What is Vegan Leather?
The difference between vegan leathers
Synthetic leathers are called different things and can be made using a variety of different base materials. If you have ever asked yourself “what is PU leather?”, “what is faux leather”or “what is PVC?” read on and let us unravel the terminology, because choosing faux leathers and vegan leathers can be more environmentally friendly than animal leather if you choose the right ones.
The fashion industry is one of the major polluting industries in the world. The spotlight is on manufacturers, designers and retailers to make environmentally friendly decisions about the way they design and the materials they use.
More environmentally friendly than cow leather?
Incidentally, we have a separate article called ‘Lessons in Leather‘ which looks at the environmental impact of cow leather. A common misconception is that cow leather is a natural, organic material and therefore better for the environment. In this article we look at the processes involved, the pollution they cause and the impact from cradle to gate.
What is vegan leather?
Vegan leather is any material which mimics the look and feel of animal leather. Manufacturers aim to combine the basic qualities of natural leather in a fabric. Vegan leather can be made in any colour or finish, it can even be made with embossed patterns to mimic crocodile, lizard or ostrich skin. As with all materials, there are cheap versions and premium versions which last longer and look better.
Historically, vegan leather was made using PU (polyurethane) or PVC (polyvinyl chloride), but things have changed. Over the last decade, innovations in textile development means we can now have vegan leather made with pineapple leaves, apple peels, cork and other fruit waste. These new materials are leading the way, not only reducing the environmental impact of fashion, but helping to reduce food waste too.
What is faux leather?
Faux leather is simply another word used to define vegan leather. Other terminology includes pleather, leatherette, synthetic leather, artificial or non-leather. As with all of materials, look past the ‘umbrella name’ and try to understand exactly what the material is.
So, what are the different types, how are they made and how environmentally friendly are they?
What is PVC?
PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is a material derived from salt and oil. The electrolysis of saltwater produces chlorine, which is combined with ethylene (obtained from oil). PVC is one of the most toxic plastics produced on Earth. In addition to containing cadmium, mercury, chlorine and lead, PVC also releases dioxins.
Dioxins are a group of chemically related compounds that are persistent environmental pollutants (POPs). They can cause problems with reproduction, development, and the immune system. They can also disrupt hormones and lead to cancer. As persistent environmental pollutants (POPs), dioxins can remain in the environment for many years. In addition, some additives to PVC can be toxic to the consumer.
Conscious fashion brands no longer use PVC. Stella McCartney ceased the use of all PVC plastics in 2010 and she was instrumental in bringing about change. By 2016, all Kering brands (who at that time had a stake in the brand, had stopped using PVC (1). But this material is cheap, so there are many companies still using it.
What is PVC? Well, Greenpeace described it as the “single most environmentally damaging type of plastic”.
What is PU leather?
PU is short for Polyurethane, which is essentially a plastic. When someone asks us to define pu leather, it can be difficult, because the PU part can make up a percentage of the material, for example a coating, or constitute the whole material.
Is pu leather vegan?
100% synthetic PU leather is a polymer derived from petroleum and is vegan. However, then is comes to application, PU can be mixed with other materials which may not be vegan. We cover that shortly. PU has some useful qualities. The hand feel is soft and its characteristics and structure are similar to animal leather. It does not absorb water, is scratch resistant and breathable.
Unlike PVC, PU doesn’t release harmful substances and dioxins when it is being used or when it is disposed of, so it’s considered to be eco-friendlier. In most cases, PU is still made with solvents, but the landscape is changing here too, with more manufacturers adopting water-based methods. Large fashion companies such as H&M are looking to completely phase out solvent-based PU (2), so there is a big incentive for suppliers to change.
Is PU leather eco friendly?
Well, there are water-based PU leathers which avoid the use of solvents and these could be considered eco-friendly. However this doesn’t mean we should use it for cheap, fast fashion. As with all consumer purchases, buying less and buying well should always the approach to fashion purchases.
Bicast PU Leather
PU can also be used to make bicast leather, a combination of animal skin base fibres and a coating of PU. If you do not want to buy bicast PU leather, but sure to check the item is labelled vegan. If not, there is a risk it is not 100% synthetic PU.
Bio-based polymers are materials made with a part organic component. Corn leather and apple leather are two such materials.
The cores and skins from the food industry are used to make apple leather. The apple waste is puréed and dehydrated until almost all the moisture has gone. The dried purée turns into a flexible, leathery sheet which is combined with PU to create the final material.
In a similar way, oil extracted from corn can be used to make a strong base material before being combined with Polyurethane (PU) to create another type of vegan leather.
Bio-based vegan leathers are a giant stride towards fully sustainable faux leathers. They reduce the reliance on petroleum and the organic, plant-based elements do not divert resources necessary for human food, food farms or animal feed. The bio content is also entirely renewable so the production of these materials has a substantially lower impact on the environment.
Bio-based materials are being made from grape waste from the wine industry and pineapple leather is being made entirely from pineapple leaves.
The future of vegan leather
The vegan leather market is set to be worth $85 billion by 2025 (3). Vegan leather is not just being adopted in fashion, other industries are seeing the benefit too. BMW, Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz and Tesla all offer vegan leather options for interior upholstery.
Every year, more than a billion cows, pigs, goats, sheep, alligators, ostriches, kangaroos, and even dogs and cats are slaughtered for their skin (source: PETA). Animal welfare aside, both vegan and plant-based lifestyles are growing in popularity due to environmental concerns over the damage caused by livestock farming for meat. Add to this the destruction caused by leather tanning (4) and it is easy to see why this market is growing so rapidly.
Ultimately, the need to produce low impact, innovative materials is becoming essential and without doubt vegan leathers are now in a league all of their own.