What You Should Know Before Purchasing Vegan Leather

You’ve probably heard the term “vegan leather,” which is often touted as a cruelty-free, eco-friendly alternative to real leather. But the more research you do, the more yoAu will discover different definitions and opposing points of view. Some say it is an excellent example of eco-innovation, while others say it’s just a fancy term for plastic. The answer to the question, “What is vegan leather?” depends on whom you ask or what you read.

In this article, we take a deep dive into vegan leather: what it is (and isn’t), its benefits and downsides, what it’s used for, and how it compares to genuine leather, so you can decide for yourself if it is the right choice for you.

“Vegan” most often refers to a person who maintains a diet containing no food that comes from animals. As an adjective, it means eating, using or containing no food or other products derived from animals.

Wikipedia defines “veganism” as “the practice of abstaining from the use of animal product—particularly in diet—and an associated philosophy that rejects the commodity status of animals. An individual who follows the diet or philosophy is known as a vegan…Dietary vegans, also known as ‘strict vegetarians,’ refrain from consuming meat, eggs, dairy products, and any other animal-derived substances. An ethical vegan is someone who not only excludes animal products from their diet but also does not wear animal-derived clothing, opposes the use of animals for any purpose, and tries to avoid cruelty and exploitation of all animals wherever practical. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veganism

It follows, then, that vegan leather is “leather” made without the use of animal products. So far, so good. However, there is no official definition of the term, and it has been used in many different and contradictory ways.

No wonder you’re confused, especially because “vegan” has been applied to leather that is not entirely plant based. Keep in mind the next time you see the word “vegan” to describe leather that in most cases it is just a marketing term.

Vegan leather is often used as simply another name for fake leather of any kind. Other terms are faux leather, artificial leather, manmade leather, PU leather, pleather and leatherette. Fake leather can be defined as an imitation leather-like material made without the use of animal skins.

If that is how one defines vegan leather, then it belongs to a class of artificial “leather” products that includes material made from polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC). PU leather is made by coating a cotton or polyester base with a thermoplastic polymer and then treating it to mimic real leather. PVC leather is produced by fusing vinyl with a textile base. It derives from crude oil. PVC is known to release polluting compounds called dioxins. Both are considered damaging to humans, animals and the environment.

There is another camp that believes vegan leather is 100% plant-based. It looks and feels like leather, but is made from plant-based materials such as kelp, cactus, mushrooms, grapes, apple peels and pineapple leaves. These are very different products than PU and PVC and, if pure, may be a better definition of “vegan leather.”
But don’t be misled! Even these plant-based materials can be combined with a percentage of plastic polymers, ranging from 10% to 60%. Some vegan leathers are eco-friendly if in fact they are natural, in which case they are free from toxins and will biodegrade. However, many of these leather products are coated in PVC or are sewn onto a fabric containing PVC.

Popular brands often use the term “vegan leather” for marketing purposes, to make it seem as if they are committed to veganism. Unfortunately, “vegan leather” is used to describe materials with very different properties and composition.

The term can also be a form of “greenwashing.” You could argue that “vegan leather” should be used only by those brands that are committed to being 100% vegan.

The misuse of the word “leather” has become such a global issue that the Italian Council of Ministers has issued a degree protecting the term “leather” by banning terms such as “vegan leather.” The new law not only establishes the correct terminology; it also establishes a ban on the use of the term “leather” to identify materials which do not have an animal origin. Amazing!

Some vegan leathers are attractive, and may be hard to distinguish from real leather at first glance. But looks aren’t everything! Here are a few things to consider:

·   Vegan leather is not as durable as real leather, in part because it’s a lot thinner;

·   Vegan leather won’t last nearly as long as real leather, so the environmental impact of constantly replacing it can be more damaging to the environment than the production of leather;

·   While real leather will develop a patina and become more beautiful with age, synthetic leathers often don’t wear well and are subject to cracking and peeling;

·   PVC-based vegan leather doesn’t breathe, making it uncomfortable to be worn as shoes or clothing;

·   Vegan leather can have a shiny appearance and look like plastic;

·   Vegan leather can have an unpleasant chemical smell or even contain toxic elements;

·   Some vegan leathers can be as expensive as actual leather.

