What is Vegan Leather? And Why You MUST Choose It

Durable, long-lasting, and high-quality, animal-based leather has long been a staple in fashion, furniture, and other popular industries. Though leather products have been used for thousands of years, it’s an unsustainable and damaging material.

Animal leather undoubtedly contributes to climate change. It has a large carbon footprint, it fuels deforestation in the Amazon, and it uses dangerous chemicals in its processing. 

Introducing vegan leather, a more sustainable alternative. Ta-da!

With a similar look and feel, vegan leather has become increasingly popular. Consider switching to vegan leather to end your contribution to the negative effects of real leather.

Before looking at what these negative effects are, however, it’s worth looking at what vegan leather is and what it’s used for.

What Is Vegan Leather?

Vegan leather is any synthetic alternative to real leather that does not harm or exploit animals in any stage of material sourcing or processing. Vegan leather is any leather made out of non-animal products that mimics the real deal’s look and feel.

Eliminating the use of animal products or byproducts makes vegan leather a more sustainable version of the fabric. Vegan leather also has other advantages that set it apart from its animal-based alternatives.

It focuses on using natural materials and sustainable synthetic materials rather than animal skins. Because of plant-based materials and a focus on sustainability, the vegan leather production process is more environmentally-friendly than that of real leather. In fact, a 2018 report determined that vegan leather cuts the environmental damage of real leather by a third. 

Does Vegan Leather Have Any Downsides?

The production of vegan leather differs depending on the material used in place of real leather. While this process is what makes vegan leather vegan, it does have its downsides.

It’s worth noting, however, that not all vegan leather suffers from these. Enough vegan leathers do that they’re worth being aware of.

Fish-like smell

Depending on the material used to create it, vegan leather can have a fish-like smell, though it may not smell at all. It can be caused by, as FavoredLeather.com reports, a number of circumstances:

  • Oils and chemicals used in vegan leathers’ tanning process
  • Leather becoming wet and smelling
  • Sweat absorption
  • Aging of vegan leather, although this could also affect real leather
  • Type of glue used

Though vegan leathers can suffer from this, not all of them do. This particular vegan leather smell, however, can be easy to get rid of.

Plastic smell

Vegan leather can also have a plastic smell. Real leather, on the other hand, usually has an earthy smell. The plastic smell typically means the leather is made of a plastic counterpart.

Like the fish-like smell, this is driven by the use of chemicals, in this case thanks to the plastic material used.

Vegan leather made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU) are more likely to suffer from this, since they’re synthetic plastic leathers.

What Is Vegan Leather Made Of?

Various materials are used to make vegan leather. Some are common materials, such as PVC, the most popular, and PU, which is a close second.

These are slowly being phased out, however. They both take thousands of years to biodegrade and contain various chemicals that give them their leather-like appearance. This plastic-based, synthetic leather—or “pleather”—was deemed “greenwashing” and sparked socio-environmental concerns, particularly where PVC is concerned.

These concerns have led to the development of multiple new, environmentally-friendly options. Here is an overview on each material used to make fake leather.

Polyurethane leather (PU)

A faux leather, PU is created using a base fiber—usually polyester—and coating it with a polyurethane layer. This fake leather product is lighter than its animal-based counterpart, but it’s less durable and won’t last buyers as long.

PU leather is used in every area that animal leather is used in, however, and is one of the more popular alternatives. As it’s made from plastic-based materials, it’s not the most sustainable alternative leather material.

Polyvinyl chloride leather (PVC)

PVC leather is a plastic-based leather created by swapping out the hydrogen in vinyl with chloride. As Riwick notes, it’s then combined with various chemicals to produce a long-lasting and durable plastic.

PVC is not one of the more sustainable vegan fabrics. While it can be durable, it’s not known to last too long, especially compared to animal leather.

One of the more popular faux leathers, as mentioned above, there are increasing environmental concerns about the material. Despite this, this faux leather is used to create vegan leather shoes, handbags, and many of the same goods as animal leather.

Mango or pineapple leather

Fruit leather has recently become a more effective sustainable vegan leather. Primarily made out of mangos or pineapple leaves, it’s biodegradable and has a lower impact on the environment. In short, it is a sustainable vegan material.

As Healabel notes, fruit leather is a vegan leather that primarily uses discarded fruits that otherwise would’ve been wasted. With food waste being an increasingly serious issue, minimizing this problem by repurposing unused food is a welcome benefit.

The process itself is simple and only takes a few steps, especially with pineapple leaves. As Panaparium notes, this is as long-lasting—if not more so—than real leather. To date, the material has been used in bags, shoes, wallets, and more.

Mexican cactus leather

Though still in its infancy, leather made from Mexican cacti could prove useful. The brand Desserto first released a line including faux leather made from cacti in 2019 to a positive reception, leading to more products from plant-based materials.

This leather alternative could prove more popular in the future. As Fashion United highlights, it’s made without toxic chemicals, is partially biodegradable, and is cruelty free.

