soft and supple. Store them in a cool, dry place, away from direct light, so they don’t fade or crack over time.

 

The Environmental Impact of Leather vs. Vegan Leather Alternatives

Comparison of the Environmental Impact of Leather and Vegan leather and animal leather Alternatives in terms of Carbon Footprint, Water Usage, and Chemical Pollution.

 

It’s no secret that popular brands and global fashion brands often use the term “vegan leather” for marketing purposes to make it seem that they are committed to veganism. However, this term can refer to many different materials with varying properties and compositions. It can be a form of “greenwashing” – a tactic companies use to appear environmentally conscious without actually being so.

You could argue that the term  “vegan” as a denotation of sustainable alternatives should be reserved for brands that are truly committed to being 100% vegan rather than just using it as a marketing tool.

In contrast, while the leather industry has flaws, advancements in the tanning process and sustainability have made it the superior and eco-friendly choice. Real leather has been used for centuries and is known for its durability and longevity, contributing to its sustainability.

That being said, both real and all vegan leathers have environmental impacts, and the impact varies depending on factors such as the materials and production processes used. While there may be concerns regarding the impact of both real and vegan leather production on the environment, the leather manufacturing industry has made significant advancements toward being ethical and sustainable, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and being environmentally conscious, particularly in the tanning process.

It’s worth noting that the misuse of the term “leather”  when used as “vegan leather” has become such a global issue that the Italian Council of Ministers has issued a decree protecting the term by banning terms such as “vegan leather.” This law establishes the correct terminology and a ban on using “leather” to identify materials that don’t come from cows. Pretty amazing!

Why so Much Confusion?

Image of a woman sitting on a faux vegan leather couch, looking confused

 

If you’re confused about the term “vegan leather,” it’s not surprising, as the term itself can be misleading! The term “vegan” means free from animal products or leather. The use of the word “leather” with “vegan” is oxymoronic to the term, which refers to something that doesn’t contain animal products.

Unfortunately, the use of vague marketing terms like “vegan leather,” “leatherette,” and “PU Leather” is confusing consumers.

According to an excellent article from One4leather.org, 30% of consumers believe that vegan leather is (at least partly) made from animal hide. In comparison, 55% of consumers believe “PU Leather” (made from polyurethane plastic) is partly made from animal hide. This trend is concerning, as some consumers may end up purchasing products they believe are made from real leather when they’re actually not. Rather than using “vegan leather,” why not use a more precise description like “synthetic” or “fake”? This accurately reflects the product and eliminates confusion.

Can Vegan Leather Rival the Quality of the Real Thing?

This is an image comparing the quality of vegan leather and real traditional leather.

 

Some consumers may avoid real leather because they’re concerned about the ethics of buying a product made from an animal’s hides or skin, especially because they may believe that animals are typically killed for their hides. This is a common misconception. In reality, most hides used to make leather come from animals raised by the dairy and meat industry. In fact, LeatherNaturally.org reports that 99% of the world’s leather comes from animals raised for food.

Leather is a byproduct of the meat and dairy industries, promoting the highly sustainable process of maximizing animal utilization. As long as humans consume meat and dairy products, hides and skins will be an inevitable byproduct.

Unless they’re used for leather, animal skins would be disposed of in landfills, which is a highly unsustainable practice. A strong argument can be made that we have a social responsibility to recycle these hides into leather, which is far more environmentally responsible than creating waste.

Some people are concerned about the leather tanning and production process itself. While it can be a cause for concern, more natural and less harmful tanning options are becoming more widely used worldwide. We support and encourage the leather industry to continue to prioritize sustainability in leather production, making it fully recyclable, biodegradable, and sustainable. As the age-old debate continues to rage on, many are left wondering: Which truly reigns supreme in terms of durability and quality?

Faux Leather: What Exactly Is It?

Faux leather, also known as imitation leather or synthetic leather, refers to materials made from petroleum-based plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane (PU) instead of genuine leather. It typically consists of a fabric backing, often polyester or cotton, coated with an embossed plastic polymer layer designed to imitate the look and feel of real leather. Faux leather is used as a cheaper alternative to genuine leather in products like clothing, furniture, and accessories. Faux leather also raises concerns regarding sustainability due to its plastic origins and chemical processing. As the debate continues over which option is more durable and higher quality, it’s important to understand exactly what faux leather is.

Which Has Better Quality and Durability, Animal Leather or Synthetic Leather?

The debate around the superior quality and durability of real leather compared to synthetic options is complex, centering on concerns around environmental impact and animal welfare.

A true alternative to leather should not contain any animal products, making it a more ethical choice for those concerned about animal activism.

On the other hand, some argue that real leather is more sustainable because it is a natural material as well as a byproduct of the meat production industry. Real leather is eco-friendly, soft, beautiful, and elegant. It also breathes. If well cared for, it can last for years. Leather is durable, strong, and resistant to damage such as tearing. Unlike plastic, it becomes more beautiful and valuable as it ages.

While real leather will develop a patina and become more beautiful with age, synthetic alternatives to leather often don’t wear well and can crack and peel even after just a few years of use.

Some vegan leathers look so much like real leather you may not be able to distinguish them from real leather at first glance. But looks aren’t everything! Here are a few things to consider:

  • Less durable than real leather, partly because it’s much thinner.
  • It won’t last nearly as long as real leather. As a result, the environmental impact of replacing it often can be more damaging to the environment than the production of leather.
  • PVC-based vegan alternatives don’t breathe, making it uncomfortable to be worn as shoes or clothing.
  • It can have a shiny appearance and look like plastic.
  • It can have an unpleasant chemical smell or even contain toxic chemicals.
  • Cost: Some vegan leathers can be as expensive as real leather.

What if You’re a True Vegan?

Image of a person holding a sign that says "What about you?" with a vegan symbol in the background asking the question is vegan leather right for you?

 

If you are a vegan, which according to Wikipedia, is “the practice of abstaining from the use of animal product…and an associated philosophy that rejects the commodity status of animals,” then by all means, don’t purchase any product made from genuine leather, whether it’s a pair of shoes, a handbag, a bomber jacket, or a car with leather seats. You should make your purchases based on your beliefs, philosophy, and lifestyle.

Before you hand over your credit card, make sure you understand what you are buying, what it’s made from, and how it’s made. You may find that a material called “vegan” is really a cheap plastic that is harmful to the environment, won’t biodegrade, and won’t last very long. That may mean sticking to natural materials such as wool, cotton, silk, hemp, and linen instead of purchasing fake, faux, or synthetic leather.

That said, even natural materials such as cotton and silk can negatively impact the environment due to their water-intensive production product and the use of pesticides in their production.

The Key Takeaway…

As you have learned, there is no clear definition of “vegan” leather. It could be a material made entirely from PU or PVC or a plant-based one with a petroleum-based topcoat. However, many brands are happy to have you believe you are doing good for the environment by buying a product that they call “vegan.”

While some brands are transparent and open, others market their merchandise with enticing images without offering information to back up their claims. So yes, they might be pulling the wool over your eyes.
When considering real leather vs. “vegan” leather, look beyond the marketing jargon and perceptions often associated with the products. Names such as “vegan ” might give you the impression that the product is more sustainable than it is. This greenwashing of faux leather and vegan leather may unknowingly lead you to make an uninformed or misguided purchase.

Real leather can be far more sustainable than many plastic-based alternative products.  Ultimately, it is up to you to do your homework and make responsible choices the next time you have to decide between real leather or plastic-based alternatives. Do your research, and then follow your heart.

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