On the other hand, real leather is 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.

Remember, not all vegan leather is created equal. Whether it is sustainable depends on how it was made and what its components consist of. Some are made from plant-based materials, while others come from artificial ones. Not only that, but just because a product isn’t made from animal products doesn’t necessarily make it sustainable.
Most leather substitutes, including items made from “vegan” leather, are plastics-based, meaning many of them are derived from fossil fuels.
If you find out that the vegan leather you are considering purchasing is derived from plastics, then stay away. It is definitely not “sustainable.” The very process by which it is made can be harmful to the environment. During its lifespan, its microfibers can shed, threatening human health because they can end up in the food chain. Finally, when it’s disposed of in a landfill, it does not decompose, contributing to microplastic pollution, a worldwide problem.

As a consumer, you should do your research about what you are buying: what it’s made of and how it is made. Talk to salespeople and representatives, and check out websites. If you discover that the “vegan” leather you are considering buying contains plastic, think twice.

There are non-profit organizations that approve and certify vegan products. For example, The Vegetarian Society accredits items that meet their strict criteria. It offers “approved” trademarks, allowing its symbol to be used on thousands of products around the world, including clothes, shoes and handbags. Approved products must meet the following criteria:

·   Contains no animal-derived ingredients

·   GMO-free

·   No animal testing carried out or commissioned

Look for its trademark to see if the product you wish to buy is on their approved list. www.vegsoc.org/trademark-criteria or any other certification from a reliable company.

There are some vegan leather products out there that are plant-based, although some of them, such as “leather” made from paper, canvas, cork, recycled plastic and upcycled rubber, hardly resemble leather at all. Calling them “leather” can be a bit of a stretch. Others contain fossil fuel-based plastics.

· Apple Peel Leather by Veerah comes from apple peels left over from the apple juice industry, but it’s 50% polyurethane.

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

·   Corn Leather by Veja is derived from corn. It is a waxed canvas, coated with resin from the corn waste industry that looks and feels similar to leather. 

·   Desserto is a plant-based leather grown from cactus leaves in Mexico. Although it devoid of PVC, toxic chemicals, and phthalates, making it requires using certain binding agents. It is considered “partially biodegradable.”

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

·   MuSkin is a vegan leathers made from mushroom caps. It’s tanned with non-toxic ingredients and is advertised to be softer and more water repellent than real leather.

·   Piñatex® Original Pineapple Leather is a byproduct deriving 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.   

As you can see, there is a wide variety of products called “vegan leather.” The majority of them consist of plant material mixed with synthetic polymers to give them the durability and strength necessary to do their job. to be functional. In addition, they tend to be expensive, and most of them don’t come close to the durability and lifespan of actual leather.

Many items that are made from real leather can also be produced with vegan leather. The most common are clothing, such as a vegan leather jacket, handbags and backpacks, sporting goods and furniture. It is widely used in the automotive industry. While these items are usually less expensive ones made with genuine leather, many are made from cheap-to-produce plastics.
The shoe industry is a big consumer of vegan leather. According to one international research company, the footwear segment led the global synthetic leather marketing, accounting for a revenue share of more than 33 percent in 2021. https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/synthetic-leather-market

If you are a practicing vegan according to the definition in Wikipedia, then by all means, don’t purchase any product made from genuine leather, whether it’s a pair of shoes, handbag, bomber jacket or a car with leather seats. Many oppose the commodification of leather as a form of cruelty to animals, and certainly they should make their purchases based on their beliefs, philosophy and lifestyle.

If this sounds like you, 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 buying something called “vegan” leather is 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 vegan leather.

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

As you now know, 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. Many brands are happy to have you believe you are doing good for the environment simply by calling their product “vegan.” While some brands are transparent and open, others market their merchandise with enticing images, without offering information to back up their claims. Yes, they might be pulling wool over your eyes.

You deserve better than that. Do your research, and then follow your heart.


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