As Fashion United states, products made from this leather should last at least 10 years. It’s used in the same ways as its animal-based counterpart, including cars, clothing, and accessories.

Mushroom leathers

Mushroom leather is made from the vegetative part of a fungus. While a relatively recent invention—Fibre2Fashion claims it started to become popular in 2012—it’s showing promise as a sustainable and eco-friendly leather alternative.

The organic material can be sustainably grown and harvested, with the mushrooms themselves being a natural part of biodiversity. Though used in the same areas as animal leather, it can also be used for insulation and other areas.

It’s worth noting, however, that mushroom leather is less durable than its animal-based alternative.

Kombucha leather

A flexible biomaterial, kombucha leather is created using bacteria and yeast. These ingredients spin microfibers using cellulose nanofibers.

When used in a dry sheet form, the material can be treated like any other textile and can apply to many of the same uses as leather that uses actual animal skin.

Because it’s a fake leather with a lower impact on the environment, it’s a more vegan-friendly option. The growth process itself is quite interesting.

While kombucha leather’s durability is in question, it can be used for the same areas as real leather, including textiles. 

Sri Lankan agave leaves leather

The Sri Lankan agave plant’s leaves contain a fiber that can create an eco-friendly leather alternative. As Green Diary highlights, natural dyes are used to add color to this fiber.

Also known as the Hana Plant, agave leather can be used to create the same products as its genuine leather counterpart, such as bags. This alternative leather lasts between two and five years.

Cork

The production of cork is also known to be beneficial to the environment. As the trees aren’t cut down when cork, which is made from the bark of cork oak trees, is harvested, the trees themselves continue to thrive. When harvested—had their bark removed—they trees are able to absorb three to five times the carbon monoxide of other non-harvested trees.

Products made from cork can last a lifetime, when properly cared for. As Sustainable Jungle highlights, with cork leather spanning yoga mats, shoes, handbags, and more.

Recycled rubber leather

Recycled rubber is precisely what the name suggests: vegan leather that is made from recycled rubber. Because of this process, its creation has a positive impact on the environment.

The production process focuses on shredding and processing the rubber before turning into another product. As many other materials included with the original rubber product are also recycled.

While it can be used to create faux leather bags and other fashion products, it also has uses in fields such as medicine, sports, infrastructure, and beyond. 

Waxed cotton leather

Waxed cotton has a considerably low impact on the environment. First used in the commercial shipping industry, it’s known for its durability and has since been adopted into various other uses:

  • Jackets
  • Tents
  • Bags
  • Outdoor gear

As one of the more durable faux leathers, it should last a lifetime.

Coolstone leather

Coolstone leather is one of the more innovative of the leather alternatives. Made from thin, sewable parts of slate stone, all it takes to finish a product is a matte finish.

As Nosakhari notes, its durability is on par with both PU and PVC leather, making it a somewhat long-lasting option. It can also be used for the same products.

Recycled plastic

REMEANT has been a pack leader for its vegan-friendly products made from recycled plastic. The organization specializes in creating innovative and durable textile products, such as shoes, wallets, accessories, and furniture. Its bags, however, are what the company is becoming known for. 

These products are made from plastic waste, making it a net positive for the environment.

Since this waste is recycled and reused, it has a more positive impact than animal-based leather, alongside PU and PVC leather.

What Is Vegan Leather Used For?

Vegan leather is as adaptable and versatile as its animal-based counterpart. It’s used for the same things as real leather made from animal skin.

Fashion

Fashion has long been the largest consumer of vegan leather, particularly of PVC and UP in the past. And the use of vegan leather on the high street continues to improve. In 2021, the United Kingdom saw a 43% year-on-year increase in vegan fashion products.

  • Vegan boots
  • Vegan purses
  • Vegan shoes
  • Vegan leather jackets

Since its initial rise in popularity in 2010, multiple brands have jumped on the bandwagon and introduced vegan leather products. Major fashion labels such as Lululemon, Hermes, Stella McCartney, and Adidas all boast using plant-based leather and vegan alternatives in various forms.

Such sustainable fashion has led to a rise in synthetic leather products, so head out now and get yourself a vegan leather jacket or some vegan leather shoes!

Automobiles

Vegan Leather is growing in popularity in an industry that most consumers use every day—automobile upholstery. Ferrari began offering vegan leather car seats back in 2015. BMW quickly followed suit, and Volvo has announced similar news with its sustainable leather alternatives.

The number of car manufacturers adding vegan leather alternatives continues to grow. As Vegan.com notes, the list includes some of the most popular automotive brands:

  • Ford offers an all-vegan interior with some models.
  • Toyota boasts vegan leather seats and steering wheels.
  • Tesla solely offers synthetic or vegan leather seats.

Whether or not this trend will continue to grow beyond these brands remains to be seen.

Books

In addition to fashion, vegan leather is also used in book bindings, where it’s also called faux leather. As Choose Veganism highlights, this builds on books’ already sustainable foundation. The products are typically manufactured using non-animal-based glue, making leather the core non-vegan trait.

