Pee-Ew! The Shocking Environmental Impact of PU Leather (and Everything Else You Need to Know)


Meryl Siegman

An Introduction to PU Leather

Some consumers have looked to faux leather an as alternative to real leather for a number of reasons, ranging from a commitment to practicing veganism to concern for the environment. There is lots of hype about faux leathers and lots of confusion as well.

The first thing to know about PU leather is that it is artificial. It contains no animal products and therefore can be considered “vegan.” 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, but rather an imitation made to look like leather.

PU leather (polyurethane leather) is made by coating a cotton or polyester base with a thermoplastic polymer and then treating it superficially to mimic real leather.

Faux leather is an artificial material that is made to look like leather. Other names for faux leather are imitation leather, vegan leather, artificial leather, leatherette and pleather. Depending on how it is manufactured, it may partially contain animal products.

Faux leather is an artificial material that is made to look like leather. Other names for faux leather are imitation leather, vegan leather, artificial leather, 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 was originally developed in the 1950s by various chemical companies, including DuPont. It consisted of a backing fabric coated with a flexible polymer, and was treated to look like genuine leather. It was more expensive to manufacture than vinyl.

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.

China is by far the world’s largest producer of faux leather.

There are two types of PU leather. One is called “bicast” or “semi-synthetic” leather. It is made with a leather backing to which a polyurethane topcoat has been applied. Full-synthetic PU leather has the same polyurethane topcoat, but its base material is fabric instead of leather so it does not contain any animal products. In both types of PU leather, the surface is embossed with a grain-like pattern to simulate the look of real leather.

In other words, beware! If you practice veganism and do not want to purchase products containing animal material, make sure the PU leather you are purchasing is fully synthetic!

Perhaps the best thing about PU leather is that it is less expensive than real leather. If you are a vegan and want purchase items that do not contain animal products, then PU is an appropriate choice as long as you know that it is fully- and not semi-synthetic.

PU leather is a more aesthetically pleasing and versatile product than PVC because it is softer and looks more realistic than vinyl. That said, there are many downsides to PU leather:

  • Does not biodegrade
  • Does not breathe
  • Has a very short lifespan
  • Has very little stretch or flexibility
  • Does not perform well, with a tendency to peel
  • Becomes uncomfortably cool when exposed to high moisture levels such as rain
  • Is not tear or puncture resistant
  • Lacks the pleasant scent of real leather
  • Can have a plasticky chemical look and smell
  • Does not develop a patina with age
  • Does not perform as well as leather when too hot or too cold

Real leather is the hide of bovine animals. A byproduct of the beef and dairy industry, the hides are tanned to prevent putrefaction and then dyed to the desire 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 leather, corrected leather, and top grain leather. Different types include grain (surface) leather, suede, nubuck, and distressed leather.

Showing leather to customer

Genuine leather has a lot going for it. Any leather product will look more beautiful and become more valuable over time. Here are some other features of leather than make it such a desirable 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 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 is a list of reasons why PU leather should not be considered “eco-friendly:”

PU leather causes micro-plastic pollution due to the amount of chemicals used to produce it. The plastics release toxins during the manufacturing process that can find their way in air and the water supply.

In addition, PU leather is made from fossil fuels, resulting in the emission of carbon dioxide into the environment during production.

PU leather is capable of releasing toxins during use. When washed, faux leather garments shed microplastics that end up in our oceans.

In addition, PU leather is combustible and, when burned, will produce carbon monoxide.

After PU leather discarded, it can take 500 years for it to decompose, meaning that it is not sustainable. However, after a long period time it starts to break down into microplastics and the polyurethane releases phthalates into the air, which can irritate the lungs of all living things.

In addition, PU leather is combustible and, when burned, will produce carbon monoxide.

Because PU leather has a lifespan of 3 – 5 years, 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.

PU leather is generally considered to be more environmentally friendly than PVC leather (vinyl) because it does not contain dioxins.

As opposed to fully-synthetic PU leather, bonded leather is a mixture of leather and plastic. Leftover scraps produced during the leather making process are mixed with a polyurethan binder and then rolled with adhesives onto a paper backing.

Most bonded leather contains only 10% to 20% actual leather. It is sometimes referred to as faux leather,” but a more accurate term is “reconstituted” leather.

PU leather is used to make clothing, footwear, accessories and sporting goods, and upholstery for watercraft, airplanes and furniture. Although it requires very little maintenance, its surface may rub off over time, particularly in environments where there is a lot of wear and tear, such as automobiles.

A leather handbag or purse is a coveted item in fashion. It is glamorous, luxurious and chic. It will age beautifully, and resists punctures, scratches and tears. And it will last practically forever.

So why choose a handbag made from PU leathers?  First of all, it’s far less expensive, even though it won’t last very long. It’s also lighter than leather: some leather handbags can feel quite hefty. Finally, it does not require any maintenance. 

Full grain leather is the most beautiful of all leathers. It’s leather whose natural grain has not been mechanically buffed to remove superficial defects. If you look at full grain under a magnifying glass, you’ll see peaks and valleys as well as hair sacs. Each item made from full grain leather is unique and crafted by nature, not artificially embossed.

Full grain leather will last a lifetime. A mag made from full grain leather will cost more, but it’s worth the investment because of its longevity and the fact that it will become more beautiful with use.

PU leather can be used to upholstery furniture. It is available in a variety of colors and finishes and is easy to maintain. It also brings down the cost of the furniture. However, PU leather tears easily and has very little stretch or elasticity.

There’s a lot to think about when you buy a product made from real leather or a leather substitute. Whether it’s the right choice for you depends on your lifestyle, philosophy and what you feel comfortable living with. We hope this article on PU leather has made you think twice before purchasing it, because it is not sustainable, it does not last long, and it may not even be made from purely animal-free products.

Shopping Cart