Vegan leather is also known as faux leather – essentially a fake 'leather' material that does not use animal skin.
A range of materials can be used to make vegan leather, synthetics like plastic and natural materials such as cork.
Polyvinyl chloride a.k.a PVC and polyurethane (PU) are plastic-based materials that are the most commonly used materials for synthetic leathers. Fake leather is also well known as “pleather” derived from the term plastic leather.
These two commonly used synthetic materials, in particular, have raised questions about the safety and dangers of vegan leather to the environment. Very few vegan leathers are made from natural materials although it is possible to find more eco-friendly products made from materials like cork, kelp and even pineapple leaves.
HOW IS VEGAN LEATHER MADE?
The production of synthetic leather is through a combination of a range of different chemicals which is a completely different industrial process to real leather. Bonding plastic coating to a fabric backing is the most common way to produce faux leather; the types of plastic used in these coatings vary and this is what defines whether or not it is eco-friendly.
The use of PVC has decreased in making faux leather in comparison to the 1960s and '70s but it still remains the main component of some vegan leather. PVC releases dioxins, which are potentially dangerous in confined spaces and especially dangerous if burnt. It also uses plasticisers such as phthalates to make it flexible. Depending on the type of phthalate used, they’re extremely toxic. It has been described by Greenpeace as the “single most environmentally damaging type of plastic”.
The more modern and slightly less damaging plastic is PU, which is constantly being technically developed to reduce its flaws such as the hazardous toxins it releases during manufacturing and the oil-based polymers it’s made with which make use of fossil fuels.
WHAT DOES VEGAN LEATHER SMELL LIKE?
Vegan or Faux leather made with PVC or PU often has a very unique and strange smell due to its chemical composition. A smell likened to that of a smell from a fish or a 'fishy' smell which often can be very hard to get rid especially while trying not to ruin the material. PVC has the potential to outgas dangerous toxins that give off this nasty smell.
WHAT DOES VEGAN LEATHER LOOK LIKE?
Vegan leather comes in various forms and qualities, some very 'leather-like' than others. Generally speaking, and focusing on good quality vegan leather, there isn’t that much difference to real leather. However, since vegan leather is synthetic, it doesn’t form a natural patina like real leather does as it ages and it is much less breathable since the pores that are printed onto the surface of pleather are artificial.
REAL LEATHER VERSUS VEGAN LEATHER:
The main concerning factor for the majority of people when deciding between vegan and real leather is the impact it has on animals and the environment. Vegan leather might imply as an environmentally friendly product, this, however, is not always the case.
IS VEGAN LEATHER GOOD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT?
Faux leather a.k.a vegan leather because of the material used is never from animal skins but this is a huge benefit for animal activists, the manufacture of synthetic leather is not beneficial to the environment or humans due to the toxins in the plastics used to make them. The manufacture and disposal of PVC-based synthetics let out hazardous dioxins, which can cause developmental and reproductive issues and even cause cancer. The synthetics used in vegan leathers also don’t fully biodegrade, although they can be broken down to a degree, they can also release toxic particles and phthalates, which can affect the health of animals and the environment.
IS VEGAN LEATHER BETTER THAN REAL LEATHER?
Quality and durability are important factors to consider when comparing vegan to real leather. Vegan leather are often a lot thinner than real leather and much more lightweight which is great for fashion as it makes it potentially easier to work with, however, it also makes it less durable than real leather. Real, good quality leather can last decades when cared for, whereas you might only get a year or so out of a pair of shoes made from good quality faux leather. This is an important factor when deciding between fake leather and real leather as the environmental impact of replacing a fake leather product multiple times is arguably more damaging than the purchase of one real leather item.
Synthetic leathers also wear out very unattractively whereas real leather ages over time and form a natural patina, which is often considered to add character to the leather.
Faux leather, especially PVC based, isn’t breathable either whereas real leather has pores through which skin is able to breathe. So for clothing items such as jackets, vegan leather can be uncomfortable when worn for long periods of time.
In addition to environmental factors, faux leather is typically a lot cheaper than real leather products. This is because it’s cheaper to produce synthetic plastic leather than it is to produce real leather. The craftsmanship of leather products is a highly skilled job and bespoke leather products such as sofas, jackets and luggage can be thousands of dollars. Manufacturers are able to command these prices because they are considered both high quality and highly durable.
Vegan leather is waterproof since it is made with a plastic coating. This makes it easier to clean by using a mild detergent or just by wiping it with a damp cloth, however it also means that conditioning products can’t penetrate it to stop it from drying up and cracking, which can happen if the fake leather is in the sun a lot and also if it’s a particularly poor quality material. However, you can get certain products, which will cover the surface of the plastic to prevent high temperatures and sun rays from cracking the surface. Such products can also help to soften the material.