Sports

Animal leather is also known for its use in sports, having been used to make sports balls for centuries, typically pigskin or, more commonly these days, cowhide. 

Vegan leather can be an attractive alternative. In fact, while “professional and collegiate football teams are required to use the regulation real leather balls,” youth football teams already use synthetic versions. Hopefully, vegan leather alternatives for sports gear will soon take off at the professional level as well. 

Why Use Vegan Leather Instead of Real Leather

You should use vegan leather instead of real leather because of its sustainability and lower environmental impact. 

The environmental costs of leather are considerably greater than that of vegan leather, making vegan leather the more sustainable of the two. That’s without mentioning its ties to the meat industry. Animal leather damages the environment and contributes to climate change in a number of ways:

  • Deforestation
  • Carbon output
  • The use of chromium

Keep reading to learn more about how the animal leather industry contributes to these problems.

Leather fuels deforestation in the Amazon

There’s no leather without cattle. As Stand.earth claims, most leather is sourced from Brazilian cattle raised in the Amazon. To raise this cattle, rainforests are routinely cleared for grazing. This process doesn’t only fell trees and destroy habitats, it also ruins the soil, preventing the regrowth of native rainforest plants.

Surprisingly, as Stand.earth highlights, 30% of the brands that use this leather have policies that are explicitly against deforestation. The organization claims that the use of this cattle is pushing the rainforest to its limits.

As the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services highlights, approximately one million species in the Amazon face extinction because of deforestation.

Yet the rate of deforestation continues to skyrocket. Greenpeace notes that 3,800 square miles of the Amazon were cut down between August 2018 and July 2019. The organization also highlights how deforested land lacks biodiversity, leading to further habitat loss.

Industrialized agriculture is one of the largest drivers of this, with leather production being one of the biggest culprits. And animals aren’t the only victims. Indigeneous tribes also experience the negative effects of industrialized agriculture and deforestation.

As Survival International notes, deforestation destroys the land indigeneous people depend on to survive. The organization’s report, which focuses on the Congo Basin but also discusses effects on the Amazon, notes that as a result of deforestation, indigenous groups are driven from their homes and unable to provide for themselves, leading to disease, alcoholism, and even suicide.

Leather produces carbon emissions

Vegans have a 35% reduction in their carbon footprint, thanks to removing meat from their lives. Though that’s partially driven by meat production, leather production plays a role in this.

The Leather Panel conducted a study highlighting that one square meter of leather creates 17kg of CO2. The overall amount generated per piece of clothing also varies. Collective Fashion Justice notes the following emissions data for various fashion items:

  • 176kg of CO2 is created to make a leather jacket.
  • 100.5kg of CO2 is released in the processing of a leather tote bag.
  • 40.7kg of CO2 is generated during the making of leather shoes.

Greenhouse gasses are at an all-time high, and according to National Geographic, these CO2 levels have the following impacts:

  • Air pollution and smog will lead to increased respiratory diseases.
  • Weather patterns will continue to change.
  • More species will either go extinct or migrate.

Greenhouse gasses continue to observably accelerate the effects of climate change. Glaciers are continuing to melt, sea levels are rising, and freshwater sources are drying up.

Should greenhouse gasses continue to skyrocket, these effects will continue to compound. While some ecosystems will adapt, many species risk going extinct, such as the polar bear.

Leather uses chromium

For animal hides to be made into clothing and other leather goods, they need to go through the tanning process. Tanning involves stripping the hides of hair, dirt, and other materials.

Though a vital aspect of creating real leather, it uses large amounts of chromium, a pure metal toxic to humans. Tanning one square meter of hide results in over 16,500 liters of wastewater containing the heavy metal.

That’s worrisome. Chromium, in large amounts, is known to be harmful to human health. As the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) notes, the heavy metal can lead to multiple diseases:

  • Asthma
  • Chronic Rhinitis
  • Lung Cancer
  • Poor Cardiovascular Health

The same ATSDR report highlights that, with enough exposure, there are cardiovascular, renal, gastrointestinal, and hematological effects. Oxford Academy highlights that there’s even the potential for genomic DNA damage.

Chromium’s contamination of air, water, and soil has implications for wildlife as well as humanity. A recent study shows that chromium contamination buildup increases mortality rates in fish.

Should these fish be eaten by other animals—or the animals somehow come into prolonged contact with the chemical—this contamination can lead to many of the same issues seen in humans. Respiratory systems are a notable example of this.

Why You Need To Choose Vegan Leather

The leather industry needs to change. For this to happen, it’s up to consumers. The longer the demand for animal leather goes on, the longer its supply will be there, and the longer the issues highlighted above will worsen.

Switching to vegan leather, particularly options made out of cork, is the first step in tackling this.

Indigenous communities, wildlife, and the environment as a whole will all benefit from the reduced manufacturing of animal leather. Without change, habitats will continue to be destroyed, climate change will persist, and humanity will continue to suffer the consequences of its inaction.